Are Moles Cancerous? What Percentage Should You Worry About?
What exactly are those spots we call moles? And are moles cancerous? If you’re considering mole removal, don’t trust just any provider. At Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics in Fulton, MD, we have extensive knowledge in cosmetic dermatology and, with easy treatments, can remove concerning spots. Whether you have fears of skin cancer or simply want to refresh your appearance, we’re here for you.
What Are Moles?
Moles develop when melanocytes – cells that produce and contain melanin – grow in a cluster rather than spreading throughout the skin. The exact causes of this mechanism remain unknown, but we do know new moles arise because of UV radiation exposure, genetics, and weakened immunity. Aside from atypical moles, people also have congenital moles, those you’re born with, and common moles, which appear after birth.
Interestingly, moles can show up almost anywhere, including unusual spots like under nails, between fingers and toes, and on the palms. Knowing where your moles are and their general appearance allows you to quickly identify changes if they occur. Keep in mind moles should be:
- Smaller than a pencil eraser
- The same color throughout
- Flat or slightly raised
- Symmetrical and round
- Clearly defined around their borders
Different Skin Spots
While it’s easy to confuse them, freckles and moles are different. The former is caused by sun exposure and/or genetics. Nearly everyone has moles, but freckles are more common in people with light or red hair. These spots also put people at greater risk for skin cancer.
A skin tag is a noncancerous growth that remains connected to skin with a small, thin stalk called a peduncle. They don’t cause pain, but they can be a nuisance. Women and men both get skin tags, especially after age 50, and they’re common in places where the skin naturally folds, including the:
Are Moles Cancerous? What percentage can we expect?
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology suggests around 7% of suspicious mole removal is cancerous. This number drops when accounting for all moles removed, as most are benign (non-cancerous).
Why are moles cancerous?
Melanoma, the cancer that develops in melanocytes, does not always form into moles. However, all moles contain cells that could potentially transform into melanomas. These cells protect the skin from ultraviolet light but our melanocytes have evolved to be resistant to this light and also skin cell mutations. They can eventually cluster and form moles over several years. The moles can develop further mutations and damage over a long timeframe from UV light or other genetic changes. These mutations can then spread into the lymphatic system and bloodstream if left untreated.
How can you tell the difference? Let’s start by saying moles are very common – a person with fair skin can have as many as 40 on their body. And moles range in color from pink to tan to brown. They’re either round or oval in shape and have smooth surfaces. It’s when a mole deviates from these general characteristics that you should seek medical attention.
Describing Atypical Moles
Atypical moles put you at a greater risk for cancer. They’re usually oddly shaped, bigger than the head of a pencil erase, and/or more than one color. You should also look for a mole or lesion that’s significantly changed, such as grown larger or darker.
It can, however, be difficult to distinguish between a benign atypical mole and cancer. Biopsies are usually needed to make a correct diagnosis. The most common traits of cancer correlate to traits known as the ABCDEs of moles:
- Asymmetry: one half of the mole has a different shape than the other half
- Border: an irregular border is classified as notched, ragged, or blurred in outline
- Color: uneven color in such shades as tan, brown, and black
- Diameter: an increase in size
- Evolving: the mole has changed in recent weeks or months
Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in the U.S. and affects one in five people in their lifetimes. Melanoma accounts for only 1% of all skin cancers, but it has an aggressive nature with a high tendency to spread to lymph nodes.
In general, cancer is the result of accumulated genetic changes that lead to uncontrolled cell growth. Almost 300 gene mutations have been identified in melanoma, and UV radiation is a well-known culprit in prompting those mutations. But only 20 to 30% of melanomas result from pre-existing moles. The vast majority arise as new, atypical skin spots, underscoring the importance of seeing a qualified dermatologist for your skincare needs.
Can cancerous moles kill you?
Mole removal is an effective way to reduce the chances of skin cancer. However, this all depends on how quickly the mole is treated. If the mole has developed into melanoma, the condition can be deadly. If not treated quickly, this type of skin cancer can spread to other organs, which is life-threatening. Most moles caught in the early stages will not present any threat. According to the American Cancer Society, localized melanoma removals (moles) have a 99% survival rate after 5 years. If the condition has spread to other areas, the chances of survival drop to 27%. So it’s crucial to take action on moles that look out of the ordinary as soon as possible.
Visually inspecting your skin for unusual spots can lead to early cancer detection and more treatment options. Keep in mind some moles that look abnormal turn out to be fine, while some that look fine are found to be atypical. The risk of an atypical mole becoming cancerous is about 1%, compared to .03% for an ordinary mole.
In addition to atypical moles, risk factors for developing melanoma include:
- Red or blond hair
- Blue or green eyes
- Fair complexion
- Heavy freckles
- Two immediate family members were diagnosed with melanoma
- One blistering sunburn under age 20
- Tanning bed sessions under age 30
Performing a Self Check
Just a moment ago we mentioned the importance of inspecting your own skin. You can start this by facing a wall mirror and looking at your face, including eyes, ears, and lips. Then check your upper chest, shoulders, and neck. Women should also look under their breasts. Remember, the goal is to spot unusual or new moles.
