A mole is a darkened spot on your skin. Certain cells give your skin its normal color. When those cells clump together in one spot on the surface of your skin, you see them as a mole. Nearly all moles are benign, or harmless. All you really need to do with your common moles is check them regularly for changes.
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What Exactly Is a Mole?
Although harmless, common moles can become a problem if they are in a location where clothes catch on them or where they can be nicked when shaving. Any mole that is continually irritated needs to be removed. You can also opt to have moles removed for the sake of appearance when they occur on your face or other exposed parts of your body.
Very few people escape having moles, which can appear on any part of the body. You may have had them since birth or developed them later. They show up on most people by their late teens or early 20s and are often mistaken for freckles at first. Most moles have a life span of about 50 years before fading.
Moles appear more frequently on the upper body of men than they do on women. The moles on men tend to favor first their backs, and secondly their heads. Men usually have fewer moles on their arms and legs. The distribution of moles on women is slightly different, as they often have more on their legs than their torso. The backs of some women’s legs are more vulnerable than other locations. Women tend to have more moles on their arms than on their heads.
Some moles stay with you for life. You’ll rarely notice any changes in color and shape, although going through puberty or becoming pregnant may cause temporary darkening or enlargement. The number of moles you have may also increase during these times.
- Benign: Not cancerous; not harmful to health.
- Dermatologist: A medical professional who specializes in skin diseases.
- Dysplastic: Abnormal tissue growth.
- Malignant: Cancerous; harmful to health.
- Melanin: The pigment that gives color to skin, hair, and eyes.
- Melanocytes: The skin cells that contain melanin.
- Melanoma: A malignant tumor that can be fatal if not treated immediately.
- Nevus: Any colored spot on the skin, including birthmarks, freckles, and moles. Nevi is the plural of nevus.
Is There More Than One Kind of Mole?
Moles appear in various sizes, shapes, and colors, and at different stages of your life. They are usually circular or oval-shaped. They are generally brown, but can range from flesh-colored to black. There may be just one or a cluster of them.
Moles are usually flat and smooth, but may be raised. Even a raised mole can be harmless, but any change in any mole should be evaluated by a dermatologist.
Babies can be born with congenital nevi, which are large moles commonly identified as birthmarks. Birthmarks have a greater chance of eventually becoming cancerous than moles that develop later in life. Regular examinations are essential with congenital nevi.
Compound moles are usually raised and have melanocytes in more than one layer of skin. A dermal mole is raised, often on the upper body and may have hair growing from it. Over-active oil glands can produce sebaceous moles, which are yellow with a rough surface. A blue mole is another of the slightly raised moles. Its color comes from deep within the skin.
Is Your Mole Cancerous?
Harmless moles are usually less than 1/4 inch in diameter. The surface is smooth and evenly colored. It may have a rounded, slightly raised appearance with clearly defined edges. As an adult, you may have 40 or more harmless moles. The possibility of skin cancer increases when you have in excess of 50 moles.
Experts advise monitoring your moles on a regular basis. A regular self-exam helps you discover changes early. The exam is best done in a well-lighted room after you shower or bathe. A full-length mirror is ideal, but a hand-held mirror will do.
Closely exam your:
- Face, neck, ears, and scalp.
- Front, back, and sides of your body.
- Fingers, hands, arms, and underarms.
- Legs, buttocks, and genitals.
- Feet, soles, and toes.
Assistance from a friend or relative may be needed to thoroughly check the areas that you can’t see easily. The important thing is to know where your moles and blemishes are, and be aware of how they usually look and feel.
Any change should be brought to the attention of a dermatologist. Some moles can become malignant quickly. If you develop a new mole that grows rapidly, especially if it’s dark in color, you need to seek medical attention immediately. An old or new mole that is painful, itching, oozing, or bleeding also requires immediate medical attention.
