Normal Mole vs. Melanoma: What to Look for in a Self-Exam

Melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer. It's also common. In 2021, the American Cancer Society estimated:

  • More than 106,000 new melanomas would be diagnosed
  • Nearly 7,200 people would die from them

This article will teach you how to recognize a normal mole and the ABCDE method for identifying abnormal moles.

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The ABCDE Rule of Melanoma

Normal Mole
  • Symmetrical

  • Border is well-defined, regular

  • Same color throughout

  • Less than 6 mm in diameter

  • Level with the skin

Melanoma
  • A=Asymmetrical

  • B=Border is irregular

  • C=Color is inconsistent

  • D=Diameter greater than 6 mm

  • E=Elevated above the skin

A Normal Mole

normal mole photo

Skin Cancer Foundation 

Features that set normal moles apart from melanomas include:

  • Symmetry: If you drew a line through the middle, both sides would match in color, thickness, and shape.
  • A consistent border: The borders are smooth and distinct.
  • A consistent color: The color is also consistent throughout. The mole pictured above has red specks, but they're present throughout. (This feature can be hard to judge.)
  • Small size: Moles are generally under 6 millimeters (mm) in diameter. A larger size isn't a guarantee of melanoma but it bears watching.
  • Flat: Normal moles are flat. You can run your finger over it without knowing it's there.

The more of these features your mole has, the less concerning it is.

A = Asymmetry

melanoma photo

 Skin Cancer Foundation 

Unlike healthy moles, melanomas are asymmetrical. One half does not match the other half in:

  • Size
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Thickness

In this picture, the left side is much thicker and darker than the right.

B = Border

melanoma photo

 Skin Cancer Foundation 

While a normal mole has a smooth, consistent border, the border of a melanoma can be:

  • Ragged
  • Scalloped
  • Blurred
  • Poorly defined

The pictured melanoma has a scalloped and notched border.

C = Color

melanoma photo

 Skin Cancer Foundation 

The color of melanoma isn't consistent. It can have shades of:

  • Tan
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Red
  • White
  • Blue

In this picture, the right side is dark black and the left side is tannish-red.

D = Diameter

melanoma photo

Skin Cancer Foundation  

Melanomas grow. Normal moles don't. So melanomas tend to be larger, with a diameter of more than 6 mm.

For perspective, 6 mm is just under a quarter inch. A pencil eraser is about 5 mm. If your mole can't be fully covered by a new eraser, it's large enough to be concerned about.

E = Elevation

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Amelanotic nodular melanoma
Amelanotic nodular melanoma.

https://dermnetnz.org/topics/amelanotic-melanoma-images/?stage=Live

Melanomas can start flat but become raised as they grow. If you can feel it, it's likely abnormal.

Sometimes in melanoma assessment, the "E" in ABCDE stands for "evolving." That's because melanomas change in size, shape, and color over time.

Other Warning Signs

Not all melanomas are detectable by ABCDE. Other warning signs are:

  • Sores that don't heal
  • Pigment "bleeding" from a border
  • Redness or swelling beyond the border
  • Itchiness or pain
  • Changes in the surface (scales, oozing, bleeding)

Summary

Normal moles are symmetrical, small, and flat. They have a smooth border and consistent coloration.

Melanomas are often asymmetrical, larger than 6mm, and elevated. They have irregular borders and inconsistent coloring.

Melanomas change over time. Normal moles don't.

A Word From Verywell

You should keep an eye on your moles. But don't trust your health to a self-exam. If anything about a mole seems off or changes, get it checked.

An early melanoma diagnosis means early treatment. That gives you a better outlook.

Meanwhile, you can lower your risk of skin cancer by wearing sunscreen and avoiding excessive sunlight and tanning beds.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between a mole and melanoma?

    A mole is a benign growth composed of melanocytes (skin cells that produce melanin, also called pigment). Once formed, most moles remain the same.

    Melanoma originates in melanocytes. The cells grow out of control and can invade surrounding tissue. They can arise from moles, but this doesn't happen often.

  • When should a spot on the skin be checked for cancer?

    Any spot on the skin—whether mole, pimple, wart, etc.—should be evaluated by a dermatologist if it:

    • Gets bigger
    • Starts to itch
    • Bleeds
    • Doesn't heal

    Such changes can be signs of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer, including basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.

  • Does a melanoma feel hard to the touch?

    It can, yes. The texture of melanoma can be firm or hard. Some feel lumpy, crusty, or scaly.

  • What is an atypical mole?

    Atypical moles seem to be a cross between a normal mole and melanoma. They tend to be larger than regular moles and have an irregular shape or color.

    Dermatologists generally keep a close eye on atypical moles. However, they rarely become cancerous.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for melanoma skin cancer.

  2. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. Moles to melanoma: Recognizing the ABCDE features.

  3. Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education. Melanoma. Updated September 2018.

  4. American Cancer Society. Can melanoma skin cancer be prevented?

  5. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Are moles determined by genetics?

  6. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. Common moles, dysplastic nevi, and risk of melanoma.

  7. American Academy of Dermatology. Moles: Overview.

  8. American Cancer Society. Risk factors for melanoma skin cancer.

Additional Reading