Moles happen when cells called melanocytes group together. Melanocytes help to give your skin its colour – when they cluster together, your skin becomes darker.
You may have moles when you're born but these will be called birthmarks. Common moles usually appear in childhood or early adulthood. They may change shape or colour gradually over the years and some may even go away when you get older.
Moles vary in colour, from skin-coloured to dark brown or black. Sometimes they can look pink on people who have red or very blond hair. They may be raised or have hairs growing out of them. You can have a mole anywhere on your skin, including your hands and feet, your scalp and genital areas.
The medical term for a mole is a melanocytic naevus (melanocytic naevi, plural). You may also see these words written as ‘nevus’ and ‘nevi’, which is the way they are spelt in the USA.
There are many different types of mole. Some types look very similar to one another and it can be hard to tell them apart. They can also be confused with other marks and lumps on your skin, such as freckles, seborrhoeic warts, dermatofibromas and a type of birthmark called a haemangioma.
Moles that you’re born with
These are called congenital moles. They are usually at least 1cm across but can be much bigger. They may become more raised and hairier as you get older.
Moles that appear after you’re born
These are called acquired moles. Some of the more common types are described below.
- Junctional moles are normally flat and oval or round. They are usually light to dark brown.
- Compound moles are slightly raised and are sometimes hairy. Their colour can vary.
- Intradermal moles are raised bumps and are sometimes hairy. They may not be any darker than the rest of your skin.
Some less common types of acquired mole are described below.
- Blue moles are blue or grey and are usually found on your head, hands or feet. They are not common and if they suddenly appear, they should be checked by a doctor because some melanomas may be blue or grey.
- Atypical (also called dysplastic) moles can look different from other moles in a variety of ways. They can be larger (more than 5mm in diameter) and have more than one colour. They may have different shades of brown but should keep some symmetry. Their colour usually fades at the edges and blends with the skin around the mole. Any recent changes should be checked by a doctor.
- Halo moles are more common in children and teenagers. They occur when your immune system rejects the mole, which causes the mole to disappear. A ring of pale skin often surrounds the mole.
You may develop seborrhoeic warts (keratoses) later in life. These aren't moles, although they are often mistaken for them. They aren’t true warts either. They are caused when ordinary skin cells build up. Seborrhoeic warts are harmless.
Many types of moles seem to run in families, particularly atypical (dysplastic) moles. The likelihood of having lots of moles also seems to be inherited.
If you have fair skin and light eyes, or have a tendency to freckle and get sunburnt, you’re more likely to have moles.
You're also more likely to have moles if you spend a lot of time in the sunlight, and especially if you did so during childhood. These will be small moles (around 2mm in diameter) that you can see on the parts of your body most exposed to the Sun.
Some studies suggest that moles can be affected by changes in your hormones. They may change in size and colour. This can happen during puberty or pregnancy.
Although we know that these things can make moles more likely, the exact causes of moles are not fully understood.
Sometimes a type of skin cancer called melanoma can grow in, or outwards from, an existing mole.
If you’re worried about a mole, see your GP. They will examine your mole and may ask you some questions about it. This might include questions about how long you’ve had the mole and if there have been any changes in how it looks and feels. If the mole is not suspicious on the first visit, your GP may ask you to regularly take a photo of it alongside a clear plastic ruler. This is so you can see if there are any changes over time. Alternatively your GP might do this for you. There are also private clinics that offer mole mapping services.
If your GP is concerned about your mole, they will refer you to a dermatologist. This is a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating skin conditions. If your GP suspects that it may be cancer, you should be seen by the dermatologist within two weeks.
Your dermatologist may suggest an operation to remove your mole. This is usually done under local anaesthesia and you will need some stitches. Your dermatologist will send the skin sample to a laboratory for analysis to find out if it is benign (not cancerous) or cancerous. The results may take around two to three weeks
It's a good idea to check your moles regularly (around every three months) so that you're aware if they change shape or colour. See your GP if you notice:
- a mole has changed in size
- a mole develops a ragged or uneven edge
- a mole that develops varying shades of colour
- a mole that bleeds, oozes or crusts
- a mole that feels painful or itches
- a mole that isn’t symmetrical in colour or shape
An easy way to remember these changes is to use the ABCDE method.
