Moles are mostly harmless and it’s normal to have some, but sometimes they can change or new ones can appear. This can sometimes be a sign they are turning cancerous and are melanomas, the rarest but more serious type of skin cancer.
The chances of a mole on your skin becoming cancerous are relatively low, less than 1 in 200,000 for men and women under 40. For a 20 year old, the lifetime risk of a mole becoming cancerous by the age of 80 is 1 in 3,164 for men and 1 in 10,800 for women.But you still have to keep an eye on them and keep checking for changes.
, doctor and Healthily expert says: “How do you know when to worry about a mole and when not to?
“Here’s the latest evidence on what to look for, how to check, and when to see a doctor.
“If you get any new moles as an adult, they need to be checked by a doctor.”
What are moles on skin?
Moles are small spots, usually brown but sometimes tan, black, blue, pink or red. The medical name for them is naevi, nevi or nevus. They’re usually made by a group of skin pigment cells called melanocytes.
What do normal moles look like?
- can be flat or raised
- can feel smooth or rough
- can be oval or round
- may have hairs growing out of them
- may look darker on dark skin and are usually quite small - less than 6mm in diameter (¼ inch) – about the width of a pencil eraser
Around 1 in 10 people can also get atypical (not normal) moles, which are not cancerous and do not need removing. These can be larger than common moles (usually more than 5mm), be irregularly shaped, have an unclear outline and have multiple colours.They’re slightly more likely than typical moles to turn cancerous, but most never will and the risk is still small.
What signs mean I need to see a doctor?
You can have moles from birth and it’s normal for them to appear later on, especially during childhood and adolescence. They may also fade or disappear completely as you get older or get darker when you’re pregnant, because of hormonal changes
Any changes in a mole or a new mole occurring for the first time after the age of 40 should be shown to your doctor.
However not all melanomas will fit under this umbrella, so it’s important you see your doctor if you notice any new skin changes such as new moles appearing when you’re an adult, or spots/sores that don’t heal.
Remember the ABCDE rule
Skin experts recommend that you check your moles once a month for any changes.
Remember that 70% of melanomas do not start from existing moles, but from new moles and skin changes.
Use the following checklist to help you work out if it could be a melanoma:
- A is for asymmetry – the mole is an uneven shape –- one half doesn’t match the other
- B is for border – it has irregular edges or they are raised, notched, or blurred
- C is for colour – it’s not all one colour and may be uneven with different shades of brown or black or sometimes have patches of pink, red, white or blue
- D is for diameter – the mole is bigger than 6mm (¼ inch), across
- E is for evolving – the mole is changing, size, shape and colour
Other changes in a mole changes to look out for
- lump or bump appears
Read more about the
How can my doctor help?
Not all melanomas will fit under the ABCDE checklist umbrella, so it’s important you see your doctor if you notice any new skin changes such as new moles appearing when you’re an adult, or spots/sores that don’t heal.
Your doctor can also examine your moles with a dermatoscope (a small hand-held device similar to a microscope) to look for any suspicious changes that suggest they may be cancerous.
If a melanoma is suspected they can send you to a skin cancer specialist for further investigations, including a skin
where cells are removed to be tested in a laboratory.
What else could it be?
Your doctor may also be able to diagnose other skin conditions which can look similar to moles.These include:
- seborrhoeic keratosis: these are harmless wart-like growths, common in older people.They can vary in colour from skin coloured to yellow, grey, brown, black or a mix.They don’t become cancer but they can be itchy and catch on clothing. Sometimes they can look similar to skin cancers so your doctor may need to take a closer look or a biopsy if they’re not sure. Most don’t need any treatment, but some can be removed for cosmetic reasons using liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy)
- freckles: these are just extra patches of skin pigment under the skin, they get darker in the sun in the summer and fade during the winter. They don’t need any treatment.
- simple lentigo: these are also known as age spots, black or brown in colour and are associated with getting older, but can be present from childhood.
- solar lentigo: as the name suggests these only appear in areas exposed to the sun, most commonly your face, back of the hands, forearm and upper trunk. They increase with age but can also develop in fair-skinned children who have had significant exposure to the sun too. There’s no risk of cancer, but they can be removed via cryotherapy (freezing) for cosmetic reasons.
- dermatofibroma: these are harmless knots of tissue that feel like small bumps under the skin. They often start from a small injury or insect bite. They are pink to brown in colour and usually less than 1cm in diameter and most common on the lower legs of young or middle aged people. They usually go away on their own but can be removed with surgery.
How to cut your risks
Protect your skin
Sun protection can help stop cancerous moles developing , read our article on
Find useful information on other areas of sun safety with our .
Get good at checking
- checking your skin for any new moles or skin changes is a good habit to get into. Do it once a month to keep track of any changes.Put a reminder in your phone or try and link it to some other regular monthly routine like when you check your breasts or your period arrives or it’s payday!
- photograph your moles – or ask someone to photograph them – so you can pick up any changes.Try photographing them next to a ruler or tape measure so you can judge whether they have grown or not
- the British Skin Foundation recommends the
- the charity Melanoma UK is working with the – you take a picture of a mole on your smartphone and within 30 seconds the app gives you a risk indication. It tells you what next steps to take
- if you’re in a higher risk group for melanoma you may be able to get a referral to a mole mapping service.This is particularly useful if you have a large number of moles. The service lets you keep a close eye on any mole changes with mapping images and close-up photos of suspicious moles. Many private clinics also offer this service
How to check your moles each month
- ask a friend or someone in your family to help you check the back of your body which is hard to see. Or stand in front of a full length mirror and hold a hand mirror so you can see your back
- check your face, neck and then your scalp, by using a hair dryer and comb and the mirror to inspect the back of your neck
- examine your hands, including under your fingernails and your palms, then look at your forearms, elbows and upper arms
- look closely at your chest and torso, checking underneath your breasts and lift your arms to check your armpits
- ask your friend or relative to check your back, bottom and backs of your legs – or use your hand mirror and full-length mirror
- sit down and check your legs and genitals – your groin and your vulva
- finally, don’t forget to check your feet including the soles and under your toenails
How to get a mole removed
Apart from concerns about cancer, there are many reasons why you might feel you want to have your mole removed. If it’s catching on clothing or a razor, or the location is getting you down for cosmetic reasons, speak to your doctor about the pros and cons of having it removed. They can help you weigh up the risks of a small procedure and discuss what scar it’s likely to leave.
In the UK non-cancerous mole removal isn’t often available on the NHS but you could discuss having it removed with a private clinic. There may be other options you can consider instead of surgery - if your mole isn’t cancerous, but you feel self-conscious about it, you could try covering it up with make-up.
Mole removal methods
If you decide to get a mole removed, the method used depends on its size and where it is on your body. You might have:
- excision surgery to remove your mole.The doctor numbs the area with a local anaesthetic and cuts out the mole, along with a margin of healthy skin (if necessary
- a protruding mole shaved off with a scalpel. Again, you would have a local anaesthetic for this.
- a small mole removed with a laser. It uses light energy to break down the mole. Usually used on small moles on your face as there is less risk of scarring