What Is a Mole?

A Common Benign Pigmented Skin Growth

A mole is a pigmented skin growth that has a different color than the skin surrounding it. Most adults have more than one, and they are usually harmless. But it is important to watch for changes that might indicate melanoma skin cancer, and to see a doctor if you have any concerns.

Examining a skin mole
Peter Dazeley / The Image Bank / Getty Images

What It Is

A common mole is a growth that occurs when pigment cells called melanocytes grow in clusters on the skin. Moles are usually found on skin that is above the waist, on areas exposed to the sun.

They are plentiful in most people, as most adults have between 10 and 40 of them. They usually appear in late childhood, and multiply until about age 40. After that, they tend to fade away.

It is possible for a common mole to turn into melanoma, though it is a rare occurrence. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in the skin’s pigment cells. It’s more common in people who have more than 50 common moles, and those who have pale skin that burns easily in the sun.

Nevus is another name for a common mole, with the plural being nevi. A popular term for a small, dark, common mole on the face is a beauty mark.

Types and Appearance

These are among the most common types of moles.

Common Mole (Nevus)

A common mole is usually smaller than a 1/4 inch wide (the width of a pencil eraser). The shape is round or oval, the color is even, and it has a smooth or dome-shaped surface with a distinct edge to it. In people with pale skin, a common mole usually is pink, tan, or brown. In people who have dark skin or hair, the color tends to be darker.

Atypical Mole (Dysplastic Nevus)

If your mole is larger than this, uneven in color, has an irregular edge and a scaly or pebbly surface, then it may be a dysplastic nevus. This is also called an atypical mole. Like its cousin the common mole, it rarely turns into melanoma, but can. If the size, color, shape or texture changes then you should have it checked out by a doctor.

Spitz Nevus

This kind of mole usually appears in young people under the age of 20.  It is usually pink and raised, but could have different shades to it, bleed or ooze, and in many ways resemble melanoma. However, it is not cancerous. A dermatologist must examine it and may order tests to find out if it is cancerous or benign.

When to See a Doctor

As mentioned, a mole can turn in to melanoma on rare occasions. In early melanoma, the shape of a mole becomes asymmetrical and uneven. It usually increases in size, as well, and the color is uneven. You may see shades of black, brown, tan, white, gray, red, pink, or even blue.

The developing melanoma may become hard or lumpy, and can ooze or bleed. It could be itchy or sore. In dark-skinned people, melanoma can be hidden under fingernails and toenails, as well as on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

In an appointment to check your mole for melanoma, your doctor will ask you about your medical history, examine the area, and may refer you to a dermatologist for further tests.

A biopsy may be done to check the area in question for cancer cells. This involves removing all or part of the skin that looks abnormal, and can be done in a doctor's office. The tissue sample is sent to a lab, where a pathologist will examine it under a microscope for cancer cells.

Melanoma can spread to other parts of the body if it isn’t caught and treated early. White people are 20 times more likely to get melanoma that Black people in the U.S., with the former group experiencing a 2.6% lifetime risk of getting it. Other risk factors include tanning and lifetime sun exposure.

The American Cancer Society estimates that over 6,800 Americans will die from melanoma in 2020.

Limiting your exposure to ultraviolet rays and checking your skin regularly for new or abnormal moles and growths are ways you can lower our risk for developing melanoma, the American Cancer Society advises.

Moles vs. Freckles

Moles are not the same as freckles. The latter are light brown, flat, and completely harmless. However, it is possible to mistake a problematic mole for a freckle. If you see new spots that are raised, growing, bleeding, or are very dark in color, then it’s best to get them checked out by a doctor, she says.

Moles vs. Age Spots

Age spots are small, flat, oval, pigmented areas on the skin that are common in people over the age of 50. They can be as large as 1/2 an inch across, and generally, are not raised in the way that moles can be. They are also known as sunspots, liver spots and solar lentigines.

Age spots can be lightened or removed by your dermatologist. As with moles, you should on the lookout for any changes in appearance or blackening of an age spot, just in case it could be melanoma.

Removing a Mole

You might want to have a mole removed for aesthetic reasons. However, don’t try to remove it yourself.

You may end up damaging your skin or removing a mole that you didn’t realize was cancerous, risking that the remaining cells may spread through your bloodstream. You also risk infection and even serious blood loss.

Instead, see your dermatologist, who may cut or shave the mole off. Usually, that can be done in one visit to the doctor’s office.

A Word From Verywell

The vast majority of skin moles are harmless and if you don’t like one, you can always ask your dermatologist to remove it. However, it’s important to be vigilant about the health of your moles, and keep an eye out for any changes in appearance. See a doctor if something doesn’t look right.

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Article Sources
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  2. American Academy of Dermatology. Moles: Overview.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Moles: Who gets and types.

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  5. American Cancer Society. Can melanoma skin cancer be prevented? Updated August 14, 2019.

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  7. Cleveland Clinic. Q&A Freckles and your skin.

  8. Cleveland Clinic. How to get rid of age spots (liver spots) and avoid more. March 12, 2020.

  9. American Academy of Dermatology. 5 reasons to see a dermatologist for mole, skin tag removal.