Expert reviewer, Dr Anton Alexandroff, Consultant Dermatologist
Next review due December 2022

A mole is a small growth in your skin. Moles are usually brown or darkly coloured; most people have at least a few and they’re normally harmless. However, occasionally a type of skin cancer called melanoma can grow in or near a mole.

A change in size or shape can indicate a cancerous mole. It’s important to get any new moles or changes to existing moles checked by a doctor.

About moles

Moles happen when cells called melanocytes group together. Melanocytes help to give your skin its colour – when they cluster together, your skin becomes darker. The medical term for a mole is a melanocytic naevus (plural: melanocytic naevi). You might have some moles that you're born with or appear while you’re a baby (congenital moles). The majority of moles appear in childhood or early adulthood – before the age of 40 – and are known as acquired moles.

What do moles look like? 

Moles vary in colour, from skin-coloured to dark brown or black. They may be flat or raised, and they may have hairs growing out of them. They’re usually symmetrical, round or oval in shape, with regular borders and an even colour. You can have a mole anywhere on your skin, including your hands and feet, your scalp and genital area. Moles can often be confused with other marks and lumps on your skin such as freckles, seborrheic warts, dermatofibromas and a type of birthmark called a haemangioma.

Some moles, known as atypical or dysplastic moles, may look different from other moles in a variety of ways. They can be larger (more than 5mm in diameter), have more than one colour and an irregular border. Their colour may fade at the edges and blend with the skin around the mole. People often have several of these moles.

Moles can change shape or colour gradually over the years, and some may even go away as you get older. Certain things can cause them to change – for example, exposure to sunlight and pregnancy. If you notice any recent change in a mole, you should get it checked by a doctor.

What causes moles?

It’s not fully understood exactly what causes moles to develop. However, it’s known that certain things can make you more likely to get them.

Many types of mole seem to run in families, and the tendency to develop lots of moles also seems to be inherited.

You're more likely to have moles if you’ve been sunburnt or you spend a lot of time in the sunlight – especially if you did so during childhood. You’re also more likely to have moles if you have fair skin and light eyes or have a tendency to freckle and get sunburnt.

Complications of moles

Most moles are harmless and don't cause any problems. However, some moles can develop into a skin cancer called melanoma. Melanoma usually develops from normal skin rather than a mole, but this can also look like a mole at first.

People who have lots of moles are at a higher risk of getting melanoma. The risk is greater for atypical moles, which tend to be larger and less regular in shape and colour than normal moles. You’re also at greater risk if you have very large congenital moles (moles over 20mm in diameter that you’re born with) or several congenital moles.

A more common but not serious complication of moles is that they can become sore or inflamed if they catch on things.

How to check your moles

Cancerous moles can grow in size or change shape or colour. This is why it's a good idea to check your moles every month for any changes. Ask a family member or friend to check your back if necessary. Taking photos to monitor any changes can be helpful.

A good way to remember what to look out for is to follow the ABCDE rules.

  • 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 5mm across)
  • E – evolution (the mole has changed in size, shape or colour)

These symptoms don’t necessarily mean your mole is cancerous. But if you notice a mole with any of these features, it’s worth getting it checked by your GP.

Click on the image below to download our checking your mole infographic (PDF 1MB). 

Diagram showing the ABCDE of checking your moles - you should see your GP if you notice asymmetry, border changes, colour changes, diameter changes or evolution of your mole

Seeing your GP about moles

Your GP will examine your mole and ask you some questions about it. This might include how long you’ve had the mole and if there have been any changes in how it looks and feels. Your GP may use an instrument called a dermatoscope (a bit like a magnifying glass) to look more closely at your mole.

If your mole doesn’t bother you and your doctor doesn’t suspect it’s cancerous, it’s usually best to leave it alone. It’s important to carry on regularly monitoring your mole though. It may be a good idea to take photos of it over time – alongside a ruler if you can, so you can track any changes over time.

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.

