Each person’s skin is as unique as they are. And although nearly everyone has moles on their skin, each person’s moles are different. Most moles are harmless and are simply part of a person’s body. But in some cases, moles can be cancerous and even deadly.
But how do you know when to worry about a mole? How do you know if your mole is normal or if it is worth seeing a dermatologist? Do you think it is time to schedule a dermatology appointment for your mole?
You should take moles seriously, but you don’t need to rush to the dermatologist just because you have a mole. Here is everything you need to know about moles and skin cancer and when you should contact your dermatologist.
What Is A Mole?
A mole is a growth on the skin that appears either brown or black in its most basic form. Moles occur when the skin cells grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. Groups of skin cells that cause moles are related to genetics or being out in the sun.
Moles can occur anywhere on the body, either individually or as part of a group. Some moles are easy to spot, such as moles on the face or back, while others are in more hidden locations, including the scalp or behind the ears. Most moles appear during childhood, and it is common to have 10-40 moles by adulthood.
Moles can naturally change as you age. Some people may experience moles that darken after being in the sun or during pregnancy. Most moles are harmless lumps of skin cells, but others can be cancerous and potentially deadly.
What Does A Normal Mole Look Like?
Moles come in all shapes and sizes and can be anywhere on the body. Because there is such a variety of moles, it is often difficult for people to know if their mole is normal or not.
Normal moles can appear all over your body, anywhere from your scalp down to your toenails. A normal mole can be flat to the skin or raised and either brown or skin-colored. Normal moles are the size of a pencil eraser or smaller, and some can be as small as a pinhead.
Normal moles are round and have a defined outline and even shape and coloring. Although they may get slightly darker with age, normal moles don’t change size or become uneven in their shape or color.
Types Of Non-Cancerous Moles
The majority of moles are non-cancerous. However, that doesn’t mean that all non-cancerous moles look the same. There are different types of moles, and some carry a higher risk of containing cancerous skin cells.
Moles are typically categorized into three main areas:
- Congenital moles are present at birth and occur in about 1 in 100 people. They can range from being small to quite large, but only congenital moles larger than 20mm have a significantly increased risk of turning into skin cancer.
- Acquired moles, or common moles, develop after birth. They are the most common type of mole, and they typically don’t develop into skin cancer. Acquired moles are usually smaller than a pencil eraser and have even coloring. Most people have a few dozen acquired moles by adulthood. Having more than 50 common moles increases the risk of skin cancer.
- Atypical moles, or dysplastic nevi, have irregular borders and uneven coloring. These moles appear later in childhood or adulthood. Atypical moles can run in families, meaning if your parents have atypical moles, you may be more likely to have them. These are the moles that may cause concern—the more atypical moles on your body, the higher your risk for skin cancer.
Types Of Cancerous Moles
Skin cancer can come from a variety of sources and symptoms, including moles. There are many types of skin cancer, but the deadliest form of skin cancer is melanoma, and cases are on the rise. Melanoma is most often found in moles. And because nearly every person has multiple moles, every person is at risk for melanoma.
The good news is that melanoma and other skin cancers are easily treatable if they are detected early. This is why it is crucial to pay attention to your skin and contact your dermatologist if you notice anything changing or out of the ordinary. Regular skin exams and visits to the dermatologist could end up potentially saving your life.
Two other common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. They are more common than melanoma but also very treatable when detected early. Basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas typically grow on the areas of the body that receive the most exposure to the sun, including the face, head, and neck. Still, they can appear anywhere on the body.
BCCs and SCCs may often look like moles and can get confused for normal or atypical moles. These aren’t actually moles but are groups of cancerous skin cells changing in appearance. BCCs and SCCs can grow and change quickly, which is why it is essential to pay close attention to the skin all over your body.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma, or BCC, is the most common type of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinomas frequently develop in people with fair skin. A BCC can look like a skin-colored round growth or pink patch of skin and usually develops after years of repeated indoor tanning or sun exposure.
A BCC may often look like a scar or an area of skin that is flat, firm, and pale. A basal cell carcinoma can also have itchy, raised red patches. Some BCCs are fairly easy to detect because they stand out from the skin tone, but most are subtle and light-colored.
Basal cell carcinomas can grow deep into the skin tissue very quickly, so early diagnosis is essential. If the BCC is left to grow without treatment, it can grow into the nerves and bones and lead to severe and life-threatening issues.
The second most common type of skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma or SCC. Squamous cell carcinomas often look like red firm bumps or a sore that heals and re-opens. SCCs are typically rough or scaly patches of red skin that may start bleeding or get crusty.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is more common in people with fair skin and tends to form from frequent sun exposure. Like basal cell carcinoma, SCC can grow deep into the skin tissue and cause disfigurement and damage if not diagnosed and treated early.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are both serious but come with a relatively high recovery rate. Although these types of cancer don’t often appear in moles, you can also check for these changes to your skin when you check for moles. If you notice anything that looks like a BCC or SCC, contact your dermatologist.
When To See A Doctor About Your Mole
Nearly everyone in the world has moles, but it can be difficult to know when you should be worried. It can be nothing, or it could be cancerous. The best way to keep track of your mole is to watch it and pay attention to how and if it changes.
