5 Things to Know About Moles

  • Moles: What’s Normal and What’s Not
    Odds are good that, like most everyone, you have common moles.

    Moles are clusters of pigment cells that reside on the skin. Most people have somewhere between 10 and 40 common moles throughout their bodies. Moles come in many different shapes, sizes, colors and textures. In most instances, moles are harmless. However, in some cases, they may become cancerous and require treatment. Here’s what you need to know about moles, including when to see your dermatologist.

  • 1. Moles are usually nothing to worry about.
    Common moles have a well-defined round or oval border. They can be brown, tan, or pink, and appear raised or flat. Typically, they measure smaller than a pencil eraser. Sometimes moles are present at birth, but more often they appear later in childhood, and even adulthood. Almost every adult has common moles. And if your skin is lighter, you may have a few extras.

    Very rarely, common moles can turn into melanoma, a very serious type of skin cancer. People with more than 50 common moles are at a slightly higher risk for skin cancer.

  • 2. Some healthy moles have an irregular appearance.
    A mole that differs from the characteristic appearance of a common mole is called a dysplastic nevus, or an “atypical mole.” They are usually bigger and have irregular or poorly defined borders, color fluctuations, or notches.

    Atypical moles occur less frequently, but still affect roughly 1 out of 10 Americans. They are considered to be pre-cancerous—which means they are not malignant, but are more likely to turn into cancer than common moles. Most dysplastic moles don’t turn into cancer. However, having multiple atypical moles does increase your risk for melanoma.

  • 3. Removal of common moles does not prevent cancer.
    If a mole grows or changes color, or appears abnormal, doctors may remove it to perform a biopsy and test for the presence of cancer.

    However, removal is not an advised prevention method for skin cancer. For one, very few atypical moles actually become cancerous. Melanoma also doesn’t always begin in moles; it can start in a regular patch of skin as well. If you’re concerned about a mole, talk with your doctor so he or she can examine it and discuss next steps.

  • 4. Check your skin once a month to watch for changes.
    Routine skin checks allow you to keep track of any changes over time, and to spot any new moles or marks that appear. If you have atypical moles or an abundance of common moles, it’s even more important to keep up with regular preventive care. In addition to monthly self-exams, dermatologists recommend a skin check-up once or twice a year. If you have a family history of melanoma, your doctor may recommend 3 to 6 annual visits.

    See your doctor right away if any mole begins to change in color, shape, texture, height, or any other way.

  • 5. Follow the ABCDE rule to spot melanoma early.
    If you find a suspicious mole during a self-exam, check for the following “ABCDE” early signs of melanoma: 1) Asymmetry—melanoma is likely to have an irregular shape. 2) Border that’s irregular—the edges of the discoloration are blurred, ragged, or notched. 3) Color that’s uneven—more than one shade or color is present. 4) Diameter—size has increased from previous exam. 5) Evolution—changes have occurred over a few weeks or months.

    Some melanomas may not exhibit all five signs. Consult your doctor even if you detect just one or two symptoms.

Dermatology | 5 Things to Know About Moles
  1. Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Risk of Melanoma. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/moles-fact-sheet
  2. How to Spot an Atypical Mole. Skin Cancer Foundation. http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/atypical-moles/warning-signs-and-images
  3. Atypical Moles. American Osteopathy College of Dermatology. http://www.aocd.org/?page=AtypicalMoles
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Last Review Date: 2019 Dec 5
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