A mole is a common skin lesion produced by the local proliferation of skin cells that produce the pigment melanin. Almost everyone is born with a mole or develops moles in their life. Unfortunately, moles share many characteristics with malignant lesions. What may appear to be a harmless spot could be skin cancer.

Image of person with moles

1. Moles are the most common type of skin growth

Almost everyone is born with one or more moles or develops them during their lifetime. Moles present at birth are known as congenital nevi (singular: congenital nevus), while those that develop later in life are known as acquired nevi. About 1% of people in the world are born with one or more moles. Lighter-skinned people have a tendency to have a greater number of moles than those with darker-skinned. Moles that appear in children aged 2 to 10 years old tend to be most prominent and persistent. Moles acquired later in childhood or during adulthood vary depending on sun exposure, and may fade away later.

2. They can be caused by a variety of factors

Precise causes for the growth of moles on a person are hard to determine but generally they are caused due to genetic factors, sun exposure, immune status, or a combination of the same. People with multiple moles tend to have a history of other individuals in the family with moles.

3. Moles present on the body in many different ways

There is no standard appearance for a mole. They can appear on any part of the body. They may differ in their appearance from each other depending on the site on the body. They could be flat or raised, as large as an inch or more, or as small as a fraction of an inch. They could be round, oval, or have an unusual shape. Their color could be brown, grey, bluish, or black.

Raised moles on the neck

This is precisely what makes differentiating benign moles from more serious growths such as malignant melanomas (the deadliest form of skin cancer) difficult for the untrained individual.

4. Having moles examined regularly is important

It is important to examine moles regularly through self-examination or by visiting a dermatologist. This is recommended for a few reasons:

  • Initially, a melanoma may look similar to a benign mole but over time it becomes more unstructured in appearance, and tends to become larger.

  • People with a greater number of moles have a higher risk of developing a melanoma, than those with fewer moles.

  • People with a family history of melanomas have moles that have a greater risk of developing into melanomas

A dermatologist can examine your moles with a dermatoscope and if necessary take a small sample by performing a biopsy to aid their diagnosis.

Skin exam performed to check a number of moles

5. Moles can be removed for medical or cosmetic reasons

Once diagnosed as benign, most moles are left alone since they are harmless. They may be removed to exclude the possibility of cancer development in the future, to remove an unsightly appearance, or if the mole presents an annoyance in daily life (for example, during shaving or combing hair).

Moles can be removed surgically, using excision, cryotherapy, or by performing a shave or a punch biopsy. Your dermatologist is best equipped to recommend the appropriate course of treatment.