What are moles?
Moles are coloured, often small spots on your skin, which are caused by melanin. People have moles in many shapes and sizes.
It’s normal for moles to be:
Round or oval
Flat or raised
Smooth or rough
Hairy or hairless
Black or brown
Anywhere on the body including the face and head
Moles are formed by the build-up of melanocytes, the cells responsible for giving skin its colour. These grow into clusters which form moles. It’s a completely normal response to sunlight but some people will be more prone to having moles than others.
Why should you check your moles?
Moles are completely normal and usually don't cause any problems. But in rare cases, moles can be an early sign of skin cancer.
Melanocytes are the pigment cells that give moles their colour. They're prone to damage that can make them grow uncontrollably, leading to cancerous moles called melanomas. Melanomas are normally found on skin that gets a lot of sun exposure, like the legs and back.
Melanoma skin cancer is the 5th most common cancer in the UK. Around 16,000 new melanomas are found each year. Over 1 in 4 melanomas are found in people under 50.
2,300 people die each year in the UK from melanomas. Checking your moles regularly means you can catch anything unusual early and treat it before it progresses.
When to get a mole checked by a doctor
You should see a doctor if you suspect a mole is showing any warning signs. Remember the signs by thinking of the first 5 letters of the alphabet, from A to E.
The things to look out for are:
Asymmetry – Healthy skin moles tend to be round. Cancerous moles may grow unevenly or have an irregular border
Border – Normal moles usually have clearly defined, smooth round borders. Melanomas often have blurred or ragged edges
Colour – Moles are normally 1 colour. Melanomas often contain 2 or more shades of brown or black, or sometimes red and pink. Moles that become darker may also be cancerous
Diameter – All moles vary in size, but cancerous moles are usually larger than 6mm (the width of a pencil rubber)
Evolving – Melanomas often change size, shape and colour and may become raised. Cancerous moles can become inflamed or swollen
Other signs a mole may be cancerous are:
Changes like bleeding, itching or crusting to moles
‘Ugly duckling’ moles that look different to other moles on your body
How are cancerous moles treated?
If a doctor suspects a mole is cancerous they’ll refer you to a specialist for further tests. The mole will most likely be removed and sent to a lab to be checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
Who is at risk of skin cancer moles?
Anybody can develop a cancerous mole.
Your risk increases if:
You have a lot of exposure to UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds, or you frequently burn
You have fair skin and blonde or red hair
A family member has had skin cancer
You have lots of moles
You have a weakened immune system
Cancerous moles in darker skin
Darker skin may provide more natural protection against skin cancer than lighter skin, but people with darker skin are still at risk of skin cancer.
Melanomas can be harder to see on darker skin, so sometimes the cancer is more advanced by the time it's found. It's important to regularly check your moles no matter your skin tone. Black or Asian people with cancerous moles often have a type called acral lentiginous melanoma, which is most often found on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, or under the nails.
How can I reduce my risk of skin cancer from moles?
UV radiation from the sun is the biggest controllable risk factor for cancerous moles. Preventing sunburn reduces skin damage and lowers the chance of skin cancer.
Use sunscreen with a high SPF
Avoid direct sunlight from 11 am to 4 pm when the sun is at its strongest
Make use of shaded spots
Wear protective clothing like a wide-brimmed hat and loose-fitting clothes
Avoid sunbeds and sun lamps
Read more on how to stay safe in the sun.
Moles in children
Some babies are born with moles, but they're more likely to appear in childhood and the teenage years. Melanomas are very rare in children and are often slightly different from those in adults. Childhood melanomas are more likely to be red. They can be any size and may be just 1 colour. They may also bleed or feel bumpy.
When should I talk to a doctor about a mole?
See a GP for advice and information if you’re worried about a mole. They can assess your mole for any signs of melanoma that may need a closer look.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi