Moles are common skin growths, and most adults have 10-40 of them scattered about their bodies. By and large, moles are benign, meaning they pose no danger to you. However, some moles harbor cancer cells and can turn into life-threatening melanoma quickly.
Monitoring your moles helps you spot suspicious growths early so you can get a jump on treatment that could save your life.
Dr. Robert Topham and our Holladay Dermatology & Aesthetics team take skin cancer seriously and want all our patients to understand what to look for. Here are some guidelines for mole monitoring.
Melanocytes: The color and cancer creators
Before we talk about moles, let’s explore the cells that make them. Melanocytes are specialized cells in your skin that produce melanin — the pigment responsible for the color of your skin, hair, and eyes.
These cells protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. When exposed to UV light, melanocytes produce more melanin, darkening your skin, and voila, you have a tan.
However, when melanocytes grow out of control, they can lead to a deadly form of skin cancer called melanoma.
The transformation from benign melanocytes to melanoma is a complex process. Melanoma arises from evolving melanocytes, but researchers are still studying the process to determine at what stage of melanocyte development this transformation occurs.
When melanocytes transform into cancerous cells, they multiply abnormally, leading to the development of melanomas. Interestingly, while the presence of melanin protects against the development of skin cancers, its presence is also necessary for melanoma development because melanin absorbs harmful UV radiation.
Because moles contain melanocytes, they’re a common site for cancer if those cells become damaged.
Types of skin cancer
There are three main types of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma.
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer, and it often begins in or near a mole. It accounts for just 1% of skin cancer cases but causes the majority of skin cancer deaths.
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, collectively known as nonmelanoma skin cancers, are less deadly but much more common. They often appear as a change in the skin, such as a growth, bump, or sore that doesn’t heal.
How to spot a suspicious mole
Most moles mean you no harm, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. Diligent mole monitoring is a must. Here’s what to look for.
The ABCDEs of moles
Checking your moles is easy when you follow the ABCDE rule:
- Asymmetry: One half of the mole doesn't match the other.
- Border irregularity: The edges are ragged, notched, or blurred.
- Color variation: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of black, brown, or pink.
- Diameter: The mole is larger than 6mm in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser), though melanomas can be smaller.
- Evolving: The mole looks different from others and/or is changing in size, shape, or color.
The bottom line is that you should report any type of irregularity or change.
Itching, bleeding, changing, and new moles
Moles that itch or bleed definitely fall under the categories of “irregular” and “changing,” and they could indicate signs of melanoma.
Similarly, the appearance of new moles after age 30 might be cause for concern. If you notice any of these changes, schedule an appointment with Dr. Topham promptly. We see patients throughout the greater Salt Lake City area, so call Holladay Dermatology & Aesthetics, and get your moles checked.