Mole checks: spotting signs of skin cancer early

Dermatology Clinical Lead at Bupa UK
08 May 2017

If you have moles on your skin, you probably know you should be checking them. But perhaps you don’t know what you should be looking for. Or, maybe you’re worried about a mole that looks different from the rest (doctors call this an ugly duckling, because it stands out compared to other moles). Follow this simple guide to your moles, and boost your checking confidence!

Image of dermatologist examining ladies skin.

Why checking is so important

The reason why it’s important to check your moles is that they can change in to a type of cancer called melanoma. Melanoma is now the third most common skin cancer in the UK. The good news is, the earlier it’s spotted and treated, the better the outlook is.

Know your risk

Firstly, think about whether you’re more likely to develop skin cancer than other people. Most people know that getting sunburn increases the chances of getting skin cancer. But there are other things that increase your risk too, such as if you:

  • have fair hair and eyes, lots of freckles or pale skin that burns easily
  • expose your skin to the sun every now and again, rather than most of the time
  • use a sun bed
  • have lots of moles – more than 11 moles on your right arm means you’re likely to have more than 100 moles on your whole body
  • have large moles bigger than 6mm
  • have had a melanoma before, or if a close relative has had one
  • are taking medicines that affect your immune system

When and how to check your moles

The second thing to do is to check any moles regularly. There are no hard and fast rules for how often is best. But, if you can tick a number of things on the list above then it’s a good idea to check yourself once a month. The better you get to know your skin, the more likely you are to see any changes.

Stand in a well-lit room, and use a full length mirror and a hand mirror to check your body all over. Make sure you check hard to see places such as your back, buttocks and scalp. If you have a partner, they can check them for you as well. Check the less obvious places too, like your underarms, in between your fingers and the soles of your feet.

What you’re looking for

You’re looking for new moles, or changes in the size, colour or shape of an existing mole. There’s a useful way of remembering what to look for; the ABCDE. It stands for:

  • A – Asymmetry. Do both halves of the mole look the same?
  • B – Border. Is the edge of the mole uneven or blurred?
  • C – Colour. Is the mole a mix of different shades or colours?
  • D – Diameter. Is it bigger than 6mm from side to side? (As a tip, the end of a pencil is about 5mm across)
  • E – Evolution. Has the mole changed?

There are a few other important things to look out for: itching and bleeding or crusting. If a mole starts to bleed and you haven’t injured it then you should get it checked as soon as you can.

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

Graphic showing the five steps to checking your moles.

What to do if you’re unsure

If you’re worried about any of your moles then you should always get them checked by a doctor. You can make an appointment to see your GP, and if needed, they can refer you to a clinic at your local hospital. Or you may choose to have your moles checked privately.

Whether you have two or two hundred moles, it’s important to take care of your skin. Always seek shade in the middle of the day, wear a long-sleeved top, trousers, a hat and sunglasses and use a high protection sunscreen. Keep checking those moles too!

Dr Stephanie Munn
Dermatology Clinical Lead at Bupa UK

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