An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (2023)

Cancerous moles are more prevalent than ever, with 14,445 new melanoma cases in Great Britain each year, says the Derma Plus Skin Cancer Index 2018. So, do you have an itchy, raised, or bleeding mole you’re worried about?

With a busy lifestyle, essential routines, such as checking your moles, can easily slip down the priority list. But being aware of your moles – and if they are changing – is key for surviving skin cancer. That’s because 86% of cases are said to be preventable according to Cancer Research UK. So, if you’re still sunbathing, it’s time to switch to the best fake tan instead.

Want to find out if you are at risk of developing cancerous moles? From using the right SPF to the mole changes to spot, here's everything you need to know...

How many moles does the average person have?

Some people think moles add character, while many of us don’t notice them. Other people, however, really can’t stand them. But, whatever you feel about moles, you’ve probably got at least one.

“There’s not really a normal amount, but less than 50 moles would be compatible with most of the population,” says Dr Ross Perry, skin cancer expert and medical director of CosmedicsUK (opens in new tab).

Moles occur when cells grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. “These are called melanocytes, and they make the pigment that gives skin its natural colour,” says Dr Ross. Got more moles than most? It’s probably down to your family. “Our genetic make-up has a lot to do with the number of moles we have,” explains Dr Ross. “Plus, high amounts of sun exposure means we are more likely to develop more.”

Cancerous moles: why skin cancer is on the rise

Melanoma rates in the UK have risen faster over the last 30 years than any other of the current top 10 cancers.According to Cancer Research UK, the rise in cancerous moles has been caused partly by a rise in cheap package holidays, plus there’s the desire for a Hollywood glow.

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (1)

(Video) What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Mole changes: what makes a mole become cancerous?

Most moles are harmless and will look the same for many years. “Yet, in theory, all moles have the potential to change into a skin cancer,” warns Dr Ross. So it’s important to check even the ones you’ve had since childhood. “Non-cancerous moles are often termed along the lines of how they look, such as warty moles, flat moles, raised moles, flat moles with ring of white around them, and freckles,” says Dr Ross.

The majority of melanoma cases in adults are new moles, usually due to either long-term or short periods of over-exposure to the sun. UVB rays penetrate less deeply and cause sunburn, while UVA rays go deeper into the skin, causing longer-term invisible damage. So, if your skin has gone pink or red, or you need to treat it for sunburn, it’s a sign it has been damaged by too much UV radiation.

And it doesn’t have to be sunny for your skin to be at risk. “Even if you can’t see any blue sky, a significant amount of UV rays can still get through the clouds – even in the UK,” warns Dr. Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. “You can even be affected indoors as UVA radiation can penetrate glass, such as a car window or conservatory.”

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (2)

Signs of skin cancer and cancerous moles

“If a mole shows any of these features, it should be seen by your GP who will refer you to a dermatologist to exclude melanoma,” says Dr Mahto. “They will perform a full skin examination and may either excise a mole, take a sample or biopsy.”

Follow the ABCDE rule! A suspicious mole that may be a cancerous mole has one or more of the following attributes:

  • Asymmetry One half of the mole is different to the other.
  • Border Irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge.
  • Colour Uneven colour or variable colours within a mole.
  • Diameter The mole is bigger than 6mm in size (roughly a petit pois size).
  • Evolving The mole is changing in its size, shape or colour.

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (3)

(Video) 3 Types of Skin Cancer

How to check for skin cancer and cancerous moles

“Check your body once a month and seek medical advice early,” says Dr Mahto. “Study your moles after a bath or shower in a well-lit room with the aid of a full-length mirror. Look closely at the entire body including the scalp, buttocks and genitalia, palms and soles, including between the fingers and toes. Seek assistance from a trusted individual to examine the hard-to-see areas.”