- A – asymmetry (one half looks different from the other)
- B – border irregularity (the edges are uneven and jagged)
- C – colour variability (the mole is a mixture of difference colours, such as black, brown and pink)
- D – diameter (the mole is greater than 6mm across)
- E – evolution (the mole has changed in size, shape or colour)
It’s important to remember these symptoms aren’t always caused by skin cancer, but if you have them, see your GP.
If your mole doesn’t bother you and your doctor doesn’t suspect it’s cancerous, you can leave it alone. But it may be a good idea to take photos of it over time, to make sure you stay aware of any changes.
Even if your mole isn't cancerous, you may want to have it removed – for example, if it catches on things or for cosmetic reasons. You won’t be able to have your mole removed for cosmetic reasons on the NHS, but there are lots of private practices that can do this for you.
It’s usually best for a mole to be removed by an excision biopsy. This is where the mole is completely removed and the wound is closed with stitches.
Your doctor will give you a local anaesthetic before removing your mole. This blocks pain from the area and you will stay awake during the procedure.
Having your mole removed will leave a scar. It’s worth discussing how the scar might look with your doctor before arranging mole removal. This can be particularly important for moles on your face. There is a chance that the scar will be bigger and more raised than the mole was (this is called keloid or hypertrophic scarring).
Most moles are harmless and don't cause any problems. Some moles can develop into a skin cancer called melanoma. If you have a family history of melanoma, your risk of increases but this risk will depend on the number of cases in the family.
People who have lots of moles, particularly atypical moles, are at a higher risk of getting melanoma. Individuals with very large congenital moles (over 20cm in diameter) or with multiple congenital moles have a slightly higher risk of developing melanoma.
A more common but not serious complication of moles is that they can become sore or inflamed if they catch on things. Plucking hair out of your mole may make it sore and inflamed.
You may feel worried about your moles and the risk of cancer. Taking photos of your mole over time could help to reassure you that it hasn’t changed. It’s important to remember that moles are very common and are usually harmless.
Some people find their moles affect how they feel about their appearance (their body image). This is often the case for people with large and visible congenital moles. It may help to speak with others in a similar situation. The charity Caring Matters Now offers support to people affected by congenital moles and has an online community.
Taking care in sunlight
For anyone spending longer than 15 minutes in strong sunlight, the following advice will help you stay protected.
- Wear at least SPF30 sunscreen.
- Cover up with a wide brimmed hat, T-shirt and UV protective sunglasses.
- Seek shade when you can at the hottest times of the day (usually between 11 am and 3 pm).
- Don’t use tanning beds or sunbeds.
Enjoying sunlight safely can be good for you. Sunlight on your skin is the main source of vitamin D, which keeps your bones and muscles healthy, so don’t avoid it completely. However, it’s really important to strike the right balance between getting enough vitamin D and staying safe in the sun.
Keeping an eye on your moles
If you have any concerns about a mole that’s changed, arrange a review with your GP as soon as possible. It’s normal for new moles to develop up until the age of 40. Moles that appear or change after this age should be checked out. It’s good idea to check your moles every three months.
No, most moles don’t cause any problems. Melanoma can occur from the normal skin next to a mole, so removing them for prevention is not useful and will lead to scars.
If your GP is concerned about your mole, they’ll refer you to a specialist to have it removed. If you only have mild changes to your mole, then your GP may recommend that you monitor it. If you notice any further changes, you should return to your GP.
Yes, it’s normal for new moles to appear during childhood and adolescence. Some children are born with moles – these are called congenital moles. Most children develop moles during their childhood and adolescence. These are called acquired moles. Moles grow as your child grows and you can expect them to become lighter or darker over time. Most moles are quite harmless.
If you notice a change in the appearance of a mole on your child’s skin, then seek the advice of your GP. However, melanoma is extremely rare in children. For information on changes to look out for, see our section How to check your moles.
It’s normal for new moles to appear before the age of 40. New moles are particularly likely to appear during childhood or adolescence. New moles that appear after the age of 40 should be shown to a doctor.
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Reviewed by Graham Pembrey, Lead Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, August 2017
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