Learn about moles (nevi), what causes them, whether they put you at increased risk of skin cancer and how to check a mole for signs of skin cancer.
Moles are a common type of skin growth. They often appear as small, dark brown spots and are caused by clusters of pigmented cells. Moles generally appear during childhood and adolescence. Most people have 10 to 40 moles, some of which may change in appearance or fade away over time.
Most moles are harmless. Rarely, they become cancerous. Monitoring moles and other pigmented patches is an important step in detecting skin cancer, especially malignant melanoma.
The medical term for moles is nevi.
The typical mole is a brown spot. But moles come in different colors, shapes and sizes:
Moles can develop anywhere on your body, including your scalp, armpits, under your nails, and between your fingers and toes. Most people have 10 to 40 moles. Many of these develop by age 50. Moles may change in appearance or fade away over time. Hormonal changes of adolescence and pregnancy may cause moles to become darker and larger.
This ABCDE guide can help you determine if a mole or a spot may indicate melanoma or other skin cancers:
Cancerous (malignant) moles vary greatly in appearance. Some may show all of the features listed above. Others may have only one or two.
Make an appointment with your doctor if a mole looks unusual, grows or changes.
Moles are caused when cells in the skin (melanocytes) grow in clusters or clumps. Melanocytes are distributed throughout your skin and produce melanin, the natural pigment that gives your skin its color.
Melanoma is the main complication of moles. Some people have a higher than average risk of their moles becoming cancerous and developing into melanoma. Factors that increase your risk of melanoma include:
The following measures can help limit the development of moles and the main complication of moles — melanoma.
Become familiar with the location and pattern of your moles. Regularly examine your skin to look for changes that may signal melanoma. Do self-exams once a month, especially if you have a family history of melanoma. With the help of mirrors, do a head-to-toe check, including your scalp, palms and fingernails, armpits, chest, legs, and your feet, including the soles and the spaces between the toes. Also check your genital area and between your buttocks.
Talk with your doctor about your risk factors for melanoma and whether you need a professional skin exam on a routine basis.
Take measures to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, such as from the sun or tanning beds. UV radiation has been linked to increased melanoma risk. And children who haven't been protected from sun exposure tend to develop more moles.
Your doctor can identify moles by looking at your skin. You may choose to make a skin examination a regular part of your preventive medical care. Talk to your doctor about a schedule that's appropriate for you. During a skin exam, your doctor inspects your skin from head to toe.
If your doctor suspects that a mole may be cancerous, he or she may take a tissue sample (biopsy) for microscopic examination.
Most moles don't need treatment.
If your mole is cancerous, your doctor will do a surgical procedure to remove it. If you have a mole that causes irritation when you shave, you may want to have it removed.
Mole removal takes only a short time and is usually done on an outpatient basis. Your doctor numbs the area around the mole and cuts it out, along with a margin of healthy skin if necessary. The procedure may leave a permanent scar.
If you notice that a mole has grown back, see your doctor promptly.
If you're self-conscious about a mole, you could try makeup to help conceal it. If you have a hair growing from a mole, you might try clipping it close to the skin's surface or plucking it. Or talk with your dermatologist about permanently removing the hair and the mole.
Anytime you cut or irritate a mole, keep the area clean. See your doctor if the mole doesn't heal.
If you have a mole that concerns you, your family doctor can usually let you know if it's normal or needs further investigation. He or she may then refer you to a doctor who specializes in skin disorders (dermatologist) for diagnosis and treatment.
It's a good idea to arrive for your appointment well-prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready.
For moles, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
October 8th, 2021