Moles are a common type of skin growth. They often appear as small, dark brown spots and are caused by clusters of pigmented cells. Moles generally appear during childhood and adolescence. Most people have 10 to 40 moles, some of which may change in appearance or fade away over time.
Most moles are harmless. Rarely, they become cancerous. Monitoring moles and other pigmented patches is an important step in detecting skin cancer, especially malignant melanoma.
The medical term for moles is nevi.
The typical mole is a brown spot. But moles come in different colors, shapes, and sizes:
- Color and texture. Moles can be brown, tan, black, red, blue, or pink. They can be smooth, wrinkled, flat, or raised. They may have hair growing from them.
- Most moles are oval or round.
- Moles are usually less than 1/4 inch (about 6 millimeters) in diameter — the size of a pencil eraser. Rarely, moles present at birth (congenital nevi) can be much bigger, covering wide areas of the face, torso, or a limb
Moles can develop anywhere on your body, including your scalp, armpits, under your nails, and between your fingers and toes. Most people have 10 to 40 moles. Many of these develop by age 50. Moles may change in appearance or fade away over time. Hormonal changes of adolescence and pregnancy may cause moles to become darker and larger.
Causes of moles
Moles are caused when cells in the skin (melanocytes) grow in clusters or clumps. Melanocytes are distributed throughout your skin and produce melanin, the natural pigment that gives your skin its color.
Most moles don’t need treatment.
If your mole is cancerous, your doctor will do a surgical procedure to remove it. If you have a mole that causes irritation when you shave, you may want to have it removed.
Mole removal takes only a short time and is usually done on an outpatient basis. Your doctor numbs the area around the mole and cuts it out, along with a margin of healthy skin if necessary. The procedure may leave a permanent scar.
If you notice that a mole has grown back, see your doctor promptly.
Watch for changes
Become familiar with the location and pattern of your moles. Regularly examine your skin to look for changes that may signal melanoma. Do self-exams once a month, especially if you have a family history of melanoma. With the help of mirrors, do a head-to-toe check, including your scalp, palms and fingernails, armpits, chest, legs, and your feet, including the soles and the spaces between the toes. Also, check your genital area and between your buttocks.
Talk with your doctor about your risk factors for melanoma and whether you need a professional skin exam on a routine basis.
Protect your skin
Take measures to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, such as from the sun or tanning beds. Uv radiation has been linked to increased melanoma risk. And children who haven’t been protected from sun exposure tend to develop more moles.
- Avoid peak sun-times
- Use sunscreen year-round.
- Cover up
- Avoid tanning lamps and beds.