An average adult has 10 to 40 moles on their skin. Persons with light skin often have more moles than darker skin individuals. Moles are common and normal. However, if a new mole begins growing quickly on the skin, or if an existing mole starts to grow, bleed, or itch, make an appointment with a dermatologist to rule out melanoma—a type of skin cancer that can grow in a mole. A person having more than 50 moles on their body also has a greater risk for getting melanoma. Anyone with over 100 moles should make an appointment with a dermatologist. Melanoma can be cured if caught early and treated. Without treatment, melanoma can spread and be deadly.
Your dermatologist can determine a mole from a melanoma. But it is also important for individuals to perform self checks once a month. To know what to look for, go to Skin cancer prevention: self exams.
General distinctions between a mole and melanoma are that a mole usually has these traits:
- One color throughout, often brown, but can be black, tan, red, skin colored, or other colors.
- Symmetrical shape, usually round
- Flat or slightly raised surface
- Consistent appearance from month to month
Moles can be different sizes, colors, and can even have hair. Some moles slowly change over time. Moles can appear anywhere on the skin.
Most individuals have the "common mole" but there are other types, some increasing a person’s risk to develop melanoma. The "atypical mole"—also called a "dysplastic nevus"— is generally larger than a pencil’s eraser, has an odd shape, and may be multi-colored. The "congential mole" is a mole that a person is born with. These moles can be small or large. Having giant congential moles increase’s a person’s risk of getting melanoma. The "spitz nevus" mole resembles melanoma and may bleed or ooze. An "acquired mole" appears after a person is born.
Being out in the sun may increase the number of moles on your skin. More certainly, sun exposure—including tanning beds and sun lamps—can cause skin cancer. It is important to protect your skin from the sun by wearing sunscreen.
Most moles do not require treatment. A dermatologist will remove a mole that could be skin cancer. The dermatologist will also remove a mole that is causing irritation from rubbing against clothing or jewelry, or a mole that a patient finds unattractive. Moles are safely and easily removed by a surgical excision or a surgical shave method and are done during the office visit.
Never try to shave off or remove a mole yourself. Aside from possible scarring, you can cause an infection. If a mole contains skin cancer, the cells can stay in the skin and spread.
The skin will heal after removal of a mole. If it grows back, make another appointment with your dermatologist immediately, as this is a sign of melanoma.
It’s a good idea to become familiar with the American Academy of Dermatology’s ABCDEs of Melanoma:
A is for asymmetry: Melanomas are usually asymmetric, meaning one side is unlike the other. Melanomas can also be flat or raised.
B is for border: The edge or border of a melanoma is usually irregular.
C is for color: Melanomas often have a variety of hues and colors within the same lesion.
D is for diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
E is for evolution: Does the size or nature of the lesion evolve over time?