All of us are familiar with moles (not the little critters that live underground); today we’ll be talking about the small dark bumps that appear on our skin. Moles, also known as melanocytic nevi, are raised dark spots formed from the clustering of pigment cells (melanocytes). These bumps can be congenital, meaning you’re born with them or acquired, appearing later in life.
For the most part, moles are harmless and only require cosmetic consideration. However, not all moles are created equal. Furthermore, even the most harmless of moles can evolve into a dangerous skin cancer. Having congenital moles that are small (<1.5 cm) or medium (<10 cm) in size comes with a 1% lifetime risk of developing skin cancer. Acquired, atypical nevi come with a heightened risk.
Why Do We Get Moles?
Moles develop later in life due to several factors including heredity, childhood sun exposure, and skin pigmentation. Intense, intermittent sun exposure among school-aged children, without broad-spectrum sun protection, can trigger the development of moles. Also, those who have lightly pigmented skin tend to have more moles than those with darker skin.
Moles vs. Freckles
Moles and freckles are similar in that they both involve hyperpigmentation. However, they differ in causation and in cellular mechanism. Moles involve the clustering and proliferation of melanocytes; these pigmented cells tend to cluster together into distinct skin lesions. Freckles, on the other hand, appear when melanocytes produce excess melanin (pigment) after being exposed to UV rays. Unlike in moles, the melanocytes themselves do not replicate and form clumps.
Let’s take a look at 6 factors which are key in determining whether a mole is suspect:
A – Asymmetry
B – Borders
C – Color
D – Diameter
E – Evolving
F – Feeling
If you look at your mole and draw a line down the middle, both sides should look the same. If both sides do not look the same then your mole is asymmetrical and should be checked by a doctor.
A mole with a crisp, smooth border is a good sign. Smudgy, irregular borders are not a good sign.
Anything that is healthy has uniformity in color, the cells are in synchronicity. If the mole has some pinkness or is uneven in color, you should consult with your doctor. Also watch out for shades of red, blue, white, or black.
If a mole is .05 cm (5 mm or 0.19 in) or larger and you weren’t born with it, then you should visit a dermatologist. Doctors have handy devices called Dimensional Measuring Tools. These tools measure thickness, depth and distance. The easiest way to measure a mole yourself at home is to stack two nickels and one penny and then press them onto the mole sideways. If you can see anything peeping out of the side then you know your mole is larger than 5mm. You can also compare the mole to a pencil eraser, these typically have a diameter of 6mm.
If your mole has been changing in size, color, shape or texture then your mole is evolving and should be looked at by a doctor.
Moles can begin to change in texture and behavior. Notice if your mole becomes hard, bumpy, itchy, oozy or begins to bleed.
In recent years there have been several companies that have developed apps to assist you in tracking moles. You can find them on iTunes or Google Play. Mole Mapper, Miiskin and UMSkinCheck are just a few. These apps allow you to take photos and remind you to monitor your moles. This article describes in detail the various technologies behind the apps.
If you’ve spent time in tanning beds you should definitely do a mole check at least once a year.
People with red hair have a higher risk of developing melanoma since they don’t have as much melanin in their skin. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed folks are also put into the high-risk category.
The darker your eye coloring and skin tone are, the less likely you will develop skin cancer. However, excessive sun exposure will damage skin cells and increase the risk, so wear SPF 30 every day!