We’ve learned a lot about how to protect ourselves from skin cancer over the years — when and how often to apply sunscreen, how to shield ourselves from dangerous UV rays, what to do once you have a sunburn, etc. But one thing that can be a little tricky is identifying symptoms of skin cancer once they start to present themselves. And when it comes to moles, things can get especially confusing.
We reached out to four dermatology professionals — Dr. Francesca Fusco, Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Dr. Debra Jaliman, and Erin Jensen PA-C — to get the answers to all the questions you have about moles... and to figure out when there’s no cause for concern and when you should make an appointment with a professional.
What causes moles? Are they genetic?
“A mole is a benign growth that appears on the skin,” explains Erin, who you can follow on Instagram at @thewhitecoattreatment or find online at whitecoattreatment.com. You can be born with moles or have them develop over time, but according to Erin, most moles appear by the age of 25. “Moles occur when melanocytes, the cell that gives the skin color, cluster together. Moles can be genetic; if your parents have a lot of moles, you may be prone to forming more moles.”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Are regular moles different from potentially cancerous moles?
Benign moles can be brown or black, flat or bumpy — and they’re super common. “The average person has over 20 moles,” Erin tells us. When it comes to trying to tell the healthy moles apart from potentially cancerous moles, though, leave that to the professionals. Regular skin checks are important, but you can keep an eye on your existing moles at home. “We talk about an ‘ugly duckling factor,’” Erin says. “If any of your moles look different than the rest of them, you should have them checked out."
Dr. Fusco adds that potentially cancerous moles — aka atypical moles — are "usually asymmetrical, have a border that is not smooth, may bleed or ulcerate or change in color." And according to Dr. Zeichner, they "tend to be larger than common moles, and may be larger than the diameter of a pencil tip eraser" and can be "brown, tan, red, pink, or even white, blue, or black."
Where can cancerous moles appear on your body?
The short answer? Everywhere. The long answer? "Cancerous moles can appear anywhere on your body, even under your nails, [on your] buttocks, and between your toes," says Dr. Jaliman, Assistant Professor of Dermatology Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of the book, Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. Even parts of your body shielded from the sun can be at risk — like the inside of your mouth, your genitals, or the soles of your feet. That’s part of the reason why it’s so important to have a professional check you out instead of trying to manage the situation yourself.
Can a healthy mole become cancerous? Are there types of moles more at risk of skin cancer?
Yep, although it’s more rare than a new mole being cancerous. You have a higher risk of skin cancer from new skin growths — but it’s always good to keep an eye on your existing moles just in case.
Do skin cancer moles feel any different or hurt? What are symptoms of skin cancer moles?
According to Erin, they can be itchy or painful. “However, not all skin cancers have symptoms. You should not ignore a changing spot just because it does not have symptoms.”
What do skin cancer moles look like?
“Skin cancers have many different looks to them,” says Erin. “The classic look of a melanoma is one that is very dark brown or black, however skin cancers can also be red or white. They can also look like a pimple that won't heal or simply look like dry skin.” Professionals can help you spot the difference between something potentially dangerous and something benign. Dr. Zeichner recommends keeping the ABCDE rules in mind: "A, asymmetry, when one side of the mall does not look like the other side. B, border – a harmless mole typically has a smooth order. Atypical moles may have a jacket or irregular border. C, color. Atypical moles may have multiple different colors. D, diameter... E, evolution over time."
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
When should you be concerned about a mole? What are signs your moles may be related to skin cancer?
Like Erin said, keep an eye out for “ugly duckling” moles, ones that look different from the rest or are changing from how they used to look. And visit a professional for a skin check. "Everyone should have at the very least an annual skin exam, to check and monitor their moles," says Dr. Fusco. That way, professionals can check out the moles you already have — and know how often they need to follow up. "However, if you notice that a mole has changed or is bleeding and not healing, consult with your dermatologist immediately.”
What treatment is appropriate for a cancerous mole?
If a mole needs to be checked, Dr Jaliman says, "A biopsy will be performed under local anesthetic which is a 10 minute procedure." And that might mean removing the whole mole or just taking a shaving to send to the lab. Simple enough. And removing a mole is easy, too.
"Moles can be removed in a variety of ways," Erin says. "First the mole, is numbed with a shot of numbing medicine. This part can sting a little bit, but it's not bad at all. After that, the procedure is painless. Your provider then uses a surgical blade to shave off the mole. No stitches are used for this procedure. You are left with an open sore that can take one to two weeks to heal. In certain circumstances, we may cut out a mole with stitches. It depends on where the mole is located on the body and if we are worried about a skin cancer.”
What are other symptoms of skin cancer?
Aside from moles, rough skin patches, and growths that look like pimples, Erin advises to keep an eye out for swollen lymph nodes and changes in your blood work — though skin checks with your medical professional will hopefully catch any skin cancers before they progress to this point.
Dr. Fusco adds that, "There are a few variety of skin cancers that do not occur in moles: actinic keratoses are areas of skin that maybe precancerous and present as irritated or red or flaky or scabby patches of skin that don't heal. Squamous cell cancers may present as a scab or an ulceration or a red bump or patch that is persistent. A basal cell cancer may present as a tiny pink or red pearly bump that may look like it has blood vessels in it or has a central ulceration that grows or stays the same and just doesn't heal."
"Skin cancer may be totally asymptomatic," warns Dr. Zeichner. But as long as you're making regular appointments, your medical professional can help you can an eye on things.