What is a mole?
Moles are small areas of skin with a high concentration of the skin pigment melanin – that’s what gives them their dark colour. Normal moles are usually round or oval in shape, tan to black and uniform in colour, flat or slightly raised, and 6 mm or less in diameter.
While it’s normal to have moles on your skin, it’s important to be aware that moles can transform into skin cancer at any time, especially as you get older.
How do moles transform into skin cancer?
Skin cancers are usually caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun, which can stimulate malignant changes in skin cells. However, rarely these cancers can arise even without UV exposure.
There are three types of UV-induced skin cancer, corresponding to three different types of skin cells:
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
Melanoma is the least common, but the most aggressive, often spreading to other parts of the body and becoming life-threatening within weeks to months.
The paler your skin, the more susceptible it is to damage from UV radiation and the greater your risk. However, dark-skinned people should still be vigilant, as dark skin makes changes in moles more difficult to detect.
How do I check my moles?
Alerting your doctor to any suspicious spots is your responsibility, and you should check your skin for potential problems on a regular basis.
- With your clothes off, examine your whole body in front of a full-length mirror and make a note of any moles, freckles or areas of pigmentation
- You’ll need to use a handheld mirror or have your partner help out for those hard-to-see areas
- Remember, skin cancers can arise anywhere, even in areas not exposed to the sun.
- Look on the soles of your feet, between your fingers and toes, in your groin and underarms, and across your scalp
- If you want to be thorough, take photos as a reference. Make a habit of performing a self-examination regularly – perhaps on the first of every month
- Melanomas don’t tend to be painful, so the only way to detect them is by looking
Do moles change during pregnancy?
Moles may often change evenly due to hormonal effects of a pregnancy, including increasing in size or appearing darker. If a mole changes in an irregular or uneven manner, a dermatological evaluation is always a good idea.
How do I know whether I need to be worried about a mole?
In general, you should be concerned about any mole that is changing or irregular in appearance. Normal moles are generally similar in shape and colour, so compare your moles to each other and if one looks different to the rest, it may be transforming into a cancer. Most moles appear before the age of 25, so it’s also worth investigating any newly discovered moles.
According to the Cancer Council of Australia, the best way to systematically check your moles is to use the acronym ABCD:
- Asymmetry – Is the mole asymmetrical along any axis?
- Border – Is the edge of the mole notched, blurry, uneven, or spreading?
- Colour – Is the colour of the mole blotchy or variable, or is it changing over time?
- Diameter – Is the size increasing or greater than 7 mm?
But this list isn’t exhaustive. It would even be worth adding E and F:
- External surface – Is the mole raised, lumpy, firm, red, swollen, rough, scaly, ulcerated, bleeding or weeping?
- Feel – Is the mole itchy, tingly, or tender?
How soon do I need to see a doctor?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, the sooner you see a doctor the better. The changes you’ve noticed may be benign, but it’s not worth the risk. If you catch it early, skin cancer can be successfully treated.
Cancers, especially melanomas, can grow and spread with time, so getting in early is critical. It may even mean the difference between life and death. Even if your moles don’t meet any of the above criteria, there are no guarantees. If in doubt, see a doctor.
Do I need to see a specialist?
In short, no. Your regular GP is qualified to diagnose skin cancers, and in most cases treat them as well. You may use a dedicated skin clinic if you wish, but in general the GPs at these clinics are no more qualified to perform skin checks than GPs at regular medical centres. If your doctor believes a cancer may be advanced or aggressive, they may refer you to a specialist dermatologist.
HealthEngine can help you find and book an appointment with your regular GP or another experienced professional at a practice near you.
- Cancer Council Australia – Check for signs of skin cancer
- SunSmart – Checking for skin cancer
- SunSmart – Early detection of skin cancer fact sheet (PDF)
- American Cancer Society – Signs and symptoms of melanoma skin cancer
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine always recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.
A: Use HealthEngine to find and book your next Skin Cancer Physician appointment. Click on the following locations to find a Skin Cancer Physician clinic in your state or territory.
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.