There’s a good chance you have at least a mole or two somewhere on your body, especially if you have fairer skin. And while most people have moles, no two moles are exactly alike. These common skin features differ in size, shape, color, texture, and location. In fact, the way a mole looks or changes in appearance over time may suggest something about it.
Most moles are benign (harmless) and merely cosmetic concerns, but others can indicate a deeper issue, such as skin cancer. That’s why it’s important to have a dermatologist check on your moles. This way, you can keep tabs on your health and have some peace of mind.
But what do doctors look for during these examinations? And when, and how often, should you visit your dermatologist for a mole evaluation?
In order to answer these questions, it helps to understand what moles are in the first place. Moles, also called nevi, are bundles of skin cells that produce skin pigmentation (melanocytes). That’s why most moles are a darker, brown color.
Normally, these melanocytes are spread somewhat evenly throughout the skin. Doctors still aren’t sure why these clusters appear, thought genetics seems to play a role. Those with a family history of moles are more likely to develop moles of their own.
Most moles show up during one’s childhood and adolescence and pose no threat to one’s health. These benign growths may even disappear on their own over time. So, why should you or anyone care about moles?
Indeed, while the majority of moles are harmless, some can become cancerous under certain circumstances. Fortunately, it’s often possible to detect signs of skin cancer by carefully examining your moles. During mole evaluations, dermatologists will look for a handful of visual cues that may indicate a deeper problem. These are often referred to as the “ABCs” or “ABCDE Guide” of moles.
The ABCDEs of moles serve as a useful mnemonic device to determine whether a mole might suggest some kind of skin cancer. Each letter stands for the first letter of a visual cue to look for during a mole check up:
For each of these categories, dermatologists look for changes and abnormalities. Benign moles are often uniform in shape and color, maintain the same size over time, and are clearly defined by a single border. Moles that lack these qualities may still be harmless, but they are the first to be examined as they present a higher risk.
After an evaluation, your dermatologist may perform a full or partial mole biopsy to further examine a particular mole with additional resources. If the tests reveal a positive diagnosis for skin cancer, the entire mole will need to be removed and further testing and treatment may be necessary.
The frequency with which you should see your dermatologist about your moles depends on a number of factors that determine your overall risk level for skin cancer. These include things like your family history, how many moles you currently have, the size of some of your moles, and whether you have atypical mole syndrome, which refers to people with at least 50 moles, three or more of which are abnormal in some way.
Those who are at greater risk of developing skin cancer should see their dermatologist on a fairly regular basis, such as once or twice a year. Some might even have their moles checked every few months. Lower-risk individuals might go a year or two between evaluations.
Still, no matter how often you see your doctor about your moles, it’s important to keep an eye on them yourself. If you notice anything strange or different about any of your moles, you should set up an appointment with your dermatologist.
Whether or not you like how your moles look, the good news is that most of them are probably harmless. Even so, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Receiving regular mole evaluations is an important way to stay ahead of any serious health concerns and keep your skin in great shape.