Moles, also called nevi, are pigmented growths on the skin. (The plural for a nevus is nevi, so more than one mole may be referred to as nevi.) The most common moles are sometimes referred to as normal, acquired, or common moles. They can range in size and color, and they can even change color over the years. Over time, they get darker or lighter. Usually, these color changes are normal.
Most moles appear during childhood and adolescence. Almost every adult will have at least one mole, and some people have quite a few of them. Having up to 40 moles is usually normal. People can have moles anywhere on the body, including on the scalp, on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands, between the fingers and toes, and under the fingernails and toenails.
While acquired moles will not all look the same – not even on the same person – they do usually share certain characteristics, including:
They tend to be a single color. Most are brown, but they can be tan, black, blue, pink, red, skin-toned, and even colorless.
They are usually round and have smooth edges (The edge of a mole is called a border).
They tend to be flat or slightly raised above the skin.
They don’t change in size or shape.
Other types of moles
Some types of moles may put people at increased risk of developing melanoma. There are four general types of moles other than the common mole – atypical moles, congenital moles, and spitz nevi. We’ll briefly cover each type of mole.
An atypical mole, also called dysplastic nevus, is a type of mole that may develop into melanoma. Atypical moles may look like melanoma, but they are not. However, having more than four atypical moles puts you at higher risk for developing melanoma. Atypical moles can appear anywhere on your body. They frequently appear on the chest, back, or sides, but they may also grow on the head, scalp and neck. Atypical moles do not usually grow on the face.
Atypical moles have some common characteristics, including:
- Large size – they tend to be larger than a pencil eraser (more than 6mm in diameter).
- They have an irregular shape.
- They have more than one color (can be a mixture of tan, brown, red or pink).
- If you have already had melanoma, or you have a parent, sibling, or child who has or had melanoma, this also increases your risk of getting melanoma.
There is a genetic condition called familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome (FAMMM syndrome). People with this syndrome are at higher risk for developing melanoma. Three of the main characteristics of FAMMM syndrome are:
- Having more than 50 moles on the body
- Having at least some atypical moles
- Having a family history of melanoma
If you have an atypical mole, you should do monthly skin checks to watch for changes in size, shape or color and any bleeding or oozing.
A congenital mole, also called a congenital nevus, is a mole that is present at birth. Approximately one out of 100 people are born with congenital moles. Congenital moles tend to be dark in color, and they may also be hairy. This type of mole can vary in size. Some are considered small, and others are considered giant. Giant congenital nevi can grow up to 15 inches in diameter if they are not removed.
People with certain genetic conditions, such as neurofibromatosis and spina bifida, are more likely to have congenital moles.
People with giant congenital moles have a greater risk for developing melanoma.
A spitz nevus is a type of mole that looks a lot like melanoma. Most of the time, they appear during childhood and early adolescence, but adults can sometimes get them too. Spitz nevi tend to be raised, dome-shaped moles that are pink in color, but they may also have other colors, like brown, black, and red. They may bleed or ooze, which makes them difficult to differentiate from melanoma.
How to distinguish between normal, benign moles, and melanoma
According to experts, having certain types of moles can put you at higher risk for developing melanoma. For example, congenital and atypical moles have a greater chance of becoming cancerous, and people who have many moles may also be at higher risk.
Melanoma is a deadly type of skin cancer that affects the cells that produce melanin – the pigment in the skin. These cells are called the melanocytes. Melanoma most often occurs in adults, but it can develop in people at any age. It also tends to occur in people with light hair, skin, and eyes, but anyone can get melanoma. It can grow anywhere on the skin, including the eyes, mouth, genitals, internal organs, and under the nails, but it most frequently appears on the torso, arms, and legs.
The ABCDEs of melanoma may help your doctor diagnose melanoma, but not all forms of melanoma will show every telltale sign of cancer. The ABCDEs stand for asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolution/evolving. Learn more about the ABCDEs of melanoma so you will know what to look for when checking your own skin for signs of cancer. If you have any signs or symptoms of melanoma, contact your doctor right away to get a professional skin exam.
If you have any new moles or notice changes to an existing mole, you should get checked by a dermatologist. Any change to a mole can be a sign of melanoma. Pay careful attention to changes in the size, shape or color of moles anywhere on your skin. Melanoma can kill you, but if you catch it early enough, there’s a very good chance treatment will be effective and you will be cured.
So, how can you tell a mole from melanoma? Here are some guidelines:
- The mole isn’t symmetrical, meaning one side does not look like the other.
- The mole has an irregular shape or edges that aren’t clearly defined.
- There are variations in color throughout the mole. For example, it may have shades of tan, brown, black, blue, red, pink, or white.
- It is larger than a pencil eraser.
- It is changing in size, shape or color.
Not all melanomas will have all the above characteristics, so if you notice any of them, make an appointment with a dermatologist.
What will a dermatologist do to treat a mole?
Most moles do not need to be treated, but sometimes dermatologists remove moles. There are several reasons your mole may be removed, including:
Your doctor suspects it could be cancerous
You do not like the way your mole looks
Your mole is bothering you; your clothes might rub against it and cause irritation, or it might be in a spot that is prone to being touched often
How do doctors remove moles?
Most moles can be removed right in the doctor’s office. There are two common procedures used to remove moles – surgical excision and surgical shave. With an excision, the dermatologist cuts out the whole mole and stitches the skin if necessary. During a surgical shave, dermatologists use a scalpel to remove the mole. In both cases, it’s likely that the mole will be examined under a microscope for signs of cancer.
Do not remove a mole at home.
Some people are tempted to just cut off a mole at home. This is dangerous, and you should never do it. If your mole has cancerous cells, you may not get all the cancer when you cut the mole, and you may even cause cancer cells to spread. If you cut the mole yourself, you will never know whether it was cancerous or not, which may give the cancer time to spread beyond your skin and affect other parts of your body before you notice skin changes. You may also cause an infection in your skin or blood stream, and you could disfigure your skin, leading to a scar. Dermatologists are trained to remove moles in the safest, most effective way possible. So, if you have a mole you would like to have removed, make an appointment with a dermatologist and ask him or her to remove the mole for you.
Beaumont Dermatology Department
Dermatologists are skin experts who can help you assess your risk of skin cancer. They know what normal skin looks like, and they see moles – normal, atypical, congenital, spitz nevi, and malignant – every day. They understand the risks of skin cancer and what signs to look for, and they can help you learn what to look for too. Your dermatologist will guide you about how often you should have professional skin exams, and he or she can show you how to do your own monthly skin self-exam. If your doctor finds any suspicious moles, he or she can remove it (or them) and perform tests to find out whether the removed tissue contains cancerous cells. If you do have skin cancer, Beaumont doctors offer treatments, including Mohs’ surgery.
Call 877-232-8226 today to schedule an appointment with a Beaumont dermatologist or to get a referral.