Moles: Here’s What You Should Look For

Moles: almost everyone has 10 to 40 of them by the time you reach adulthood. Most of the time they’re no problem. But some can turn into cancer, so it’s a good idea to keep tabs on yours.

If you check them once a month, you’ll be able to see if they’re changing. Usually moles change very slowly, over years—changing a little in color, getting raised, sprouting hairs. But certain kinds of fast or suspicious changes are worth checking with your health care professional.

Most important is early detection of melanoma, a serious kind of skin cancer that’s on the increase. Finding melanoma early increases survival.

So, here’s what moles are and what to look for when you’re in the shower or bath.

What Moles Are

Moles are colored growths on the skin. Usually they’re black or brown, but they can be pink or tan. They’re clusters of pigmented cells, melanocytes, that grow clumped together instead of spreading out through the skin to give it its natural color.

There are three kinds of moles.

The first one doesn’t usually need to be removed unless it’s unsightly or located where they get irritated.

Atypical moles or dysplastic nevi may or may not be removed, will need to follow with your dermatologist to determine removal based on the cells noted under the microscope after a biopsy.  Melanomas need to be removed and treated carefully.

  1. Common moles are about ¼ inch in diameter, round or oval and pink, tan, or brown. They’re smooth, raised, with clean edges.
  2. Atypical moles or dysplastic nevi are usually bigger, flatter, with irregular edges and mixed colors. They might be pebbly or scaly feeling.
  3. Melanoma is a skin cancer that begins in pigmented cells. It can grow in an existing mole or appear as a brand-new one. To know what to look for in a melanoma, see the ABCDE list below.

What to Look for in Moles

A sudden new mole or noticeable change in the shape, color, size or feel of an existing one is worth noting. So is a mole that gets hard, starts to itch, or bleeds or oozes fluid.

The ABCDE rule is a good tool for checking moles that might become dangerous. Look for:

Asymmetry. The shape of one half does not match the other half.

Border that’s irregular. The edges are ragged, notched, or blurred. The color may spread into the surrounding skin.

Color that’s uneven. There are different colors or shades of black, brown, tan, white, gray, red, pink or blue.

Diameter. There is a change in size, usually an increase. It’s bigger than a pencil eraser.

Evolving. The mole has changed over the past few weeks or months and now looks different from the rest of your moles.

What Happens If the Mole Is Suspicious?

If there’s any question, your health care professional will want to remove all or part of the mole and have it evaluated. The tissue is sent to a lab and analyzed under a microscope to make sure it’s not cancer. Removing the mole or sample usually takes just a few minutes in the doctor’s office.

If the pathologist in the laboratory sees cancer cells, the doctor is informed and you’ll meet to discuss further treatment that might be needed.

How to Do a Good Self-Check

To be thorough in checking all the parts of your body, you probably need to use a mirror. It might be a good idea to make notes — create a map of your moles — or photograph them if you think they’re changing.

The National Cancer Institute has a guide to performing a complete skin check: you can find it here.

It’s also a good idea to have your health care professional check your moles during your next health visit. Some people with a personal or family history of melanomas should have a yearly examination by a dermatologist as well.

If skin cancer is the diagnosis, there are a number of effective treatment options. Your health care professional can discuss what the best options are for the specific condition diagnosed.


Meet the Author

Cynthia Y. Abban, MD, PhD, is a Dermatologist at the Aurora Health Center in Gurnee, IL

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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