A mole can turn into skin cancer if it starts to change over time or becomes uncomfortable. To know when you should be worried about a mole and see a dermatologist, follow the ABCDE rule. Dermatologists look for these five factors when examining a mole for melanoma skin cancer. Just because you’ve noticed one of these doesn’t automatically mean you have a cancerous mole.
The ABCDEs are considered in whole, meaning that it often takes multiple factors and symptoms for a mole to be cancerous. However, you should still contact a doctor if you notice any of these things:
If a mole is asymmetrical, one half doesn’t look like the other half. One side may be flat, and the other side round, or one side may be bumpy, and the other side has an even edge. A normal mole has a uniform size and shape.
B: Irregular Border
Most non-cancerous moles have an even shape. A mole with a scalloped or uneven border could be worrisome. Check to see if the mole’s border is fuzzy or has an odd shape with part of it sticking out. An irregular mole could be shaped like a cloud or look blurry around the edges instead of having a more regular circular or oval shape.
C: Varied Color
Most normal moles are a single color. If your mole has multiple shades of brown or any shade of red, or blue, black, or white, contact your dermatologist.
D: Large Diameter
Moles larger than a pencil eraser (about ¼ inch) in size have a greater chance of being cancerous. Some moles can be large or grow over time, which is a cause for concern. That doesn’t mean that cancer can’t grow in a pinpoint mole or that all large moles are cancerous, but it is something to pay attention to and bring up to your dermatologist.
Track your moles to see if they change over time. An evolving mole is the biggest red flag for skin cancer. A mole that changes in size, shape, or color could be a sign of skin cancer. Some moles may change aggressively fast, which makes it easier to see how they are evolving. But the majority of moles change relatively slowly, and it may be difficult to notice the difference if you aren’t paying attention or checking your skin regularly. Perform a head-to-toe check once a month to get familiar with your skin and have a partner check places you can’t see on your own. It is crucial to visit your dermatologist once a year to track how your skin and its moles are evolving.
Aside from the ABCDE rule, there are a few other signs it’s time to see your dermatologist about a mole. If a new mole develops when you are in your 30s or later, it could cause concern. Almost all moles develop in childhood, so a mole that appears later is unusual.
If you have a mole that is painful, itchy, or tender to the touch, contact your dermatologist. On their own, moles are simply clumps of skin cells and shouldn’t be uncomfortable or painful. Some moles may start to bleed, ooze, which could also potentially be a sign of cancer.
Risk Factors For Skin Cancer
Some people are more at risk for melanoma and other forms of skin cancer based on other factors than just their moles. Your doctor will likely ask you about these risk factors.
If you are at a higher risk for skin cancer, you should pay more attention to your skin and look for changes to your moles. What may appear to be a smaller change on someone else’s mole could be more significant if you have other risk factors.
People who have fair skin that easily burns or freckles are at a higher risk for skin cancer, and people with blonde or red hair and blue or green eyes. If you have spent a lot of time in tanning beds or exposed to the sun, or have a history of severe sunburns, you are also at a higher risk.
Family history also plays a role, so if someone in your family has had melanoma or other types of skin cancer, it increases your risk of also getting it.
What Happens When You See A Dermatologist?
If you are concerned about a mole and it meets any or all of the ABCDE criteria, contact your dermatologist right away. Skin cancer can change and grow quickly, so don’t wait until your next scheduled annual exam—see your doctor as soon as possible.
Your dermatologist will walk through the criteria with you to see how your moles have changed over time. The dermatologist will also ask questions about your lifestyle and health history to get the full picture of your skin and health.
If the dermatologist thinks a mole could be at risk for cancer, they will likely shave off a piece or cut out the entire mole, depending on the mole’s size and location. They will then examine that piece of the mole under a microscope to identify cancerous moles by performing a biopsy.
Some biopsies can be completed in the office for faster results, while other doctors have to send skin samples and moles to a lab to check for cancerous skin cells.
If the mole is cancerous, the dermatologist will work with you to create a treatment plan. The first step is almost always to remove the cancerous mole completely. This is usually done by cutting out or shaving the entire area and a rim of normal skin around the mole and stitching the wound closed.
Depending on the mole’s size and location, the doctor may instead shave off layers of skin at a time and test it for cancerous cells before continuing the process until only healthy skin remains. In many cases, this method is less invasive because it only removes cancerous cells instead of taking away some healthy skin.
There are also other methods for removing cancerous moles and ensuring only healthy skin remains. Mole removal can also happen by freezing out the cancerous skin cells or removing them with chemotherapy. Your dermatologist will provide options and work with you to create a plan that quickly eliminates the cancer before it can grow or spread.
Your treatment options will vary based on the size, location, and severity of the cancerous mole, as well as your age and overall health. If needed, your dermatologist may bring in other doctors and specialists to form a complete care team and give you the best treatment possible.
Skin cancer is very common. It can become serious, but it is also reasonably easy to treat if it is detected early enough because of advances in medical technology.
You don’t have to live your life in fear of skin cancer, but you should definitely pay attention to your moles and get regular skin exams from your dermatologist. Knowing what to look for in your moles and the signs of skin cancer in moles can help you stay healthy and potentially prevent larger issues from arising.