Skin moles are common, almost everyone has them. With so many shapes, sizes and colors, it’s hard to know whether moles are normal. Gina Mandernach, oncology outreach coordinator at UnityPoint Health, explains different types of skin moles, why you need to regularly check them and removal options.
Types of Skin Moles
Moles occur when melanocytes, which give skin its natural color, grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. The most common types of skin moles include:
- Congenital mole. Moles you’re born with.
- Common mole (also called acquired mole). Harmless moles that appear on the skin after birth. Most people have around 10-40 of these on their bodies. Having 50 or more increases the risk of melanoma.
- Atypical mole (also called dysplastic nevus). Moles that oftentimes have an odd shape, are larger than a pencil eraser and show more than one color. An atypical mole may look like melanoma but isn’t.
“It’s important to know what your moles look like,” Mandernach says. “Moles can show up in some unusual places, like the scalp, palms, under nails and between fingers and toes. Knowing where your moles are and their appearance allows you to spot changes more easily, should they occur.”
Most moles show up on the skin during childhood and adolescence. These moles grow and sometimes change in size and color (lightness or darkness) as we age.
“Moles should appear symmetrical and round, with clearly-defined borders. They may be flat or raised, but should be smaller than a pencil eraser (6 millimeters). Moles should also be the same color throughout,” Mandernach says.
Certain mole colors raise more concern than others.
- Brown or black mole. Normal colors for moles.
- Skin-colored mole. Normal colors for moles.
- Red moles. Red moles, as well as pink, white and blue, are all cause for concern. Sometimes, any of these colors are mixed in with a brown or black mole, which could be a sign of melanoma.
“A bleeding, oozing, painful or itchy mole can be a sign of melanoma and should be evaluated by a provider,” Mandernach says.
Skin Cancer Moles
When figuring out if a mole is cause for concern, Mandernach says providers focus on the ABCDEs of melanoma:
- Asymmetry. One half of the mole doesn’t match the other half.
- Border. Does the mole have an irregular or poorly-define border? Sometimes, the color of the mole gradually blends into the rest of the skin.
- Color. Varies from one mole to another, either in darkness or the mole color itself.
- Diameter. Melanomas are commonly bigger than a pencil eraser (or 6 millimeters)
- Evolving. The mole is changing in size, shape, color or overall appearance. It could also start to itch or bleed when it previously hasn’t.
“The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends doing a head-to-toe check once a month to become familiar with your skin, plus to monitor any changes. You may need to have a partner check places you can’t see, and you should have a health provider, whether that be a dermatologist or primary care provider, do a yearly check, too,” Mandernach says.
The risk of melanoma increases already at 15 years old, so it’s a good to develop healthy skin habits early in life, especially if you used/use a tanning bed or have excessive sun exposure. Melanoma can develop any time of year, regardless of season, so checking yourself is just as important in the winter as it is during the summer.
“We can’t prevent all moles from forming, but limiting UV exposure can potentially decrease the number of new moles that form on skin. Protect your skin with clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen, no matter the season. Tanning beds should never be used,” Mandernach says.
Difference Between a Freckle, Skin Tag and Mole
Freckles and skin tags aren’t the same thing as moles. Mandernach breaks down the differences between these two and how they compare to moles.
- Skin tag. A skin tag is a small flap of tissue that hangs off the skin. They’re not cancerous.
- Freckles. Freckles are small, brown spots clustered on the skin that aren’t harmful. They can be caused by genetics and/or sun exposure. Freckles are more common in people who have light or red hair, along with fair skin and blue eyes. However, these same people are more at-risk for skin cancer.
How to Get Rid of Moles on Skin
While at-home options exist for skin mole removal, Mandernach suggests leaving removal to the professionals. Here’s why common techniques pose problems:
- Topical pastes. Pastes applied to the skin can cause allergic reactions and don’t usually succeed at removing the mole.
- Shaving to remove. Shaving the mole off can still leave some of the mole on the skin, along with a potential scar. This also carries the risk of causing an infection.
- Tattooing. Some try and tattoo over moles, but this makes it hard to detect changes in the mole, should they occur.
“Skin mole removal should only be done by a dermatologist or primary care provider through an office procedure. Insurance usually covers this, unless you’re simply having it removed for cosmetic reasons,” Mandernach says.
In addition to safety, Mandernach says the advantage of having a health care professional remove the mole is that the removed mole is sent to the lab to be checked for melanoma, just to be safe. If you try to remove the mole at home, you won’t know if there are cancer cells in it or not.
“Don’t wait to schedule an appointment, if you’re concerned about one or more moles. If it turns out to be melanoma or another type of skin cancer, it’s much easier to treat in early stages. If it turns out to be benign, you get peace of mind that much sooner,” Mandernach says.
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