You should make an extra effort to look out for:

  • A mole that looks significantly different to the others.
  • Moles or skin lesions that itch consistently.
  • Moles or skin lesions that bleed or fail to heal.
  • Dark spots or persistent streaks in your nails. In rare cases, malignant melanoma can develop in the skin around and under nails.
  • Delicate areas, such as your lips. The sun tends to hit the lower lip, so it's more likely to be affected by skin cancer.
  • Moles on your legs. “The legs are the most common site on the body for melanoma in females,” says Dr Mahto.

Types of cancerous moles

There are three types of cancerous moles:

  • Malignant melanoma
    Typically: Dark black mole, often flat, irregular edge. Very dangerous with a high risk of spreading. Caught late it can be fatal, but caught early it’s easily removed.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
    Typically: Red moles or a reddish lump on the skin that can bleed and ulcerate. Moderate risk of spreading.
  • Basal cell carcinoma
    Typically: Either a flat red patch of skin that bleeds or is painful but also a reddish lump. Has a low risk of spreading.

Pictures of cancerous moles

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (4)

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (5)

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (6)

(Video) Melanoma Survivor Shares Her Story After Countless Skin Cancer Surgeries | TODAY

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (7)

An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions (8)

How to prevent skin cancer and cancerous moles

Despite sun exposure being a key factor in developing skin cancer, 23% of Brits admit they don’t use any sun cream, a study by YouGov found.

Stay safe by avoiding the sun when it’s at its hottest between 11am to 3pm. Wear a hat with a wide brim and always apply sun cream.

Not sure what to choose? “A higher price doesn’t necessarily mean the sunscreen is better quality,” says Dr Mahto. “Look for SPF 30 or more to protect against UVB, and the UVA circle logo and/or 4 or 5 UVA stars to protect against UVA.”

Get into the habit of applying your sunscreen before venturing outside as SPF needs up to 20 minutes to sink in.

(Video) What are the signs and symptoms of melanoma?

How to get vitamin D safely from sunlight

Covering up makes sense to avoid skin cancer risks, but you could be missing out on other benefits. “Sunlight should be the body’s main natural source of vitamin D, but levels of deficiency in the UK are high,” says Mike Wakeman (opens in new tab), clinical pharmacist at Vitmedics.

However, research by the University of Manchester recommends the following, Mike explains:

  • Lighter skin
    “Daily sunlight exposure of unprotected skin for just 10-15 minutes during the spring and summer should provide adequate vitamin D. For most, this will balance the benefits of vitamin D production and the risks of skin cancer. It is preferable that this is undertaken in the middle of the day, with lower arms and legs exposed to maximise benefit.”
  • Darker skin
    “Around 25-40 minutes of exposure in the UK is recommended. Importantly, levels of exposure that make skin look pink or sunburnt – either during or after exposure – should always be avoided.”
  • Very light or sensitive skin
    “Seek guidance from your GP about alternative sources of vitamin D.”

Mole removal: is it safe?

Want to get rid of your moles for vanity reasons? Show them to your GP first.

“As long as the moles are not overly numerous or irregular in colour or shape then there is no positive or negative to having them,” says Dr Ross. But removal won’t, unfortunately, reduce your risk of skin cancer in the future.

“Moles can be safely removed for cosmetic purposes but it won’t decrease your risk of skin cancer. This is because 70% of all melanomas are NEW moles. So removing moles to reduce your skin cancer risk is not advisable.”

Woman&home reader Denise Palmer-Davies, 42, from Surrey, came to regret her sun-loving youth when she would apply oil without using SPF.

“About four years ago, I noticed I had a small, flat mole on my back which kept on growing. After about a year, I went to see my GP, but I was told it was nothing. I went back again after having my second child as it had grown significantly, but was told it was a skin infection. I then asked a friend, a skin specialist, to take a look and he told me to see my GP again.

”On this occasion, I explained it was now irritating me. I also said that my mum had melanoma three times and my grandfather died from skin cancer. This time, pictures were taken of the mole and sent to Dermatology. Less than 24 hours later I was called as they believed it was a type of skin cancer – it was removed less than a week later. I would urge anyone who is worried to monitor their moles by taking regular pictures. Personally, I will never sunbathe again – it just isn’t worth it.”

