Moles

  • Medical Author:
    Gary W. Cole, MD, FAAD

    Dr. Cole is board certified in dermatology. He obtained his BA degree in bacteriology, his MA degree in microbiology, and his MD at the University of California, Los Angeles. He trained in dermatology at the University of Oregon, where he completed his residency.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Skin Cancer Slideshow

Which skin cancers look like moles?

Melanoma

This very dangerous form of skin cancer may appear even in young people and on parts of the body that are sun exposed as well as those that are protected. While the exact cause of melanoma is not entirely known, genetics and ultraviolet rays are known to play a part. Melanomas may arise from a previously normal mole or pigmented spot that has been present many years. Melanomas may also arise from completely normal skin without an apparent preexisting mole. In comparison with benign (noncancerous) moles, melanomas tend to be larger, darker, and have more irregular color and shape variations. Most melanomas are actually not raised as many people tend to incorrectly assume.

Lentigo maligna ("malignant mole")

This is an uncommon fairly superficial skin cancer that generally occurs on the faces of older adults who have a history of considerable sun exposure. Over the course of months to years, this condition may, if untreated, develop into a more aggressive malignant variety called lentigo maligna melanoma. There are, of course, many hundreds of ordinary facial moles for every one that is potentially malignant. A simple in-office test called a skin biopsy can help diagnose lentigo maligna.

Basal cell carcinoma

This is the most common type of skin cancer. These are usually pearly, pink, or reddish in color and may bleed easily. Pigmented basal cell carcinoma is a type of basal cell cancer that may be confused with melanoma, a benign mole or a seborrheic keratosis because of its brown or dark color. A simple skin biopsy procedure can help diagnose this growth.

When should I see a doctor?

Patients with unusual moles or pigmented spots should have a dermatologist evaluation. Even verbal descriptions and photographs cannot convey enough information for satisfactory self-diagnosis. Routine annual mole checks are an important part of general health screenings in those at risk for skin cancer. Birthdays are a good time to remember to schedule an annual "birthday suit" mole check. Since existing moles may change and new growth arise, periodic rechecks are necessary.

How often should I check my moles?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends monthly skin self-exams and a full-body skin examination for adults as part of a routine annual health exam. It is important to have any new, changing, bleeding mole or growth examined by a dermatologist as soon as possible. Skin cancers, including melanomas, are generally curable if diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/12/2015
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  • Moles - Risk Factors

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  • Moles - Seborrheic keratoses

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  • Moles - Melanoma

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  • Moles - Skin Cancers

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