Moles are normal and quite common. Most of us have a them on our bodies. So why would we need to worry about moles? Well, they can sometimes progress into skin cancer, particularly the more dangerous kind called melanoma.
Moles are typically raised and evenly coloured. They form on the skin, usually during childhood, when cells that produce pigment, called melanocytes, cluster and cause moles to appear on the surface of the skin. Melanocytes produce melanin, which gives the hair, eyes and skin their colour.
Moles can come in all shapes and sizes, so it can be difficult to spot the difference between regular skin growths and one that is showing cancer warning signs.
This is why it's important to perform at-home skin checks regularly, and to see a doctor for a professional check at least once a year. This will help you to keep an eye on your moles and be on the lookout for suspicious changes that might indicate you should have them checked by a professional sooner.
When to worry about a mole: Top signs to look for
Skin cancer often has no physical symptoms like headaches or pain. However, the first warning sign is usually a change in the appearance of your skin or a mole.
Early detection is critical to the successful treatment of any type of skin cancer, which is why skin checks are so important.
Use a mirror to spot changes in hard-to-see moles or ask a person you trust to help you. Take care to check your whole body, including:
Sign 1: Moles that present the ABCDEs of melanoma
One of the first signs of a dangerous mole can be a change in how it looks. When performing a skin self-examination, look for signs of melanoma by following the ABCDE rule.
- A for Asymmetry. Look for asymmetric moles where one side of the mole does not match the other half.
- B for Border. A mole that has an irregular border or edges, such as one that is ragged or blurred, could be a red flag.
- C for Colour. A mole that features multiple colours, such as mixes of black, brown, red, pink, blue or white.
- D for Diameter. Although skin cancers can begin as small lesions, if they are more than 6 millimetres (about the size of a pencil eraser) in diameter, you may have reason to be concerned.
- E for Evolving. Perhaps the most important sign to look for is a mole that is evolving or changing in some way. This could be a change either in shape, size, colour or surface texture.
Sign 2: A mole that is irritating or itchy
Aside from the ABCDEs of melanoma, you should also be aware of other important cancer warning signs, such as a mole that is irritating in some way. This might include moles that are bleeding, itching, painful or have begun to ooze.
Sign 3: The growth of a new mole
Only about 20-30% of melanomas develop in existing moles. It's not that unusual for a new mole to appear on your skin in adulthood.
For example, hormonal changes during pregnancy, puberty or menopause can see new moles appear. However, new moles are more likely to become cancerous and therefore, if a new growth appears on your body, particularly after the age of thirty, you should have them checked by a doctor as soon as possible.
Sign 4: Abnormal "ugly duckling" type moles
If a mole is showing a difference to others on your body, you might call it an 'ugly duckling'. The ugly duckling mole is another cancer warning sign.
Sign 5: If you fall into a high-risk category
Particular risk factors exacerbate your chances of developing skin cancer that you should be aware of.
High risk categories
- A family history of skin cancer. If a family member has been affected by skin cancer, you are also more likely to develop it in your life.
- Fair skin, hair and eyes. People with fair hair, skin or eyes are more susceptible to sun damage and more likely to develop skin cancer throughout their lives if they are not careful.
- A large number of moles. If you have more than 100 moles on your body, your risk of skin cancer is significantly higher than average.
- Atypical moles. Although benign, atypical moles can resemble cancerous moles because they are generally quite large and can have irregular borders. Having a lot of these types of moles can increase your melanoma risk.
- Lots of sunburns. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer. This is why wearing sun protection and avoiding sunburn which damages skin cells, is so important.
- Frequent indoor tanning: Indoor tanning beds unnecessarily expose you to a concentrated amount of UV rays. There are plenty of other ways to get a tan.
When to NOT worry about moles
If a mole isn't showing any suspicious signs or changes, it's unlikely to be a danger to your health.
Moles you've grown up with
If you've had a mole from birth or childhood, it's likely it will fade as you age and not cause you any problems. However, because cancerous moles can sometimes shrink or disappear, it's important to look for any signs of change at all and seek advice from a doctor if you notice something different.
Pimples or ingrown hairs causing mole pain
Moles can become painful if a pimple forms underneath it and sometimes ingrown hairs can form on hairy moles. This problem can cause soreness, irritation or inflammation that will go away as the pimple does. But if it's a persistent problem or if an infection arises, seek advice from your doctor.
A scratch or friction causing mole pain
If your mole is raised, you may occasionally accidentally scratch it or friction from clothing or jewellery may cause irritation, pain or bleeding. If it's the case that it happens often, during shaving for example, you might be best to speak to your doctor about having it removed.
How to prevent new moles from appearing
Moles can be found in all areas of your body. But there are things you can do to protect yourself from sun exposure and lower your risk of skin cancer.
Apply sunscreen every day, even when you don't think you will be spending time in the sun. Children will need help applying sunscreen to make sure they cover all parts of their bodies and, as adults, we must teach them to cover their whole bodies. Many places are easily forgotten, including the feet and hands and the backs of our arms and legs.
Use clothing for sun protection
Protect your scalp, face, ears and neck by wearing a hat with a wide brim and protect arms and legs with long-sleeved shirts and long pants. There are a variety of sunglasses on the market but you need to look for tinted shades that meet Australian standards to best protect your eyes.
Seek shade during the hottest parts of the day
Prevention is the best course of action when it comes to avoiding sunburn. Change your location and step out of the sun during the most dangerous times of the day for UV radiation, which is usually from 10am-3pm.
Avoiding tanning beds
Tanning beds expose the skin to ultraviolet rays. Many people use it as a way to tan their skin but there are plenty of other products on the market that don't increase your cancer risk.
Skin cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer in Australia. However, it is easily treated when detected early. Regular self-examinations are the best way to keep an eye on your skin and stay a step ahead of cancer.
Get your moles checked
When it comes to moles, the best time to have them checked is now! Even if you haven't noticed any of the above cancer warning signs, making an appointment with a doctor who specialises in skin cancer detection is a great preventative health measure.