Skin cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world, claiming the life of one person every hour. This year, more people will be diagnosed with skin cancer than any other cancer combined. Knowing how to properly identify a malignant mole can quite literally save your life; if caught early, it has an incredible 99% 5-year survival rate. While there are many different types of moles that can occur on the body, not all of them are atypical, and not all atypical moles become cancer. To learn how to distinguish between these different types of moles and safeguard yourself or a loved one from this horrible disease, please keep reading.
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The Different Types of Moles in Pictures
A mole (or a “nevus”) is a spot of pigment on the body that is comprised of melanin-forming skin cells called “melanocytes”.
There are several different types of moles that you may encounter on your body. At any given time, a person can have up to 40 moles on their skin.
Moles that appear at birth (commonly called “birthmarks”) are known as congenital melanocytic nevi and affect only 1-2% of the population. While generally benign, larger nevi are at a greater risk of turning into skin cancer.
The types of benign growths you may find include:
- Compound Moles.
- Junctional Moles.
- Atypical (Dysplastic) Moles.
- Cherry Angiomas (Not to be confused with blood blister type moles, this benign skin tumor is not actually a melanoma.)
- Seborrheic Keratoses.
- Skin Tags.
- Halo Nevi.
It’s important to note that while a mole isn’t automatically likely to become cancerous, certain types do raise your risk of developing it.
For instance, having an excess of ten or more atypical moles, or fifty or greater normal moles increases your risk significantly. A family history of melanoma exacerbates that risk, so stay vigilant and mindful of any changes to your moles.
If you have greater than 100 moles, and at least one of those moles is an atypical mole, and at least one is greater than 8mm across, you may have a condition called atypical mole syndrome. If you fall within this category, dermatology experts advise frequent visits to your skincare provider to monitor your moles.
It’s a common misconception that skin cancer only shows up on the body on areas exposed to the sun; the reality is that while they do often show up on the arms, as a mole on neck, or on face, they can also appear on areas that were fully covered, including the trunk even the bottom of the feet. Learn more about moles on face here.
Risks for skin cancer include:
- Gender – Men are 2-3 times more likely than women to develop skin cancer.
- Age – While skin cancer is one of the more common types for people under the age of 30, the average age of diagnosis is 63.
- Genetics – People who have familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM) and one or more first-or-second degree relatives with melanoma are at greatly increased risk.
- Ethnicity – Those who score lower on the Fitzpatrick scale are more likely to develop skin cancer.
- Lifestyle – Certain behaviors can increase your risk, including repeated sun exposure and smoking.
Moles on the Skin
Once you’re able to properly visually identify these moles, it’s important to distinguish their characteristics to determine if they could turn into skin cancer.
These are the more normal (common) moles that can manifest upon the skin’s surface:
- Compound Mole: These are the stereotypical “raised” and hairy mole They have even borders and are tan or light brown in color.
- Junctional Mole: This type of dark mole is flatter. Their color is generally tan or dark brown, with smooth borders.
- Atypical (Dysplastic) Moles: These are generally benign, but can resemble cancerous moles. They can be a flat mole or they can be elevated, and often have various colors and irregular borders.
- Halo Nevi: These resemble compound moles, but have an area of missing pigmentation (a paler ring around it) due to inflammation in the surrounding cells.
While these skin growths may also appear on your body, they are not actually true nevi.
- Cherry Angioma: These benign tumors resemble a red mole and derive their bright color due to an excessive concentration of blood vessels found within them.
- Seborrheic Keratoses: These unsightly growths are generally found on older people. They’re typically scaly and warty in appearance and can be dark brown or black.
- Skin Tags: These flesh-colored masses show up in places where friction occur, like the neck or waistband, and typically show up on middle-aged, obese, or pregnant people.
Treatment for these growths can vary, but can include:
- Topical, over the counter treatments, including apple cider vinegar or iodine applications that remove the growth all the way down to the mole roots.
- Cauterization (searing it off with heat), including laser ablation.
- Cryogenic removal, using liquid nitrogen to freeze it off.
- Surgery, including punch biopsy (to send to a lab for diagnostic testing), excision (using surgical scissors or a scalpel), or shaving (also using a scalpel).
The risks associated with surgical removal are rare and are higher when utilizing at-home treatments. These risks include scarring and infection and can be minimized with proper post-surgical wound care.
Certain types of moles, including the atypical, dysplastic mole type and congenital melanocytic nevus type, are associated with a higher risk of skin cancer.
The three most common types of cancerous growths that resemble moles include:
- Melanoma: Broken into four subcategories, melanoma can be superficial spreading melanoma (the most common type, at 70%), lentigo maligna melanoma (topical and remains close to the skin’s surface), acral lentiginous melanoma (found under fingernails or palms of hands or soles of feet) and nodular melanoma (unlike surface moles, this is a mole under skin, prone to spreading, and the deadliest type).
- Basal Cell Carcinoma: The most common type, these are also the least dangerous. This type of painful mole can be scaly or ulcerated in appearance and are slow growing.
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma: While not as dangerous as melanoma, these can spread to other areas. They’re generally a red and itchy mole, inflamed in appearance, and may bleed easily. You can learn more about causes and treatment for a bleeding mole here.
Nodular melanoma is the most lethal type of skin cancer. What makes it so dangerous is not only because it can metastasize (spread to other areas) but because of how innocuous it may initially appear – they usually just resemble a black mole in appearance, with smooth, even borders. Only 15% of melanomas are nodular, but they cause 50% of melanoma-related deaths. From initial onset to mortality can be as little as six weeks. Regular checks for new growths are absolutely critical for early detection – and survival – of this highly deadly skin cancer.
Knowing the difference between the various types of cancerous moles can be life-saving; catching them early can be the difference between a quick recovery and certain death.
Skin cancer isn’t something to take lightly, and when faced with a heightened risk, frequent visits to your dermatologist is vital.
What to Worry About
Most moles are harmless. Whether it’s a congenital mole or acquired mole (one that appears later in life), a healthy mole will remain the same size or shape or, rarely, fade away and vanish.
Healthy moles are:
- A tan or brown mole in appearance.
- Can be a flat mole or a raised mole.
- Have smooth, round borders.
- Less than ¼ inch across (6mm).
However, if a mole changes in presentation, that can be the first sign of developing a melanoma mole.
Knowing your ABCDEs can save your life:
- A is for asymmetry: A mole needs to be a mirror image on both halves.
- B is for borders: Blurry, irregular, jagged, or notched borders can be a dangerous sign.
- C is for color: multiple colors, including a blue, black, red, or white mole can be a sign of cancer.
- D is for diameter: A healthy mole is less than 6mm across.
- E is for evolution: Moles should not change at all in size, shape, color.
Swift and precise identification of moles, both atypical and normal, is key to receiving a correct diagnosis and treatment.
If you fall within a demographic that has a higher prevalence of skin cancer, make periodic appointments with your dermatologist and maintain close tabs on your moles. Having numerous moles on your body, while not necessarily dangerous in and of itself, can lead to a higher risk of developing cancer later on in life.
Differentiating between benign and cancerous moles is of the utmost importance. By remaining careful, you can save your own life, or the life of someone you love.