Moles

Overview

What is a skin mole? What does one look like?

Your skin is the largest organ in your body. Skin moles (a “nevus” or “nevi” are the medical terms) are growths on your skin that range in color from your natural skin tone to brown or black. Moles can appear anywhere on your skin or mucous membranes, alone or in groups.

Most skin moles appear in early childhood and during the first 20 years of life. It is normal for a person to have between 10 to 40 moles by adulthood.

The life cycle of an average mole is about 50 years. As the years pass, moles usually change slowly, becoming raised and lighter in color. Often, hairs develop on the mole. Some moles will not change at all and some will slowly disappear over time.

What are the types of skin moles?

  • Common Nevi: This is a normal mole, a small growth on your skin that’s pink, tan, or brown and has a distinct edge.
  • Congenital Nevi: These are moles discovered on your skin when you were born. Congenital nevi occur in about one in 100 people. These moles may be more likely to develop into melanoma than moles that appear after birth. If your skin mole is more than eight millimeters in diameter, it has a greater risk of becoming cancerous.
  • Dysplastic Nevi: These moles are larger than a pencil eraser and irregularly shaped. Dysplastic nevi tend to have uneven color with dark brown centers and lighter, uneven edges. These moles tend to be hereditary (inherited), and people who have them may have more than 100 moles. If you have dysplastic nevi then you have a greater chance of developing malignant (cancerous) melanoma. Any changes in a mole should be checked for skin cancer by a dermatologist.

How common are moles?

Moles are very common. Most people have about 10 to 40 of them.

Where do moles most commonly occur?

Most moles grow on parts of your body that get sunlight (ultraviolet radiation). You might see that you get more moles the longer you’re in the sun.

Are moles contagious?

No, moles are not contagious.

Do moles hurt?

If your skin moles are tender or painful, you need to see a dermatologist.

Do moles itch?

If your skin moles itch, you need to see a dermatologist.

Is it normal for moles to bleed?

You need to see a dermatologist if your moles bleed.

Are pigmented lesions the same as moles?

A "pigmented lesion" is a general term that includes normal moles, sun freckles or age spots (lentigines). While most pigmented lesions will not become cancerous, if you have many lesions or unusual lesions you should see a dermatologist on a regular basis for a full skin examination. Regular monitoring allows the dermatologist to identify changes in lesions that look "suspicious." A change may prompt a skin biopsy (removing a sample of the mole for detailed examination under a microscope), which can help determine whether a lesion is non-cancerous (benign), melanoma or another type of skin cancer.

What does it mean if I have a new mole after age 30?

Always be cautious if you’re over age 30 and you find a new mole. It’s likely harmless, but you should still see your healthcare provider.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes skin moles?

Moles occur when cells in your skin grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. Most moles are made of cells called melanocytes, which make the pigment that gives your skin its natural color.

What are the risk factors for skin moles?

Excessive sunlight.

What makes skin moles darker?

Moles may get darker after sun exposure, during pregnancy and during puberty.

Diagnosis and Tests

What should I look for when examining my skin moles?

Most skin moles are benign (non-cancerous). The moles that are of medical concern are those that look different than other existing moles on your body (referred to as the “ugly duckling sign”) or those that appear on your skin after age 30. If you notice changes in any mole's color, thickness, size, or shape, you should see a dermatologist. You also should have your moles checked if they bleed, ooze, itch, scale, or become tender or painful.

Examine your skin with a mirror or ask someone to help you. Pay special attention to areas of your skin that are often exposed to the sun, such as your face, hands, legs (especially in females), arms, chest and back (especially in men).

The 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: If one half of your skin mole does not match the other half.
  • Border: If the border or edges of your mole are ragged, blurred or irregular.
  • Color: If the color of your mole is not the same throughout, or it has shades of multiple colors such as tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red.
  • Diameter: If the diameter of your mole is larger than the eraser of a pencil.
  • Elevation/Evolution: If your mole becomes raised after being flat, or it changes over a short period of time.

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.

How does a dermatologist determine if moles are a concern?

Normal (benign) skin moles do not need to be removed (doing so will leave a scar).

If your dermatologist determines that the mole is a concern, he or she will perform a skin biopsy, in which a small sample of the mole is taken to examine under a microscope. A diagnosis can usually be made in less than a week. If the mole is found to be cancerous, it needs to be completely removed.

If you are concerned that a mole is changing or if you see worrisome signs, please contact your dermatologist to have the mole examined.

Management and Treatment

Who will treat/manage my moles?

Your usual healthcare provider might refer you to a dermatologist, a healthcare provider who specializes in skin.

Should skin moles be removed?

A normal skin mole does not need to be removed. If you choose to have it removed, you’ll likely be left with a scar.

How are skin moles removed?

Don’t try to remove a mole by yourself, even if you’re using some sort of over-the-counter product that burns, freezes, or uses lasers to remove skin growths like skin tags, moles and freckles. Not only could you get an infection, but you could unknowingly remove melanoma (skin cancer). Skin cancer can spread to other organs if it’s not caught early, and one way to catch it is to identify an abnormal mole.

What are the at-home treatments for moles?

Healthcare providers recommend that you do not use any at-home treatments on your moles. If you have a concern, talk to a dermatologist.

Prevention

Can moles be prevented?

Moles are natural skin growths that can’t be prevented. However, you can be proactive about preventing skin cancer (or catching it early) by:

  • Limiting how much sunlight you get.
  • Wearing sunscreen every day.
  • Examining your moles at least once a month, looking for irregularities.

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 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. Start at your head and work 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, your 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. 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.

You should always be suspicious of a new mole that develops after the age of 30. Many of the growths that appear after age 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.

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.

Outlook / Prognosis

What are the complications of moles?

The most significant complication is that some moles can turn into melanoma.

How long will I have skin moles?

Moles can last up to 50 years.

Can skin moles go away on their own?

Yes. 50 years is about the maximum time for a mole.

Living With

How do I take care of my skin moles?

You don’t need to treat your moles any differently than the rest of your skin, except for examining them at least once a month.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Most people get moles. They’re common, normal. Moles are almost always harmless. Just keep an eye out for any irregularity by checking or having someone you trust check for you once a month. Remember, if a mole displays any of the signs listed below, have it checked immediately:

  • Asymmetry: If one half of your skin mole does not match the other half.
  • Border: If the border or edges of your mole are ragged, blurred or irregular.
  • Color: If the color of your mole is not the same throughout, or it has shades of multiple colors such as tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red.
  • Diameter: If the diameter of your mole is larger than the eraser of a pencil.
  • Elevation/Evolution: If your mole becomes raised after being flat, or it changes over time.

Don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you have concerns!

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Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy