What is a mole?
A mole, or a melanocytic naevi in medical terms, is a flat or raised coloured spot found on the skin that consists of melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that produce the pigment which give our skin their natural colour. They can vary in size, shape and colour from skin colour to brown or black. They may also have different textures ranging from smooth to rough, and occasionally may have a hair growing from them.
Throughout your lifetime, your moles will change in appearance with some fading over time and some getting darker. The number that you have will also vary dependent on your age. During the first 30 years of life, the number that you have will increase but as you approach the 4th and 5th decades of life, some may disappear. The circulating hormones in your body may also have an influence, with some appearing to get darker during pregnancy.
What types of moles are there?
There are many types of benign or harmless moles. The common ones usually encountered are :
Compound melanocytic naevi – usually raised and light brown in colour with some having hairs growing from them
Junctional melanocytic naevi – usually flat, round and brown in colour
Dermal melanocytic naevi – usually raised, hairy and pale in colour
Dysplastic or atypical naevi – flat or raised ones that have an irregular shape or larger than usual with a range of different colours within them.
What should I look out for?
The majority of moles are benign or harmless and can be left alone. Occasionally moles can arise in prominent areas and become a nuisance if you regularly catch them on clothing or by shaving. They can also appear in areas that are cosmetically sensitive and you may feel self conscious about them.
Although the majority are harmless, it is important to be aware that changing moles can be a sign of a rare and aggressive skin cancer known as malignant melanoma. A helpful way of remembering how to identify suspicious moles is using the ABCDE method :
Asymmetry – benign moles are usually circular or oval, and symmetrical in shape. Those that do not exhibit this should raise suspicion
Border – benign moles usually have a smooth border. Moles that have an uneven or jagged border should raise suspicion
Colour – benign moles usually only have one or two colours within them. Suspicious moles usually exhibit multiple colours or shades of colours
Diameter – benign ones are usually small with a diameter of no greater than 7mm. Suspicious moles are usually larger than this or increase in size rapidly over a short period of time
Evolution – benign ones may change with time however this change takes place over a long period of time. Any mole that changes rapidly in size, shape or colour should be considered suspicious
In addition, ones that exhibit signs of bleeding, itching or irritation should also be regarded with suspicion.
If you have a suspicious mole, it is important for you to seek medical advice immediately.
How can I prevent melanoma ?
There is a direct correlation between the development of melanoma and ultraviolet sun exposure. It is therefore important to cover up with clothes and a wide brimmed hat when you are out. It is also prudent to use a high factor sunscreen with a recommended minimum SPF 15. You should also avoid the use of sunlamps and sunbeds as these use ultraviolet rays.