Moles 101: What Are They, Why They Develop And Are They Really Skin Cancer
January 14, 2016
Moles don’t have the most appealing name and our attempt to call them “beauty marks” doesn’t always fly. For better or worse, however, they’re a part of life most of us have become accustomed to seeing on various body parts. Whether you have a cute little mole on your upper lip, a la Cindy Crawford, or a mole on your thigh that you’re dying to have removed, you should know everything you can about these marks including why they’re there, how you can tell if your mole is “healthy,” and what you can expect if you have to have one removed.
Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles and clinical instructor at the University of Southern California, answers a few common questions about moles below.
SHEfinds: What are moles and why do they develop?
Tsippora Shainhouse: Moles (nevi) are benign aggregations of melanocytes (melanin/pigment-producing cells). Most develop during childhood, adolescence and up to early adulthood. You can be genetically predisposed to developing moles. Some are stimulated by ultraviolet (sun) light. Hormone fluctuations, particularly puberty and pregnancy, can also make existing moles darker, larger and more raised. Common subtypes include: compound moles which extend from epidermis into the deeper dermis, junctional moles which do not go deeper than the border between the epidermis and dermis and dermal nevi or deep pigment moles.
SF: Should an adult be concerned about moles that develop later on in life?
TS: New moles should not develop after age 50. If any new spots develop, see your dermatologist for a possible biopsy.
SF: How can someone tell if a mole is abnormal?
TS: Signs to keep in mind, regarding changing and potentially suspicious moles, include the ABCDE pneumonic:
1. Asymmetry of the mole. If you draw a line down the center and the two sides are not mirror images, considering consulting a doctor.
2. Irregular borders. The edges of a mole should be smooth and regular. If you have a mole with jagged edges, contact your physician.
3. Color. Moles can be any single shade of brown, but if you see mixes of colors or new black areas or a mole that is much darker than all of the others, it must be seen.
4. Diameter. If the mole is larger than a pencil eraser, it should be checked out.
5. Evolution. If the mole that you have always had suddenly looks different, it may be a sign that it is becoming malignant and needs to be checked.
SF: What happens when you visit your dermatologist to have a mole removed?
TS: If a lesion looks suspicious to your dermatologist, it will be biopsied. A shave biopsy involves a tiny injection of local anesthesia (feels like a pinch and slight burn), then a blade is used to slice off the lesion. It will leave a small open sore that will heal within 1-2 weeks. Keep the site clean with soap and water and apply antibacterial ointment and a band-aid. It can take about two weeks for most biopsy results to come back from the pathologist (the doctor who reads the slides of your biopsy specimen). At that time, you will know if it was a pre-malignant or malignant lesion that would require further excision (with stitches). The site will likely heal up as a pink or light patch on the skin. Sometimes a bit of color returns because the melanocytes were not all removed.
When in doubt, visit your dermatologist (which you should begin doing each year in your thirties) so that he or she can thoroughly examine your moles and determine whether additional steps are required to keep you healthy.