How to Tell if You Should Get a Funky-Looking Mole Checked Out

There's a reason you're always told to slather on the sunscreen well beyond the summer months. More Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined—and a majority of the most common forms of skin cancer are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In fact, experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between 15 and 20 years old spikes a person's melanoma risk by 80 percent and non-melanoma skin cancer risk 68 percent, per the American Academy of Dermatology. How? Once the sun's powerful UV light damages the DNA in your skin cells, mutations can occur. In turn, your skin cells may grow out of control rapidly, forming tumors.

The signs of skin cancer can be subtle, but it's most often identified by a funky-looking mole that changes over time. While all types of skin cancer can cause skin changes, melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—causes very specific changes that differentiate benign moles from cancerous ones.

But what exactly should you be looking for? Ahead, you'll find everything you need to know about melanoma, how to identify it, and what to do if you think a cancerous mole has popped up on your skin.

Back up: What is melanoma, anyway?

There are three main types of skin cells in the epidermis, or the top layer of your skin: squamous cells (outer part of the epidermis), basal cells (lower part of the epidermis), and melanocytes (produce a brown pigment called melanin), according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types of skin cancer and make up a majority of all cases. Melanoma, which forms in the melanocytes, is rare in comparison, as it only makes up about 1 percent of skin cancers. However, melanoma is also the deadliest form of skin cancer, since it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught early, the ACS says.

The upside: Skin cancer, including melanoma, is typically curable if it is found and removed early. That's why it's so important to not only see a dermatologist for an annual skin exam, but to also give yourself a head-to-toe examination every month.

What does melanoma look like?

Melanoma can form on any part of your body, but it's commonly found on the neck and face. Men are also more likely to identify melanoma on their chest and back, while women are more likely to spot it on their legs, the ACS says.

Basal Cell Carcinoma
This basal cell carcinoma has a waxy scar-like area as well as on open, crusty sore.

Getty Images

While basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas might bleed, itch, or become patchy and shiny, the signs of melanoma are a bit different. To identify potentially worrisome moles, you'll want to refer to the ABCDE system, which stands for: asymmetrical, border, color, diameter, and evolving. A change in these characteristics can differentiate benign moles from cancerous ones.

You can find examples of each one in the melanoma pictures below. The images—which display a healthy, benign mole on the left and melanoma on the right—are a little graphic but familiarizing yourself with the signs of melanoma could potentially save your life.


Asymmetrical moles

asymmetry mole

Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD

The healthy mole (left) has symmetrical borders—meaning if you drew a line through the middle of the mole, its left and right halves would be more or less the same, says Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, director of translational research in the department of dermatology at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Compare that to the asymmetrical melanoma on the right. "It would be near impossible to draw a line through this sucker and get equal halves," Dr. Friedman says. The different colors and the irregular border of this mole are also indicative of skin cancer, he says.


Irregular border moles

Irregular Border mole

Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD

While the healthy mole (left) has a fairly consistent border—at least as far as mole borders go—the mole on the right has no real perimeter, Dr. Friedman notes. "The lesion is haphazardly arrayed on the skin, the border is not congruent nor well defined, and there is a mix of colors," he says, explaining the mole's worrisome features. Borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven, scalloped, or notched.


Uneven color moles

loss of Color mole 

Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD

Notice the consistent color pattern of the benign mole on the left. While there's a slightly lighter halo on the skin around the mole, the mole itself is all the same shade of brown. While the other cancerous moles shown above have revealed how the color of a cancerous mole can be spotty or inconsistent, Dr. Friedman says a lack of color is also a red flag, like the cancerous mole on the right. "Most assume that melanoma has to be jet black, but a loss of color can be equally as damning," he says.


Large diameter

mole with large diameter

Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD

If the mole or spot is larger than a pea, that's another indication of skin cancer, according to the CDC. The mole on the right is larger than a pea, and so fits the "D" criteria, Dr. Friedman says. The inconsistent border and color—especially that pink/white portion in the middle-left section of the mole—are also telltale signs of cancer, he says.


­Evolving moles

Benign moles will look the same over time, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. So if you noticed that a mole is changing in any of the ways mentioned above, see your doctor ASAP. You should also be on the alert if it starts to bleed, itch, or crust over.


skin cancer pictures

Getty Images

Ugly ducklings

Along with the ABCDEs, Dr. Friedman also recommends looking closely at "ugly duckling" moles or spots. These are the oddballs, he says, or those moles that look different from all the others. Of course, you're bound to have some random-looking moles, but you'll want to keep an eye on these to watch for changes, as well as the other symptoms outlined above. When in doubt, see a specialist, Dr. Friedman says.

How to treat melanoma

Once your doctor has confirmed that your changing mole is indeed melanoma, your treatment will largely depend on how far the cancer has progressed and your overall health.

Melanoma in its earliest stages is often treated by surgery to remove the melanoma and a portion of skin surrounding it, according to the ACS. If the cancer has already progressed to a more advanced stage, your doctor may recommend surgery in conjunction with immunotherapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or newer targeted therapy drugs.

Again, while melanoma is not exactly a common skin cancer, it causes the most deaths, so catching it and treating it early is key. Even better? Keep your skin healthy by staying out of the sun's harmful UV rays when possible. Wearing sun-protective clothing, a hat, hanging out in the shade when possible, and reapplying a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher every two hours will go a long way in keeping melanoma out of your future.

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Markham Heid is an experienced health reporter and writer, has contributed to outlets like TIME, Men's Health, and Everyday Health, and has received reporting awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. Health Editor, Prevention.com Alisa Hrustic has spent her entire career interviewing top medical experts, interpreting peer-reviewed studies, and reporting on health, nutrition, weight loss, and fitness trends for outlets like Women's Health and Men's Health, where she both interned and worked full-time.

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