FAQs

When should you be suspicious of a mole? ›

Spread of color from the border of a spot to the skin around it. Redness or a new swelling beyond the border. Itchiness, tenderness or pain. Change in the surface of a mole — scaliness, oozing, bleeding, a new bump or nodule.

What are the 5 warning signs of malignant melanoma? ›

The "ABCDE" rule is helpful in remembering the warning signs of melanoma:
  • Asymmetry. The shape of one-half of the mole does not match the other.
  • Border. The edges are ragged, notched, uneven, or blurred.
  • Color. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. ...
  • Diameter. ...
  • Evolving.

What's the first signs of skin cancer? ›

The first sign of non-melanoma skin cancer is usually the appearance of a lump or discoloured patch on the skin that persists after a few weeks and slowly progresses over months or sometimes years. This is the cancer, or tumour.

What are 4 types of moles? ›

There are 4 common types of moles: congenital moles, dysplastic nevi, acquired nevi, and spitz nevi. Below are the differences between each.

How can you tell if a mole is a suspect? ›

See a GP as soon as possible if you notice changes in a mole, freckle or patch of skin, particularly if the changes happen over a few weeks or months.
...
Signs to look out for include a mole that's:
  1. getting bigger.
  2. changing shape.
  3. changing colour.
  4. bleeding or becoming crusty.
  5. itchy or sore.

Whats a cancerous mole look like? ›

Border that is irregular: The edges are often ragged, notched, or blurred in outline. The pigment may spread into the surrounding skin. Color that is uneven: Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, gray, red, pink, or blue may also be seen.

Do cancerous moles itch? ›

But when a mole appears suddenly or starts to change, you might be dealing with cancerous or precancerous cells. An itchy mole is one potential sign of skin cancer, especially if you're experiencing additional symptoms as well. Rather than wait and wonder, have your mole checked by a professional.

What does the early stage of melanoma look like? ›

The first sign of melanoma is often a mole that changes size, shape or color. This melanoma shows color variations and an irregular border, both of which are melanoma warning signs. Melanomas can develop anywhere on your body.

Can a doctor tell if a mole is cancerous just by looking at it? ›

A visual check of your skin only finds moles that may be cancer. It can't tell you for sure that you have it. The only way to diagnose the condition is with a test called a biopsy. If your doctor thinks a mole is a problem, they will give you a shot of numbing medicine, then scrape off as much of the mole as possible.

What does a mole with black spots mean? ›

Atypical moles.

The borders of atypical moles may be irregular, with a lighter or reddish color, and unevenness or black dots around the edge. Atypical moles tend to run in families and they may be at increased risk of developing into skin cancer.

Can old moles turn cancerous? ›

Can a common mole turn into melanoma? Yes, but a common mole rarely turns into melanoma, which is the most serious type of skin cancer. Although common moles are not cancerous, people who have more than 50 common moles have an increased chance of developing melanoma (1).

What are the 4 signs of skin cancer? ›

A large brownish spot with darker speckles. A mole that changes in color, size or feel or that bleeds. A small lesion with an irregular border and portions that appear red, pink, white, blue or blue-black. A painful lesion that itches or burns.

What does Stage 1 skin cancer look like? ›

At first, cancer cells appear as flat patches in the skin, often with a rough, scaly, reddish, or brown surface. These abnormal cells slowly grow in sun-exposed areas.

What cancers cause itching? ›

The types of cancers that were most commonly associated with itching included:
  • blood-related cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma.
  • bile duct cancer.
  • gallbladder cancer.
  • liver cancer.
  • skin cancer.

Are black moles cancerous? ›

Benign moles are usually one uniform color throughout. They can be brown, or black or pink, as long as they are one single color. Cancerous or pre-cancerous moles are multicolored. If the mole has more than one color, get it looked at.

