Almost everyone has at least one mole, with many people having anywhere between 10 and 40 moles on their body. Moles normally develop before the age of 20 but can also develop later in life. Most moles are not not cancerous but it is important to check moles, and any other spots on your skin, on a regular basis. Dermatologists often recommend you do a self-check on a monthly basis and see a dermatologist for a skin check annually. Those at high risk for skin cancer or with a history of skin cancer might need to see a dermatologist on a more regular basis.
Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer but early detection and treatment greatly increases the rate of survival. The best way of finding and treating melanoma early is to closely monitor your skin, noting any moles, any changes in the moles and any new spots. The following are things you should pay attention to when completing your monthly self skin-check
The size and shape of your moles. The following guidelines will give you an idea of what a “normal” mole looks like:
- Smaller than ¼ inch - the size of a pencil eraser
- Smooth borders
- Generally round shaped
- Even color - the color can range from tan to dark brown but the color should be consistent throughout the mole. Moles can get darker with sun exposure
- Can be flat or elevated
The first time you do a skin check, you aren’t going to be able to point out any changes in the size and shape of your moles, however, if you notice moles that do not match these guidelines, it is a good idea to have them checked by a dermatologist.
During your first skin check, you should note where your moles are and the size and shape of each so you can track any changes. It is a good idea to either draw a body diagram and mark where moles are or take pictures so you can compare from month to month. There are also apps that can help you track any skin changes.
In subsequent self-checks, pay close attention to whether a mole changes in color. Remember, sun exposure can make a mole darker. You are looking for drastic changes, such as a mole that was tan in color that has changed to dark brown. You also want to note if there are any moles that are inconsistent in color, for example, black in the middle with tan, white, red or pink around the outside.
Moles normally don’t change in size or shape. Moles are usually symmetrical, which means if you draw a line down the center, both sides should look the same. If you notice a mole is evolving, growing or is asymmetrical , it is time to talk to a dermatologist. Pay attention to the shape, height and surface texture of your moles and note any changes from month to month.
Moles are normally round in shape, although some can be oval shaped. They do have defined, smooth borders. When a mole is cancerous, the border may be irregular and the mole does not form a circle or an oval, but has a more ragged appearance around the edge.
Moles are painless. If you have a mole that is bleeding, oozing, itching or tender to the touch, it might signal melanoma.
Pay attention to any new spots on your skin. While moles can develop at any age, you want to take note of any new spots so you can keep a close eye on them in the coming months. If you see a new spot that doesn’t fit with the mole guidelines, you should check with your dermatologist.
Pay attention to any sores that don’t heal. If you have a sore and carefully care for it, cleaning and using antiseptic creams but it still won’t heal, then you should talk to your doctor. Sores that don’t heal can signal cancer or a high risk for cancer.
Moles are typically smooth to the touch. If your mole turns crusty, rough, scaly or develops a scab it may potentially be cancerous and you should talk with your doctor as soon as possible.
Remember, a family history of skin cancer puts you at higher risk of developing skin cancer, however, not everyone with skin cancer has a family history. Don’t assume that because no one in your family has skin cancer that you won’t either.
Skin checks are an important part of finding and treating skin cancer early. Many people notice some changes but wait several months before making an appointment with a dermatologist either because they want to see if there are further changes or because they are scared to get answers. If you note any problems or changes, make an appointment with a dermatologist as soon as possible. It is better to be cautious and have the dermatologist tell you there is nothing to worry about than to be told “you should have come to see me sooner.”
While skin checks are one part of protecting yourself against skin cancer, you also need to actively practice regular UV protection including using sunscreen of 30 SPF or greater, wearing wide brimmed hats, staying in the shade as often as possible between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM and wearing protective clothing.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.