Next, using a handheld and full-length mirror, check your upper back, neck, and ears. Also, give your scalp a look by parting your hair with a blow dryer or brush. Still using the handheld mirror, check your mid and lower back carefully, as well as your abdomen. Last but not least, give your legs and feet a thorough review. It’s smart to get into this habit once a month so any new growth can be quickly reviewed by a specialist.
Patients choose to have moles removed for a variety of reasons, including annoyance. One that falls under your bra strap and always gets rubbed, for instance, is a prime candidate for removal. The same is true of moles on the scalp that get irritated with combs and brushes. Cosmetically speaking, people have moles removed to boost their confidence.
Is mole removal painful?
As we will cover next, there are a few ways to remove moles. Moles seem like they are embedded in the skin, so many patients are concerned if mole removal will be painful. All the procedures to remove moles are painless. We will provide a topical anesthetic before starting any procedure. The anesthetic ensures the procedure is seamless for our dermatologists and painless for you. Even larger, deeper moles can be removed with a painless process, though larger moles will bring soreness. You should also experience no pain during the healing process. If you have any concerns, speak to your doctor before the procedure.
For non-cancerous moles, Dr. Rodney performs a routine procedure that involves a local anesthetic and a small scalpel. Using deft movements, she gently eliminates the mole. Don’t worry – you’ll feel nothing during the treatment thanks to the anesthetic.
The procedure doesn’t take long, just between a few minutes and an hour depending on the mole’s size and the depth to which skin must be cut. We usually know these details in advance and can provide them to you during your consultation. In the following weeks, your skin heals as it’s protected with antibiotic ointment and a bandage.
Another mole removal technique involves cryotherapy, a simple and non-invasive treatment in which we freeze the mole with liquid nitrogen from a spray can. Liquid nitrogen allows us to target moles in a very precise way and destroy them at the cellular level. Once frozen, the affected area scabs and heals within three to six weeks.
In addition to the ease with which we apply liquid nitrogen, this treatment is also comfortable, low-risk, and affordable. Anesthetic is rarely required, and most patients are well-suited to the treatment.
During this fast and simple mole removal treatment, we use a needle-shaped electrode to deliver an electric current. Skin is heated in precise areas with little to no downtime, and both cancerous and non-cancerous tissues can be removed. In the case of the former, electrodesiccation minimizes the likelihood of recurrence. Treatment benefits include:
- Quick treatment, often delivered on lunch hours
- Rapid healing
- Safe and effective mole removal
Immediately following treatment, we apply an antibiotic ointment and skin covering. Because this therapy lightly chars the mole’s surface, it forms a scab that later falls off to reveal fresh, clear skin. We can provide at-home care instructions to ensure the treated spot heals without incident.
Mole removal aftercare
After your mole removal, your goal is to keep the area clean, dry, and free of irritation. Wash and dry around the area within 24 hours after the procedure. Keep the area covered as suggested by the dermatologist. In some cases, you may have an antibiotic treatment to help with healing. Apply the ointment as directed. Make sure to avoid strenuous activity, sweat, or swimming for at least 24-48 hours. You should also avoid harsh cleansers or creams for at least 7 days. If you experience fever, prolonged pain, swelling, redness, or discomfort, speak with your dermatologist right away.
Ways To Protect Your Skin
You’ve likely heard it before, but the best thing you can do for your skin is to wear sunscreen. Many people only think of this when they’re headed to the beach, but you need to wear it daily; even sitting near a window can expose you to harmful UV rays. And the sun doesn’t only contribute to cancer – it’s also a leading culprit of wrinkles, leathery skin texture, and dark spots.
When you are outside, reapply sunscreen often and protect your head with a wide-brimmed hat. Sunglasses will similarly protect your eyes, and when you can, seek shade as much as possible. If you can’t find a shady spot, post an oversized umbrella in the sand or dirt and sit under it. Also stay hydrated and, if you do get a sunburn, apply aloe vera gel or cold compresses to the skin.
A Specialist You Can Trust
Dr. Ife Rodney, our founding director, focused on the diagnosis and management of skin cancer while completing her dermatopathology fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and today draws on her extensive experience when crafting treatment plans for patients.
Using the latest technology and techniques, she tailors treatment to the needs of each person. Her specialized training helps her answer any concerns you have about skincare, aesthetics, and dermatology.
Your Skincare Partner
We are committed to helping you have the healthiest and most beautiful skin possible. Moles in many cases are recognized as beauty marks. However, a small percentage can transform into dangerous cancers over several years if left untreated. If you have concerning moles, we’ll conduct a baseline exam and then proceed from there. As a double board-certified provider, Dr. Rodney has the knowledge and experience to meet all your skincare needs, including mole removal. Contact us today at Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics in Fulton, MD to schedule your consultation.