What do dermatologists look for in moles? ›

They will ask you questions about your mole or abnormal area of skin, such as how long you have had it and what changes you have noticed. They will look closely at the abnormal area, and will check the rest of your skin for any changes. They usually use a dermatoscope to do this.

What causes moles to suddenly appear? ›

It's thought to be an interaction of genetic factors and sun damage in most cases. Moles usually emerge in childhood and adolescence, and change in size and color as you grow. New moles commonly appear at times when your hormone levels change, such as during pregnancy. Most moles are less than 1/4 inch in diameter.

How often is a suspicious mole cancerous? ›

What percentage can we expect? A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology suggests around 7% of suspicious mole removal is cancerous. This number drops when accounting for all moles removed, as most are benign (non-cancerous).

What happens if you have a cancerous mole? ›

In most cases, a suspicious mole will be surgically removed and closely examined to see whether it's cancerous. This is known as a biopsy. A biopsy usually involves removing a small sample of tissue. But in cases of melanoma, the whole thing is usually removed from the beginning.

What to do if you have a suspicious mole? ›

You should always be suspicious of a new mole. If you do notice a new mole, see your dermatologist as soon as possible. They will examine the mole and take a skin biopsy (if appropriate). If it's skin cancer, a biopsy can show how deeply it has penetrated the skin.

How do you feel with melanoma? ›

General symptoms
  • hard or swollen lymph nodes.
  • hard lump on your skin.
  • unexplained pain.
  • feeling very tired or unwell.
  • unexplained weight loss.
  • yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • build up of fluid in your tummy (abdomen) - ascites.
  • tummy pain.

How long does melanoma take to spread? ›

Melanoma can grow very quickly. It can become life-threatening in as little as 6 weeks and, if untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma can appear on skin not normally exposed to the sun. Nodular melanoma is a highly dangerous form of melanoma that looks different from common melanomas.

Is melanoma raised or flat? ›

The most common type of melanoma usually appears as a flat or barely raised lesion with irregular edges and different colours. Fifty per cent of these melanomas occur in preexisting moles.

Should I worry about a mole that itches? ›

If you have a mole that bleeds, itches, feels tender, or it's painful, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Most moles that are itchy, painful, large or have a potential for being cancerous are typically removed.

How long can you live with melanoma untreated? ›

In the very early stages the 5-year survival rate is 99%. Once melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes the 5-year survival rate is 63%. If melanoma spreads to other parts of the body, the 5-year survival drops to just 20%.

Why is my mole itchy and swollen? ›

There are a number of reasons why a mole could become itchy, and cancer is not at the top of the list. This irritation could be caused by dry skin, peeling due to a sunburn, or chemicals applied to your skin. The itchy feeling might also be caused by changes within the mole, and that may require more attention.

Does melanoma make you tired? ›

The general symptoms of advanced melanoma can include: weight loss. loss of appetite. feeling very tired (fatigued).

Can you have melanoma for years and not know? ›

You could have melanoma for a long time before you realize it, because some types are not so obvious. Some aggressive forms, like nodular melanoma, grow fast, are visible and can hurt or bleed.” While certain groups may be at a higher risk for melanoma, anyone can get the disease.

What do cancerous brown spots look like? ›

Multiple colors are a warning sign. While benign moles are usually a single shade of brown, a melanoma may have different shades of brown, tan or black. As it grows, the colors red, white or blue may also appear.

Whats a cancerous mole look like? ›

Border that is irregular: The edges are often ragged, notched, or blurred in outline. The pigment may spread into the surrounding skin. Color that is uneven: Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, gray, red, pink, or blue may also be seen.

What type of moles should you worry about? ›

Cancerous moles tend to have irregular borders. If the border isn't smooth, you should get your mole checked out. Benign moles are usually one uniform color throughout. They can be brown, or black or pink, as long as they are one single color.

