Is it a pimple, a mole, or something else?
Everyone has skin spots—from moles to freckles to pesky pimples and birthmarks; everyone’s skin has its share of imperfections and marks. Most moles and skin growths are normal and harmless, but occasionally a mole or other skin spot can become cancerous.
On average, adults have between 10 and 40 moles on their bodies in various shapes, sizes, and colors. Some people are born with moles but many are a result of sun exposure. They usually appear during childhood and adolescence.
How do you distinguish benign moles (noncancerous) from ones that are pre-cancerous or malignant? When should a mole or other skin growth be checked out by a doctor?
Check your skin.
Most moles are benign, but some may become cancerous and can develop into skin cancer—either basal cell, squamous cell, or the most serious type, melanoma. All three types of skin cancer, including melanoma, are highly curable when detected early. This is why inspecting your own skin regularly is so important; finding skin cancer early, when it’s small and has not spread, makes it much easier to treat. When not detected early, skin cancer can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body, which can make treatment more difficult and less successful.
Most doctors recommend that you perform skin self-checks once a month. Examine your skin after getting out of the shower, using a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror to check areas that are harder to see. Look for any changes to existing moles, new moles, or other new skin spots such as red, scaly patches or any sores that aren’t healing. It’s also recommended that you have an annual skin exam by a dermatologist as part of your preventative care routine.
ABCs of skin cancer
When determining if a mole should be checked by a doctor, remember the ABCs:
A for asymmetrical shape – If you drew a line through the center of a mole, you would have two symmetrical halves in a normal mole. If sides are not symmetrical, the mole should be considered suspicious, and you should get it checked out by your physician or dermatologist.
B for borders – Normal moles, spots, and beauty marks are usually round, but it’s those with blurry or jagged, irregular edges that can be a sign of a pre-cancerous or cancerous growth.
C for color – If your mole is more than one uniform color, it should be considered suspicious.
D for diameter – If a mole is bigger than a pencil eraser, it should be checked by a doctor.
E for evolving – If a mole is changing in size, shape, or color, it should be checked by a doctor.
Prevention is key.
There are several ways you can reduce your risk of skin cancer. The best method is to always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 when outdoors.
You should also seek shade when outdoors, especially between the prime sun hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and cover up with a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect your eyes (while rare, you can also get skin cancer in your eyes). Never let your skin get sunburned.
Avoid using tanning beds at all costs. Tanning beds give off three times more UV rays than the sun. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, there is a 75% increased risk of developing life-threatening melanoma from just one indoor tanning session before age 35.
And remember to see a dermatologist once a year for a full skin exam.