It is very common to have moles, also known as nevi, on your skin. Almost every light-skinned adult has about 10 to 40 moles. These are usually “common” or “normal” moles. However, some people have “atypical” moles, which need to be watched for changes that could be signs of skin cancer.
WHAT DOES A COMMON MOLE LOOK LIKE?
A common mole on your body appears:
- Small — less than 6 mm in diameter (or the size of a pencil eraser).
- Round with a smooth edge or border.
- Slightly raised on your skin.
- The same from month to month. (It does not change.)
- To have only one color, often brown, tan or skin-toned. However, common moles can sometimes be black, red, pink, blue or colorless.
Common moles can appear anywhere on the body, but most occur on areas of sun exposure — the back, chest and face. They appear in childhood and adolescence. New common moles usually do not appear in older adults.
WHAT DOES AN ATYPICAL MOLE LOOK LIKE?
Atypical moles may look different than common moles in any of the following ways:
- They are typically larger than a pencil eraser.
- They may have an odd shape (not round) or irregular edges.
- They may have multiple shades of color such as brown, tan, red, grey, blue, black and pink.
As with common moles, atypical moles can appear anywhere on the body, but they usually appear on the back, chest and abdomen, and they rarely appear on the face. Atypical moles usually begin to appear at or around puberty. Adults can develop atypical moles throughout life.
DO I HAVE AN INCREASED RISK OF GETTING SKIN CANCER IF I HAVE ATYPICAL MOLES?
Most atypical moles are benign (not cancerous). However, because this type of mole can turn into skin cancer, your dermatologist will likely advise you to watch atypical moles for changes that could be early signs of skin cancer.
If you have atypical moles, you have a higher risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, especially if:
- You have many common moles, or four or more atypical moles.
- You have had melanoma.
- You have a first-degree blood relative (parent, sibling or child) who has/had melanoma.
HOW DOES A DERMATOLOGIST TREAT ATYPICAL MOLES?
In most cases, atypical moles are watched regularly and monitored. They do not need to be removed. If your dermatologist is concerned that an atypical mole may be a melanoma, a biopsy may be performed. This is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of skin cancer. Your dermatologist can perform a biopsy during an office visit.
During the biopsy procedure, your dermatologist will remove either the entire mole or part of it for examination under a microscope. The doctor who evaluates the removed tissue will create a biopsy report, which you should review with your dermatologist. If the diagnosis is melanoma, your dermatologist will consider the size and location of the skin cancer, as well as your overall health, in order to recommend the best treatment for you. If further treatment is needed for an atypical mole, your dermatologist will discuss your treatment options and make recommendations.
WHAT DO I LOOK FOR WHEN CHECKING MY MOLES?
Performing skin self-exams can help you find skin changes — especially in moles —that could be a sign of melanoma. When detected early, melanoma is highly treatable.
Checking your skin means taking note of all the spots on your body, from moles to freckles to age spots. Visit the AAD’s SPOT Skin Cancer website, SpotSkinCancer.org, for instructions on how to perform a skin self-exam. Ask someone for help when checking the hard-to-see places on your body, especially your back and scalp.
When looking at your skin, check for the ABCDEs of melanoma:
A stands for ASYMMETRY. One half does not look like the other half.
B stands for BORDER. The spot has an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.
C stands for COLOR. The spot is varied from one area to another, with shades of tan and brown or black, or sometimes white, red or blue.
D stands for DIAMETER. While melanomas are usually greater than 6 mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
E stands for EVOLVING. A mole or skin growth looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color.
Make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible if you notice a mole on your skin that has any of these characteristics:
- Fits any of the ABCDEs.
- Differs from the other moles on your skin.
- Changes, itches or bleeds, even if it is small.
WHAT IS FAMILIAL ATYPICAL MULTIPLE MOLE MELANOMA SYNDROME?
If you have many atypical moles, your dermatologist may talk with you about familial atypical multiple mole melanoma syndrome. Having FAMMM greatly increases your risk of developing melanoma.
If you have FAMMM, you have:
- Usually more than 50 common moles.
- Some atypical moles.
- A close blood relative who has/had melanoma.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I HAVE FAMMM?
If you have FAMMM, your dermatologist may recommend:
- Having a full-body screening from a dermatologist every three to 12 months.
- Photographing your moles during in-office screenings to track changes.
- Performing regular skin self-exams. Your dermatologist will instruct you on how often to examine your skin.
Half of melanomas that appear in FAMMM patients occur on their normal skin, not in an atypical mole, so you and your dermatologist need to examine the skin on your entire body.
These steps can help detect melanoma early, when it is highly treatable.
HOW CAN I PREVENT SKIN CANCER?
Exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun and indoor tanning beds is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, including melanoma. The following can help protect your skin and prevent skin cancer:
- Seek shade. Shade is especially important between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest. If your shadow appears shorter than you are, seek shade.
- Wear protective clothing. Wear a lightweight long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, when possible.
- Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Broad-spectrum sunscreen provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
- Use sunscreen whenever you are going to be outside, even on cloudy days.
- Apply enough sunscreen to cover all exposed skin. Most adults need about 1 ounce — or enough to fill a shot glass — to fully cover their body.
- Don’t forget to apply to the tops of your feet, your neck, your ears and the top of your head.
- When outdoors, reapply sunscreen every two hours, and after swimming or sweating.
- Use extra caution around water, snow and sand. These reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun.
- Avoid tanning — both indoors and out. Ultraviolet light from tanning beds and the sun can cause skin cancer and premature skin aging. Consider using a self-tanning product if you want to look tan, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
A board-certified dermatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of skin, hair and nail conditions. To learn more about moles or to find a board-certified dermatologist in your area, visit aad.org/moles or call toll-free (888) 462-DERM (3376).
Visit the SPOT Skin Cancer™ website — SpotSkinCancer.org — to:
- Download a body mole map for tracking changes on your skin.
- Find a free SPOTme® skin cancer screening in your area.
- Share your skin cancer story.
All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology.
Copyright © by the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides
American Academy of Dermatology P.O. Box 1968, Des Plaines, Illinois 60017
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