What should a normal mole look like? ›

What does a common mole look like? A common mole is usually smaller than about 5 millimeters wide (about 1/4 inch, the width of a pencil eraser). It is round or oval, has a smooth surface with a distinct edge, and is often dome-shaped. A common mole usually has an even color of pink, tan, or brown.

Can a crusty mole be non cancerous? ›

Not all scabby moles are cancerous. But scabby moles can be cancerous. For this reason, it's important to get them checked out if you can't trace the scabbing to a known skin injury.

How do you feel with melanoma? ›

General symptoms
  • hard or swollen lymph nodes.
  • hard lump on your skin.
  • unexplained pain.
  • feeling very tired or unwell.
  • unexplained weight loss.
  • yellowing of eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • build up of fluid in your tummy (abdomen) - ascites.
  • tummy pain.

How long does melanoma take to spread? ›

Melanoma can grow very quickly. It can become life-threatening in as little as 6 weeks and, if untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma can appear on skin not normally exposed to the sun. Nodular melanoma is a highly dangerous form of melanoma that looks different from common melanomas.

What happens if mole is cancerous? ›

In most cases, a suspicious mole will be surgically removed and closely examined to see whether it's cancerous. This is known as a biopsy. A biopsy usually involves removing a small sample of tissue. But in cases of melanoma, the whole thing is usually removed from the beginning.

When should I worry about a cancerous mole? ›

Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into surrounding skin. Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of the mole. Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain. Change in the surface of a mole – scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or bump.

Can you have melanoma for years and not know? ›

You could have melanoma for a long time before you realize it, because some types are not so obvious. Some aggressive forms, like nodular melanoma, grow fast, are visible and can hurt or bleed.” While certain groups may be at a higher risk for melanoma, anyone can get the disease.

Are all black moles cancerous? ›

A. Moles are pigmented colored cells that can appear anywhere on our bodies. Having moles on our bodies does not necessarily mean they are cancer or will become cancerous. Simultaneously however, it is important to note that any change in a mole in size, color, and texture should be examined by a medical dermatologist.

What does an unusual mole look like? ›

Atypical moles can also be flat or raised. They also have these characteristics: They measure more than 1/4 inch (5 mm) across — larger than the size of a pencil eraser. They are irregularly shaped, with uneven borders that may fade into the skin around the mole.

Is a melanoma raised or flat? ›

The most common type of melanoma usually appears as a flat or barely raised lesion with irregular edges and different colours. Fifty per cent of these melanomas occur in preexisting moles.

What colour is melanoma? ›

Melanoma often contains shades of brown, black, or tan, but some can be red or pink, such as the one shown here. Still you can see some of the ABCDEs here. The spot shows the A (asymmetrical shape) and B (uneven border).

Are itchy moles cancerous? ›

But when a mole appears suddenly or starts to change, you might be dealing with cancerous or precancerous cells. An itchy mole is one potential sign of skin cancer, especially if you're experiencing additional symptoms as well. Rather than wait and wonder, have your mole checked by a professional.

Can you pick a melanoma off? ›

No, you can't scratch off nodular melanoma. The cancer will continue to spread, and you may cause an infection.

What does a keratosis mole look like? ›

They appear as waxy light tan, brown or black growths that look as if they were dripped onto the skin by a candle. Some can grow large, more than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) across.

Videos

1. Is It A Mole or Melanoma? This Might Save Your Life! | Dermatologist Tips
(The Budget Dermatologist)
2. Melanoma, Causes, Signs and Symptoms, DIagnosis and Treatment.
(Medical Centric)
3. Melanoma and Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer
(University of California Television (UCTV))
4. Malignant Melanoma: The Most Deadly Form of Skin Cancer. Primary Health Care Providers Can't Miss It
(Douglas Gillard, DC, Professor of Clinical Science)
5. Melanoma skin cancer: Q&A with dermatologist Dr Dray
(Dr Dray)
6. Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Tips
(Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-James Cancer Hospital & Solove Research Institute)
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