If your dermatologist doesn’t think your mole needs to be removed straight away, they may suggest reviewing it every few months, to check for signs of melanoma. There are also private clinics that offer mole-mapping services.

Mole removal

There are three main reasons for removing moles.

  • There is a chance that your mole could be cancerous.
  • The mole causes regular problems – for instance, it’s in a position where it catches on clothing.
  • Cosmetic reasons (you don’t like the way it looks). You won’t be able to have a mole removed on the NHS for cosmetic reasons, 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 a minor operation, where your mole is completely removed and the wound closed with stitches. Before removing your mole, your doctor will give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area.

Your dermatologist will send the skin sample to a laboratory for analysis to find out if it is benign (not cancerous) or cancerous. It may take up to a couple of weeks to get your results. Having your mole removed will leave a scar. It’s worth discussing with your doctor how the scar might look 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).

Living with moles

Your appearance

If you have a lot of moles or moles that are very prominent, it might affect how you feel about your appearance. This may be the case particularly for people with large and visible congenital moles. If you’re worried about how your moles look, see your GP. You can talk through what options might be available to remove or lighten the colour of your mole. You’ll usually need to pay to have treatment privately if it’s for cosmetic reasons.

The charity Caring Matters Now offers support to people affected by congenital moles – see our section: Other helpful websites.

Taking care in sunlight

If you have lots of moles, it’s particularly important to be careful in the sun. Too much exposure to sunlight is the main cause of skin cancer, including melanoma. The following measures will help to keep you protected.

  • Don’t get sunburnt.
  • Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen, preferably at least SPF30.
  • Cover up with suitable clothing – wear 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.

Sunlight on your skin is your body’s main source of vitamin D; this vitamin keeps your bones and muscles healthy. So don’t avoid sunlight completely. It’s important to strike the right balance between getting enough vitamin D and staying safe in the sun.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes, most people develop moles during their childhood and adolescence. These are called acquired moles. Some children are born with moles or develop them as a baby – these are called congenital moles. The number of moles you have tends to increase up to when you’re around 30 to 40; then tends to decrease. Your child’s moles may change in appearance as they get older, with some fading away by the time they’re adults.

    If you notice a change in the appearance of a mole on your child’s skin, seek the advice of your GP. For information on changes to look out for, see our section: How to check your moles.

  • No, this wouldn’t help to prevent melanoma. Most melanomas develop from normal skin rather than from a mole, so removing a mole for prevention is not useful. If there’s no medical reason for removing your mole, you won’t be able to have it done on the NHS. But you can choose to pay to get your mole removed at a private clinic. Don’t forget that mole removal is a minor operation that will lead to scars – it’s important to weigh up all the potential risks and benefits.

    If your GP is concerned about your mole, they’ll refer you to a specialist to have it removed.

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Related information

    • Dermatology. Oxford handbook of general practice. Oxford Medicine Online., published online April 2014
    • Mole. DermNet NZ., last updated January 2016
    • Naevi. BMJ BestPractice., last reviewed October 2019
    • Melanocytic naevi (pigmented moles). British Association of Dermatologists., last updated September 2017
    • Melanoma and pigmented lesions. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised in March 2017
    • Melanocytic nevi. Medscape., updated 1 November 2019
    • Chuchu N, Takwoingi Y, Dinnes J, et al. Smartphone applications for triaging adults with skin lesions that are suspicious for melanoma. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, doi:10.1002/14651858.CD013192
    • Untested skin cancer apps endangering the public. Press release. British Association of Dermatologists., published 5th July 2018
    • Mole check clinics. British Association of Dermatologists., accessed 13 November 2019
    • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)., last updated July 2017
    • Melanoma: assessment and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), July 2015.
    • Removing your mole (excision biopsy). Cancer Research UK., last reviewed 22 January 2016
    • Congenital melanocytic naevus. DermNet NZ., updated June 2014

  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, December 2019
    Expert reviewer, Dr Anton Alexandroff, Consultant Dermatologist
    Next review due December 2022