When it comes to moles, there are two types of people. Some of us have one or two moles all by their lonesome. Others could play “connect the dots” with our moles and end up looking like Spiderman with a web of lines everywhere.
No matter which one you are, moles can be bittersweet spots on your skin. You might love that yours are unique to you, but you also worry that they raise your risk for skin cancer.
Instead of jumping to conclusions, get the facts about questions like “What are moles?” and “Why do moles grow?”
What Is a Mole?
A mole is a cluster of a particular type of skin cells called melanocytes. That’s why the scientific name for a mole is a melanocytic nevus.
Melanocytes produce all the pigment, or melanin, for your skin. You have melanocytes throughout your skin, but when they cluster together they create a mole.
This is why most moles have a dark color: it’s the pigment in the melanocytes. However, moles can be almost any color from pink to brown to black. They can even be the same color as the rest of your skin.
How Common Are Moles?
Moles are about as common as it gets: almost every adult has at least one.
While moles often have genetic links, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re born with them. In fact, only 1 in 100 babies are born with congenital moles. For the rest of us, our moles develop in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.
What’s the Difference Between Moles and Freckles?
One of the most common confusions people have about moles is that they’re just large freckles. Some people also think the difference is that a mole is raised while a freckle is flat, but there are flat moles as well.
The true difference is that moles are made of melanocyte cells. Freckles are merely clusters of pigment that melanocytes have produced. In other words, a mole is a cluster of cells while a freckle is a cluster of pigment.
It’s also important to note that while skin cancer can develop in moles, it doesn’t develop in freckles. However, freckles often appear because of sun exposure. If you see more freckles popping up, it might mean that you need to lower your sun exposure before you risk getting cancer.
Why Do Moles Grow?
When moles form in the first place, it’s typically just a skin abnormality that you might be genetically prone to. What makes them grow after they appear, though?
In kids and teens, it isn’t uncommon for moles to grow as they get older. In adulthood, though, a growing mole may be a sign of melanoma skin cancer.
While there are different types of skin cancer, melanoma is cancer in the melanocytes. As you now know, moles are made of melanocytes. If those melanocytes become cancerous, they can start multiplying and the mole will grow.
Don’t jump to conclusions, though. Stay calm and call your dermatologist to evaluate the mole. Let them know the changes you’ve noticed and they’ll determine if you need further testing.
Is It Normal for Moles to Change Color?
In addition to moles growing, some people notice that their moles are changing color, such as getting darker. Is this normal?
It might be. Moles often get darker during pregnancy as a response to hormonal changes. Your moles can also get darker when you’re getting too much sun exposure.
However, sometimes a darkening mole is a sign of skin cancer, so visit your dermatologist to check it out. Even if the mole isn’t cancerous, your body is telling you you’re getting too much sun exposure. It’s time to dial it up on the sunscreen.
Should I Have My Moles Removed?
Mole removal is a common procedure, but it’s done for different reasons. Of course, if a doctor suspects that your mole is cancerous, they’ll remove it and test it for cancer.
Mole removal can also be a cosmetic choice, though. In that case, it comes down to a matter of personal opinion and whether you like or dislike your moles.
If you’re thinking about cosmetic mole removal, talk over the specifics with your dermatologist. Ask what type of removal method they plan to use because there are several options. Find out how much scarring you can expect after the procedure.
Why Are Moles Known for Being Skin Cancer Risks?
Moles get a bad rap, with many people thinking of them as skin cancer breeding ground. But why?
Part of it is because they’re associated with the most well-known type of skin cancer: melanoma. Melanoma is cancer in the melanocytes. It makes sense that the more melanocytes you have in one area (such as in a mole), the more likely skin cancer is to appear in those melanocytes than in the melanocytes scattered elsewhere.
If you do develop melanoma, it causes cancerous melanocytes to multiply. That forms a new or growing mole.
Rest assured that the vast majority of moles are perfectly healthy. You simply need to keep an eye on them and stay on track with annual skin cancer screenings.
When Should I Be Concerned About a Mole?
How do you know when a mole crosses the line from being a beauty mark to a potential cancer risk? Look for the ABCDEs of melanoma: five signs of possible problems.
The A is asymmetry: a mole that is irregularly shaped. B is for borders: when the edges of a mole are not well-defined. C is for color: if a mole is multi-colored, it might be a cause for concern.
D is for diameter. Any mole larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser has a higher risk factor.
Finally, E is the big one: evolution. One of the top signs a mole may be at risk is if it changes. If you see any of these five signs, see a dermatologist for an exam.
Knowing Your Moles
In most cases, a mole is nothing more than a beautiful marking that makes you unique. Thanks to knowledge about questions like “Why do moles grow?” and “When should I be worried about a mole?” you can keep your skin healthy while enjoying it in all its one-of-a-kind glory.
For more helpful information about your skin and your health, check out more articles on our blog.