Moles are common, benign (not cancerous) growths of the skin that develop when pigment-producing cells, known as melanocytes, grow in clusters. The medical term for moles is “nevi”. Most moles typically appear during childhood and adolescence. Most adults have several moles. Having anywhere from 10 to 40 moles is considered normal.

Moles that have an unusual or atypical growth are named atypical moles (or dysplastic nevi). Atypical moles tend to be larger in size (greater than 6 mm), have an irregular shape, and have more than one color. These moles can look like melanomas –  the most serious form of skin cancer. Yet, they are not melanomas. However, individuals who have atypical moles are at increased risk of developing melanomas. (See Melanomas for more info.)

Moles 1

Signs and Symptoms of Moles

Moles are themselves harmless lesions. However, the presence of a new mole or a change within an existing mole can be a sign of melanoma. So, it is especially important to examine your skin routinely. This means to look over your entire body, including palms, soles, fingers, and toes.

The ABCDE checklist is a helpful tool to identify a skin lesion that may be a melanoma:

  • A – Asymmetry: One half of the skin lesion looks different than the other half.
  • B – Border: The outline of the skin lesion is irregular, not smooth, or poorly defined.
  • C – Color: The color of the skin lesion has may shades or more than one color, such as brown, black, red, and/or white.
  • D – Diameter: The skin lesion is larger than 6 mm (1/4 inch).
  • E – Evolving: The skin lesion has changed in size, shape, or color over time.

In sum, you should have a skin lesion evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist if you notice a new mole, a mole that looks different from other moles on your skin, a mole that has changed in any way, or a mole that itches, bleeds, or is painful (even if it is smaller than 6mm).

Causes of Moles

Moles are formed when cells in the skin known as melanocytes grow in clusters or clumps. Melanocytes are distributed throughout the skin and are pigment-producing cells that give skin its color. Factors such as sun exposure and family history also contribute largely to the development of moles.

Self-Care for Moles

Prevention is key! Sun protection can help reduce the development of new moles and the potential development of skin cancers.

  • Use sunscreen on all exposed skin before going outdoors. Be sure the sunscreen has broad spectrum coverage which blocks both UVA and UVB light, with an SPF of at least 30 or more. Remember to reapply every 2 hours and immediately after swimming or sweating.
  • Avoid sun exposure during peak hours (from 10 am to 3 pm).
  • Cover up. Wear a broad-brimmed hat and tightly-woven clothing that protects your arms and legs.
  • Avoid tanning bed use.
  • Perform self-skin exams monthly. Monitor your skin lesions for any changes in size, shape, color, and/or skin symptoms (such as, itching, bleeding, or pain).

Treatment for Moles

No treatment is needed for benign (not cancerous) moles.  However, moles can be surgically removed for cosmetic purposes or if they become irritated or inflamed.

Individuals with atypical moles, multiple moles, or other risk factors (fair skinned, light eyed, tendency to freckle, personal history of melanoma, family history of melanoma, history of tanning bed use, history of sunburns, etc.) should be monitored closely by a board-certified dermatologist on a routine basis. Photographs of concerning moles may also be helpful to monitor for changes in size, shape, and coloration.

If a mole appears atypical or is suspicious for a melanoma, a skin biopsy may be recommended to establish a correct diagnosis. A skin biopsy consists of removing the concerning lesion and then examining the specimen under the microscope to determine the diagnosis. Once a diagnosis is established, appropriate management can then be determined.

If you are interested in learning more about treatment options for your moles, please call Heller Dermatology & Aesthetic Surgery to schedule your appointment!