As a sun-loving nation, it's important to keep an eye on spots on our skin. Normal moles are incredibly common and develop during childhood and adolescence — by 15, the average Australian has over 50 moles. However, early detection is ideal if the spots you find are potentially a warning sign of skin cancer.
Common Types of Spots that Appear on Skin
Moles are formed when a collection of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes cluster together and form skin growths. Most moles are harmless and develop all over the entire body, including in areas unexposed to sunlight.
Other common spots include skin lesions. They encompass any area of skin that differs from that around it, due to skin damage. Examples of skin lesions include sunburns and skin with a small patch of crusted surface.
However, spots on the skin could also be signs of various forms of skin cancer. Common skin cancers include melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma as well as Bowen disease. Rare cancers include nodular Merkel cell carcinoma found on the scalp, sebaceous gland carcinoma on the eyelid, and Kaposi sarcoma on the mouth, most common in people with a weakened immune system.
Since skin cancers and skin spots come in different shapes and sizes, being able to identify cancer symptoms when observing a new mole is great to accompany your professional annual skin check for skin cancer prevention.
Age spots receive their name as they appear on normal skin as we get older. Commonly affecting fair skinned people over the age of 50, age spots do not fade. They appear on parts of the body often exposed to the sun, such as the face, hands, arms, upper chest and back.
They are caused when the production of melatonin is sped up by ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, resulting in overactive pigmented cells.
Age spots do not require treatment as they are not painful and don't bleed or ooze, but could be early signs of skin cancer if you notice any rapid changes to them.
What they look like
- Tan to dark brown
- Range from freckle size to 1/2 inch across
- Sometimes group together
Also known as actinic keratoses or solar keratoses, sun spots are similar to age spots but slightly more dubious. People over 40 are at a higher risk of dangerous sunspots. With an early diagnosis, actinic keratosis can be successfully removed, but if left untreated, have the potential to become squamous cell carcinoma.
Squamous cell carcinoma (non-melanoma skin cancer) is the most common form of skin cancer in Australia but is not life-threatening. Squamous cell carcinomas occur when UV radiation damages DNA and accounts for 30% of non-melanoma cancer diagnoses. They are caused by excessive sun exposure on the face, neck, scalp, hands, forearms and legs.
What SUN SPOTS look like
- Red, tan, pink, skin-coloured, brown or silvery
- Flat, or slightly raised
- Scaly patches on the skin, often misdiagnosed as dry skin
- Up to an inch in diameter
Melanoma is Australia's 3rd most diagnosed skin cancer, and the Cancer Council predicts that 1 in 17 people will contract this cancer before they are 85. Australia and New Zealand lead the world with melanoma skin cancer diagnoses.
Whilst melanoma usually appears on parts of the body exposed to the sun, sun-protected areas are just as likely to develop these cancer cells (such as in the skin between the legs in women, and on the back for men). Your palms, fingernails, soles of the feet and toenails are also susceptible to this invasive skin cancer.
It is important to keep in mind that it is more common for melanoma to occur on seemingly normal skin, as only 20-30% of melanoma cases develop in existing moles.
What MELANOMA MAY look like
- Spots that are brown or black in colour
- Varying in appearance, but they generally stand out from normal moles in the surrounding skin
- A change in an existing mole, or the appearance of a new mole
- A mole that develops over an elevated patch of skin
- A spot that has uneven borders
- Melanoma spots bleed easily and are often itchy
- Sometimes your lymph nodes also enlarge as melanoma travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body
- See further below for the ABCDE guide on how to spot melanoma warning signs
- Overexposure to UV radiation, either from the sun, solariums or sunburns
- Melanoma risk increases for people with:
- Many moles — above 50, especially over 10 on the arms
- Unprotected or intense periods of UV radiation
- Blistering sunburns from childhood
- A high number of unusual moles (dysplastic nevi)
- A weakened immune system
- A first-degree family history, or previous experience with melanoma or other skin cancers
There are several reasons you might have a red spot on your skin. It could be from a rash due to being exposed to the sun or heat. If they're located around your nose and chest, it might be expanding blood vessels, also from sun exposure.
What they look like
- Rapidly growing lumps
- Thick scaly patches of skin
- The affected skin is clearly red
- An elevated growth is skin coloured, pink or red
- Open sore or scar
- Sometimes tender when touched
- Squamous cell carcinoma occurs on skin that is excessively exposed to the sun
- These skin cancers can also develop on skin with pre-existing burns or inflammatory conditions, especially on darker skin
Basal Cell Carcinoma is a non-melanoma skin cancer that has no symptoms other than appearing as pearly spots on the skin. It is a slow-growing cancer that does not spread to other parts of the body.
What they look like
- White, or shiny pink, reddish lump
- Dry, scaly patch of skin
- Overexposure to UV radiation
- Previous history of skin cancer
- Fair skin and a tendency to burn
Apart from the types possibly found on your skin previously mentioned, there are also brown spots that are benign.
If you notice irregular dark patches on your skin triggered by being in the sun and intensified with hormones, you may have melasma. This condition is common in women in their 20s-30s and may disappear during menopause as estrogen levels decrease.
If your round brown spot is raised and appears "stuck on" your skin, you may have seborrheic keratosis. These types of skin spots don't amount to cancer.
How to Identify Skin Cancer Signs
As a general rule, if you notice changes in size, shape, colour, or texture to the spots on your skin, it could be a warning sign for skin cancer. Skin cancer can affect anyone, and the risk increases with age — 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70.
Fortunately, early detection enables skin cancer to be easily and effectively treated. Hence, to complement your regular checkups with skin professionals, identifying particularly rapid growths in size, shape, colour or texture of your spots will be beneficial in reducing your risk of skin cancer.
We recommend at SunDoctors the ABCDE rule for identifying melanoma and other types of skin cancer, such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and Merkel cell carcinoma:
- Asymmetry. If half a mole looks different in shape from the other half
- Border irregularity. Blurry or irregular edges, or uneven outside the mole
- Colour variation. In a single mole, non-cancerous ones are usually all one colour
- Diameter. Anything over 6mm across could be potentially dangerous
- Evolving over time. Continually changes shape, colour, texture or size over time
Book a skin check and see a doctor for any concerning spots
Ultimately, regular check-ups with skin cancer professionals are your best bet to protect you from types of skin cancer, like melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
SunDoctors recommends an annual skin check and if you're over 50, more frequent consultations for signs of skin cancer. Contact us or book an appointment online at one of our many clinics across New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia.