The skin is the largest organ in the human body and one of the few organs you can see. Being proactive about preventing skin cancer is important for your health. This is especially true if:

  • You have fair skin.
  • You have many moles on your body.
  • Your immediate family members have many moles, atypical moles, or a history of skin cancer.

In addition to limiting your exposure to sunlight and using sunscreen every day, examining your moles increases the chances of early detection and treatment of melanoma and other types of skin cancers.

Dermatologists (physicians who are skin experts) recommend that you examine your skin every month. Most moles are benign (non-cancerous). If you notice changes in a mole's color or appearance, have your mole evaluated by a dermatologist. You also should have moles checked if they bleed, ooze, itch, appear scaly, or become tender or painful.

How should I examine my skin for moles?

  • Perform skin self-examinations every month. It is best if you examine your skin after a bath or shower, while your skin is still wet.
  • Use a full-length mirror (if you have one), as well as a hand mirror, for a closer view. Ask a family member, if available, for help for the more difficult sites, such as your back.
  • Try to examine yourself the same way every month to avoid missing any areas. We recommend starting at your head and working your way down. Look at all the areas of your body (including the front, backs, and sides of each area, and your fingernails and toenails). Also be sure to check the “hidden” areas: between your fingers and toes, the groin, the soles of your feet, and the backs of your knees.
  • Don't forget to thoroughly check your scalp and neck for moles.
  • Keep track of all the moles on your body and what they look like. Take a photo with a ruler in it and date it to help you keep track of them. That way, you'll notice if the moles change. If they do change in any way (in color, shape, size, border, etc.), or if you develop a sore that does not heal, you should see a dermatologist. Also have your dermatologist examine any new moles that you think are “suspicious.”

What should I look for when examining my moles?

The following ABCDEs are important signs of moles that could be cancerous. If a mole displays any of the signs listed below, have it checked immediately by a dermatologist:

  • Asymmetry: One half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • Border: The border or edges of the mole are ragged, blurred, or irregular.
  • Color: The mole has different colors, or it has multiple shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red.
  • Diameter: The diameter of the mole is larger than a pencil eraser.
  • Elevation/Evolution: The mole becomes elevated (raised off the skin), or the mole is changing.

You should always be suspicious of a new mole that develops after the age of 30. Many of the growths that appear after the age of 30 are harmless age-associated growths rather than moles; however, if you do notice a new growth, you should see your dermatologist. He or she will examine the growth and perform a skin biopsy, if indicated. The dermatologist uses this information to decide how to treat the mole.

The most common location for melanoma in men is the back; in women, it is the lower leg. Melanoma is the most common cancer in women ages 25 to 29.

Moles can develop in any cutaneous (skin) or mucosal (mouth, eyes, genitals) surfaces. If you have had melanoma (or have a strong family history of melanoma), in addition to routine exams by a dermatologist, you should have annual check-ups with a dentist, ophthalmologist (eye doctor), and a gynecologist to look for moles in these special locations.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 3/22/2017...#12015