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What are moles?

Woman checks mole on the top of her arm
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Moles are very common-coloured spots on your skin. They can be with you from birth or develop over the course of your lifetime. Most moles are nothing to worry about. However, if they change shape, colour or size, you should get them checked out. Here we share what causes moles, how to check them for abnormalities and when to see a doctor.

What causes moles to form?

Moles are formed when cells in the skin called melanocytes grow in a cluster rather than spread throughout the skin. These cells are melanin-producing cells which give skin colour - this is why moles are often brown. Some people are born with moles whereas others are developed throughout childhood and early adulthood.

Types of moles

There are three main types of moles that each differ in when they appear, their colour and size. These are not to be confused with verrucas or warts which are equally common. Warts are typically firm and rough to the touch, often appearing on fingers, palms and knees. Verrucas are a small patch of hard skin with a tiny black dot that are usually found on your feet.

Congenital moles

Moles on the body that you have from birth are called congenital moles. They are usually brown or black and can become raised, hairy or darker - especially during puberty. Congenital moles can be left untreated unless there’s a risk of skin cancer (which increases the larger the mole is).

Common moles

Common moles or acquired moles are moles you develop during your lifetime. They often appear due to sun damage. Common moles are round and may darken with age however shouldn’t significantly change.

Atypical moles

Moles that are bigger than usual or irregular in shape or colour are known as atypical moles. These are slightly more likely to become melanoma than other types of moles. If you have a mole with an irregular shaped border that isn’t fully round, or that differs in colour, you should get it checked out by a doctor.

How do you check moles?

The ABCDE Rule of skin cancer is the easiest way to check moles and determine whether or not they may be cancerous. Doing this regularly will help you to know what your skin and moles normally look like, and to spot any unusual changes.

If you spot any of the following signs of a melanoma, make sure to see a doctor who will examine your mole:

  • Asymmetry: check for uneven shapes that aren’t symmetrical
  • Border: check for uneven, blurred or jagged borders
  • Colour: check for uneven colours or more than one colour
  • Diameter: measure your mole and get it checked if it’s more than 6mm wide
  • Elevation or enlargement: check to see if the mole has changed size over time or become raised

If your mole changes shape in any way or becomes crusty, itchy, sore or begins bleeding, you should get it checked by a GP.

How are moles treated?

If your doctor thinks your mole may be melanoma, you will be referred to a specialist for treatment. This usually involves removal of the mole via surgery using local anaesthetic. This may leave a small scar however they are usually not very noticeable. You can also find out more about how to prevent scarring in our guide.

Harmless moles are not usually removed by the NHS. You can however speak to your GP about where to get treatment and go via a private clinic.

When should I see a doctor about a mole?

You should get a new or existing mole checked by a healthcare professional if:

  • It changes colour or has more than one colour
  • It gets darker than normal
  • It becomes larger in size
  • It looks uneven
  • It changes shape
  • It is itchy, crusty, flaky or bleeds

Tips for protecting your moles

The best thing you can do to look after your skin and prevent moles from becoming cancerous is avoiding UV light from the sun. Follow the below tips to protect your moles from sun damage:

  • Wear high-protection sun protection (minimum 30) and apply regularly, especially after swimming
  • Keep skin covered and wear a hat and sunglasses if you have moles on your face
  • Never use sun lamps or sunbeds
  • Stay in the shade when sunlight is at its strongest
  • Check your moles regularly for any changes

Find out more about SPF and how to choose the best sun cream with our go-to guide.

Most of us have moles on our body and face - they’re extremely common and usually nothing to be concerned about. However, if they change colour, shape or size, look uneven or become itchy, you should get your mole checked out by a GP.

Make sure to look after your skin by wearing plenty of sunscreen and avoiding UV light where possible.

Get more tips and advice on LloydsPharmacy health hub including how to remove skin tags, what causes psoriasis and how to treat veruccas and warts. You can also shop skincare products to help you look after your skin including body moisturiser and dry skin treatments.

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