What Is the Difference Between a Mole and Nevus?

Medically Reviewed on 10/27/2022
What Is the Difference Between a Mole and Nevus
A mole and a nevus are the same things; nevus is simply another name for a mole

Mole is another name for nevus; the terms are often used interchangeably.

A mole is a skin growth caused by the clustering of pigment-forming cells (melanocytes) that give color to the skin. Sometimes, the texture and structure of a common mole may change, growing or becoming darker, irregular, rough, or bumpy. Such abnormal moles are known as atypical moles or dysplastic nevi.

What is a mole?

A mole, also known as a nevus, is a dark patch (pink, brown, or tan) on the skin that is made up of clusters of melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells responsible for producing melanin, the pigment (color) in your skin.

Moles develop on the skin as a result of sun exposure (ultraviolet radiation), or they can be present at birth. Although the number of moles varies from person to person, fair-skinned people tend to have more moles. The average adult has between 10-40 moles. Moles can even appear and disappear as a result of hormonal changes such as pregnancy or puberty.

Most people grow more moles on their skin as they age and are exposed to the sun. These are usually harmless. However, it is important to undergo regular skin exams on a regular basis (monthly, if there is a family history of skin cancer, or at least every 3 months) to see whether any moles have changed in appearance.

What is the difference between a common mole and dysplastic nevus?

Common mole

  • Most common in sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face although they are also commonly found on the scalp, breasts, and buttocks
  • Sometimes present at birth, but they generally occur later in life
  • Most people continue to grow new moles until they are about 40 years old
  • Tend to fade away as you age

Dysplastic nevus

  • Also referred to as a dysplastic nevus
  • Differs from a regular mole in appearance
  • May be larger than a typical mole, more than 5 mm wide 
  • Color, surface, and border may be different from a common mole
  • Can be a range of colors, ranging from pink to dark brown
  • Generally flat and smooth, with a somewhat scaly or pebbly surface
  • Uneven margins may blend into the surrounding skin
  • Can appear anywhere on the body; however, it is more commonly observed in sun-exposed areas
  • Can appear in regions that are not exposed to sunlight, such as the breasts, thighs, and back. 
  • People with dysplastic nevi typically have an increased number of common moles.

What are different types of moles?

Congenital mole

Congenital moles are a primary type of mole, meaning you were born with the mole.  One in every 100 people is born with a mole, making this a fairly common occurrence. 

Congenital moles can range in size from small to large. It is vital to be aware that large congenital moles may increase your risk of melanoma (cancer developed in melanocytes).

Dysplastic nevus

An atypical mole or dysplastic nevus is abnormal. When a mole is large and has uneven borders or an uneven surface, it is deemed abnormal. It may also get discolored or grow larger with time. 

Dysplastic nevi can develop into melanoma, although most dysplastic nevi do not turn into melanoma.

Acquired nevus

An acquired nevus or mole occurs after birth. It is very common to acquire nevi in later life, and they may develop into melanoma.

If you have 50 or more of these moles, you may be at a higher risk of melanoma.

Spitz nevi

A spitz nevus may appear elevated, pink, and dome-shaped.  Different hues, such as red, black, and brown, may be visible within the mole.

Sometimes, a spitz nevus may bleed or ooze pus and appear to be a melanoma. Your dermatologist can conduct a biopsy to determine whether it is a spitz nevus or melanoma. 


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Can a dysplastic nevus turn into melanoma?

Melanoma is caused by both genetic and environmental factors, including the existence of: 

  • Numerous dysplastic nevi
  • Common moles
  • Familial atypical multiple moles and melanoma syndrome
  • Atypical mole syndrome

Dysplastic nevus was first thought to be a precursor to sporadic melanoma.

Individuals with 5 or more dysplastic nevi are 10 times more at risk of developing melanoma, whereas those with 10 or more of these lesions are 12 times more at risk. 

About 20% of melanomas arise from dysplastic nevi, although the majority of dysplastic nevi stay stable or even regress throughout life. A dysplastic nevus can thus be viewed as a possible precursor of melanoma. The risk of melanoma increases with the number of dysplastic nevi that develop.

Having moles does not guarantee that you will get skin cancer. However, knowing when your moles may be an indication of skin cancer can help you detect early signs of skin cancer and seek timely treatment.

Medically Reviewed on 10/27/2022
Image Source: iStock image

Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Risk of Melanoma: https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/moles-fact-sheet#:~:text=Although%20common%20moles%20may%20be,a%20mole%20is%20a%20nevus.

Risk Factors for Melanoma Skin Cancer: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html