What are moles?

Moles are brown or black growths, usually round or oval, that can appear anywhere on the skin. They can be rough or smooth, flat or raised, single or in multiples. They occur when cells that are responsible for skin pigmentation, known as melanocytes, grow in clusters instead of being spread out across the skin. Generally, moles are less than one-quarter inch in size.

Who gets moles?

Moles are common. Most moles appear by the age of 20, although some moles may appear later in life. Adults who have light skin often have more moles. They may have 10 to 40 moles on their skin which is normal. Most moles appear on the skin during childhood and adolescence. Spots will grow as the child (or teen) grows. Some moles will darken, and others will lighten. These changes are expected and seldom a sign of melanoma, the most serious skin cancer. Because they last about 50 years, moles may disappear by themselves over time.

Do all moles need to be removed?

Most moles are harmless, but a change in size, shape, color, or texture could be indicative of a cancerous growth. For adults, new moles and changes to existing moles can be a sign of melanoma. Caught early, melanoma is highly treatable. Here are three ways to help you spot melanoma early and get treatment:

  • A change to a mole or a new mole is often the first sign of melanoma.
  • You can find melanoma early by checking your own skin.
  • If you see a mole or other spot that’s growing, itching, bleeding or changing in any way, immediately make an appointment to see one of our dermatologists.

People often want to know how they can tell a mole from a melanoma. Here is a general rule. A mole on your body usually has these traits:

  • One-color; often brown, but a mole can be tan, black, red, pink, blue, skin-toned, or colorless
  • Round in shape
  • Flat or slightly raised
  • Unchanged from month to month

Although moles have a distinct look, they may not look alike. Even in the same person, moles can differ in size, shape, or color. Moles can have hair. Some moles will change slowly over time, possibly even disappearing. It’s also important to know that moles can appear anywhere on the skin. They can develop on your scalp, between your fingers and toes, on the soles and palms, and even under your nails.

What are abnormal moles?

In some cases, abnormal moles may become painful, itchy, scaly, or bleed. It’s important to keep an eye on your moles so that you can catch any changes early. We recommend doing a visual check of your body monthly, including all areas that don’t have sun exposure (such as the scalp, armpits, or bottoms of feet). Moles that have a higher-than-average chance of becoming cancerous show one or more of the following traits: 

Congenital Nevi. Moles present at birth. The larger their size, the greater the risk for developing into skin cancer.

Atypical Dysplastic Nevi. Irregularly shaped spots that are larger than average. They often appear to have dark brown centers with light, uneven borders.

Higher frequency of moles. People with 50 or more moles are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer.

How to check moles for skin cancer

Use the American Academy of Dermatology’s ABCDEs as a guide for assessing whether or not a mole may be becoming cancerous:

A = Asymmetry: Half of the mole does not match the other half in size, shape, or color.

B = Border: The edges of the spot are irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined.

C = Color: The mole is not the same color throughout, has shades of tan, brown, or black, or is sometimes white, red, or blue.

D = Diameter: Melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, but they can be smaller.

E = Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that is different from the rest, or changes in size, shape, or color.

If any of these conditions occur, please make an appointment to see one of our dermatologists right away. A dermatologist’s trained eye can often tell whether a spot is a mole or skin cancer. The doctor may do a biopsy of the mole to determine if it is or isn’t cancerous and/or may surgically remove it.

When and how are moles removed?

Most moles do not require treatment. A dermatologist will remove a mole that is bothersome (rubs against clothing, etc.), unattractive to a patient, or suspicious (could be skin cancer). A dermatologist can usually remove a mole during an office visit. Most removals require only one office visit. Occasionally, a patient may need to return for a second visit. Whether it’s during one or two visits, a dermatologist can safely and easily remove a mole. A dermatologist will use one of these procedures:

Surgical excision: The dermatologist cuts out the entire mole and stitches the skin closed if necessary. Your mole will also be looked at under a microscope by a specially trained doctor. This is done to check for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, your dermatologist will let you know.

Surgical shave: The dermatologist uses a surgical blade to remove the mole. In most cases, a specially trained doctor will examine your mole under a microscope. If cancer cells are found, your dermatologist will let you know.

While it may seem more convenient to shave off or cut out a mole yourself, there are three very good reasons a dermatologist should remove it:

  • Skin cancer: If the mole contains skin cancer, some of the cancer cells can stay in the skin and even spread.
  • Scarring: You can disfigure your skin causing a scar.
  • Infection: A dermatologist uses sterile equipment to prevent infection.

After a mole is removed, the skin will heal. If the mole grows back, immediately make another appointment to see your dermatologist. This could be a sign of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.