Moles are common. In fact, light-skinned adults typically have 10 to 40 “common” or “normal” moles on their skin.
When you talk to your dermatologist about your moles, he or she may use the word “nevus.” Nevus is the medical term for mole. When your dermatologist is talking about two or more moles, he or she may say “nevi,” the plural medical term for moles.
While most moles are harmless, skin cancer can sometimes develop in or near a mole. Knowing where you have moles and what your moles look like can help you spot skin cancer early, when it is highly treatable.
WHAT DO COMMON MOLES LOOK LIKE?
Common moles on your body are:
- Small — less than 6 mm in diameter (the size of a pencil eraser).
- Round to oval with a smooth edge or
- Flat or slightly raised on your
- The same from month to month. (They do not change )
- One color, often brown. Moles also can be tan, black, pink, blue, skin-toned or
Moles can differ in size, shape or color. They also can have hair.
Common moles can appear anywhere on the body, but most occur in areas of sun exposure, like the back, chest and face. They appear in childhood and adolescence. New common moles usually do not appear in adults.
WHY SHOULD I CHECK MY MOLES?
In adults, a change in a mole or the sudden appearance of a new mole can be a sign of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Finding melanoma early is essential because the disease is highly treatable when detected early.
By getting into the habit of checking your skin, you can learn what your moles look like. Once you know what your moles look like, you’ll be able to spot changes.
HOW SHOULD I CHECK MY MOLES?
The best way to check your skin is to perform regular skin self-exams. Visit the AAD’s SPOT Skin Cancer™ website, SpotSkinCancer.org, to get instructions on how to perform a skin self-exam and download a body mole map you can use to track changes on your skin. Your dermatologist also can show you how to examine your skin and provide you with tools that can help you keep track of your moles.
During your skin self-exam, you’ll need to check your entire body and make note of all the spots on your skin. Ask someone for help in checking hard-to-see places like your back and scalp.
As you check your skin, look for the ABCDEs of melanoma:
A stands for ASYMMETRY. Is one half of a mole unlike the other half?
B stands for BORDER. Does a mole have an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined order?
C stands for COLOR. Do you see more than one color in a mole, such as shades of tan and brown, black, white, red, or blue?
D stands for DIAMETER. Do you have a mole that is bigger than 6 mm (the size of a pencil eraser)? While melanomas are usually bigger than 6 mm when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
E stands for EVOLVING. Do you have a mole or other spot on your skin that looks different from the rest? Have you
noticed a mole or another spot changing in size, shape or color?
WHEN SHOULD I SEE A DERMATOLOGIST ABOUT A MOLE?
Make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible if you notice a mole on your skin that:
- Fits any of the ABCDEs.
- Is a new spot.
- Differs from other moles on your skin
- Changes, itches or bleeds.
DO MOLES NEED TO BE REMOVED?
Most moles do not require treatment. If your dermatologist is concerned that a mole may be skin cancer, he or she may recommend a biopsy. This is the best way to diagnose skin cancer. Your dermatologist can perform a biopsy during an office visit.
After the area has been numbed with local anesthesia, your dermatologist will remove all or part of the mole. The removed tissue will be examined under a microscope, either by your dermatologist or at a separate lab. The doctor who evaluates the tissue will write a biopsy report, which you should review with your dermatologist.
If the diagnosis is skin cancer, your dermatologist will consider the type of skin cancer, the size and location of the skin cancer, and your general health to recommend the best treatment for you.
If the biopsy report says your mole is an “atypical nevus,” you do not have skin cancer. An atypical nevus (sometimes referred to as a “dysplastic nevus”) is a mole that does not look like a common mole under the microscope. Although they may look like melanoma to the naked eye, most atypical moles are benign and should not be a cause for concern. Because some atypical moles can turn into skin cancer, however, your dermatologist will tell you to watch atypical moles for changes that could be early signs of skin cancer. The dermatologist also will determine whether the atypical mole requires any further treatment; many do not.
If you see a mole or another spot reappear after a biopsy, contact your dermatologist.
Never try to remove a mole at home. You could get an infection or disfigure your skin.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MY SKIN AND PREVENT SKIN CANCER?
Exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun and indoor tanning beds is the most preventable risk factor for all forms of skin cancer, including melanoma. The following can help you protect your skin and prevent skin cancer:
- Seek shade. Remember that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.
- Wear protective clothing. This means wearing a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, when possible.
- Generously 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. For more adults, this is about an ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass.
- Don’t forget to apply to tops of your feet, your neck, your ears and the top of your head.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or after swimming or sweating.
- Take care around water, snow and sand. These reflect and intensify the sun’s damaging rays.
- Avoid tanning beds. UV light from tanning beds can cause skin cancer and early 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.
- Download free educational materials to share with your family and friends, or in your community.
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
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AAD Public Information Center: 888.462.DERM (3376) AAD Member Resource Center: 866.503.SKIN (7546) Outside the United States: 847.240.1280
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