The mnemonic ABCD will help warn you of an impending problem:
- A = Asymmetry. This means that the mole is no longer evenly rounded. If you draw an imaginary through the middle of the mole, the halves won’t be equal.
- B = Border. The edges of the mole are no longer smooth but are fuzzy or jagged.
- C = Color. A mole that’s become cancerous will start to change color. It usually becomes darker, but on occasion a malignant mole will turn lighter.
- D = Diameter. If a mole grows larger than 1/4 inch in diameter, then it’s likely becoming cancerous.
There is also the E change. Some experts refer to E as elevated, while others regard it as representing evolving. In either case, it means that a mole is raised. If it was normally flat, then becoming raised tells you that it’s potentially dangerous.
The ABCD and E changes can indicate radial melanoma, which is the most common form of melanoma. It starts on the surface of the skin, often from an existing mole or freckle, and is curable if caught early. Melanoma can be fatal if left untreated.
Nodular melanoma is the more deadly of the melanomas. It often appears as a new blemish and is usually quite dark, but can also be lighter in color. It doesn’t usually have the ABCD changes. Instead, it exhibits what are described as the EFG changes, which can be harder to detect.
The first change in nodular melanoma is the same as the last change in radial melanoma. The mole or freckle becomes Elevated, or raised. When pressed, it will feel Firm, rather than soft or flabby. It then continues Growing, usually rapidly. Any blemish exhibiting an EFG change needs immediate attention, as it’s growing deep into the body and can spread rapidly.
Should You See a Specialist?
Melanoma is not a condition you can self-treat. Although you may consult a general practitioner for the initial evaluation, it’s advisable to ask for a referral to a dermatologist. Dermatologists have the knowledge and experience to more accurately evaluate blemishes for cancerous changes.
The dermatologist may first do a biopsy of suspicious moles or freckles. A biopsy involves taking a small sample of tissue for additional examination. He or she will then remove the entire mole if necessary. This may be done in one step or several, depending on the size. Some of the normal skin may also be removed. The incision is then stitched closed.
Some professionals may use a tool called a dermatoscope before removing the blemish. Others may make use of ultrasounds or Doppler studies. These are just ways to help evaluate whether the mole or freckle is truly malignant and determine the extent of any malignancy.
Malignant blemishes are removed by surgical excision. That means it is cut out, rather than scraped, burned, or frozen off. The removal is generally done on an outpatient basis under a local anesthetic. It’s important to have the surgery done by a board-certified specialist. Professionals less experienced with the procedure may remove only the surface lesion and inadvertently leave the internal growth untouched. The malignancy then has the opportunity to invade the rest of your body unobserved until too late.
Benign blemishes may be removed by freezing or burning them off. That can sometimes leave a scar that’s more unsightly than the blemish itself.
What Are These Other Raised Things on Your Skin?
You may have various spots or lesions on your skin that aren’t moles. These include actinic keratoses, birthmarks, lentigines, seborrheic keratoses, and skin tags. Freckles look the most like moles.
Most of these result from sun exposure. Only actinic keratoses are regarded as pre-cancerous and must be removed if they show any changes. The others are benign and are usually only removed for cosmetic reasons or if they become irritated.
Example of an actinic keratosis
Is It a Mole Or a Freckle?
Freckles are small brown spots on the skin that can easily be confused with moles. Freckles are usually a lighter brown and are the result of exposure to the sun. You aren’t born with them like you are with moles. They also are more common in fair-skinned people. Freckles rarely become cancerous, but any changes in color, shape, or size need to be examined promptly by a dermatologist. A freckle that’s raised, itchy, or painful especially needs immediate medical attention.
Video Question: What is the difference between a freckle and a mole:
The majority of moles and other skin blemishes are harmless. The smartest thing you can do is monitor them for changes. Any raised mole or freckle, or one that becomes puffy, or changes in color, shape, or size requires consulting a doctor. Any blemish that becomes irritated, itchy, or starts to bleed also needs medical attention.