In most cases, moles are harmless spots that can appear at any age, on any part of your body. They come in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes. But in certain circumstances, moles should be examined by a dermatologist, and mole removal may be necessary. How do you know if your moles are “normal”? And if they’re not normal, when should you visit your doctor?
Normal vs. Atypical Moles
"Normal” moles are typically smaller than a pencil eraser, round and symmetrical with an even color and smooth borders. They are often tan or pink, and though you may not like them cosmetically, there is no medical reason to have them removed.
Most moles can be classified as flat moles, raised moles or skin tags. Flat moles are usually dark or irregular spots on your skin. Raised moles can appear in a wide range of colors and are generally deeper than flat moles. Skin tags are simply painless growths on the skin that are sometimes darker than your primary skin tone.
Atypical moles — also called dysplastic nevi — are unusual looking moles that are non-cancerous. When viewed at the cellular level, these moles look different than healthy, normal moles. They may be asymmetric, very dark or multi-colored and may have indistinct borders. Often found on the back, chest, buttocks or scalp, these moles look different than the other moles on your body.
Atypical moles may look like melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — but don’t worry, they’re not cancerous. Atypical moles won’t necessarily develop into skin cancer, but if you have 10 or more dysplastic nevi moles, you do have a higher risk of developing melanoma (roughly 12 times the risk of the general population). Melanoma can spread very quickly, but is curable if caught early.
Suspicious or abnormal moles should be checked out by a dermatologist. Sometimes, your doctor will suggest that you monitor these moles regularly to detect any changes. Other times, surgical mole removal is needed.
In general, the more severely abnormal the mole, the higher the risk of developing melanoma, but your doctor will consider many factors before deciding if a mole should be biopsied, monitored or removed.
While dysplastic moles are more likely to eventually develop into melanoma than benign, normal moles, most mild dysplastic moles are stable and can be monitored at home and by your doctor. If you have moles that look suspicious, it’s a good idea to take pictures of them as a reference, so you can determine whether they are changing.
Extreme changes in the size, border or color of an atypical mole can be an indication that it has a high potential to develop into melanoma. In this case, it’s often better to remove the mole as a precaution to stop its growth.
You should have regular evaluations of your skin by a board-certified dermatologist every six to 12 months, but you should also make it a habit to monitor your moles at home.
If you notice that you have a new mole (especially after the age of 40) or that an existing mole has changed in color or grown, you should have it evaluated by a professional. Check every part of your skin, even between your toes and on the bottoms of your feet, on a regular basis. Ask someone you trust to check the areas of your body that are difficult to see.
And always, remember to wear sunscreen! Damaging UV rays can cause atypical changes in moles.
Mole Removal Options
There are several available treatments for mole removal. If your doctor biopsies your abnormal mole and recommends that it be removed, it will most likely be removed with cryotherapy, also called cryosurgery.
This simple non-invasive procedure uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy the mole’s tissue at the cellular level. After the mole has been frozen and destroyed, the area may blister and scab before fully healing in three to six weeks. Cryotherapy is a virtually painless outpatient procedure with very low risk of infection and can be performed at your dermatologist’s office.
In some cases, moles require surgical excision. Your dermatologist will cut out the entire mole and stitch the skin back together as needed. Other times, your doctor may use a surgical blade to shave off the mole. In both cases, the removed mole tissue will be examined under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present.
Ultimately, whether or not you should have a mole removed depends on several factors. If you have many atypical moles, removing all of them may not be the best solution. If, on the other hand, you have just a few atypical moles, combined with a family history of melanoma, complete surgical removal of all your atypical moles might be the right decision.
Contact U.S. Dermatology today to consult with a board-certified dermatologist about a full skin examination and mole treatment plan that is right for you.