Skin Cancer Awareness

The Truth About Mole Changes & Skin Cancer

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Warmer weather and longer days are on their way in Michigan, and with the changing season comes more time spent outdoors in summer attire and more sun – which is accompanied by ultraviolet (UV) rays. Whether you have one mole or 100, it’s crucial you are aware of the proper shape and color these marks should have – and what to do if you notice changes.

Regardless of the number and appearance of your moles, they are common. And they do change over the course of their lifetime. But how do you know if these changes are healthy and normal or indicate something worse – like skin cancer?

Laurie Kohen M.D., a dermatologist at Henry Ford Health System, works with high-risk patients who have numerous irregular moles, and is an expert in assessing if a mole is suspect.

What exactly is a mole?
A melanocyte (mole) is a specific type of pigment-producing cell that resides in the skin. These melanocytes are found periodically in “normal” skin, but can grow in nests to form moles.

Wherever there is skin, a mole can form – meaning they can develop in even inconspicuous places, like under your nails and on the scalp.

Is it normal for moles to change over time?
Short answer: Yes.

“There are normal changes that can occur in moles,” Kohen says. “For example, moles on the face can start out as brown patches, and over time as we grow older, these moles can raise up, lose color and simply become flesh-colored bumps.”

Moles can lighten or darken in color, and raise or flatten. Sometimes, moles can even disappear altogether.

Environmental factors we’re exposed to on a daily basis, like UV light from the sun or indoor tanning and radiation — and even certain medications — can make moles more likely to develop changes or irregularities.

What changes should you look out for?
There are a few indications that a change in your moles could be concerning, Dr. Kohen says.

First, if a mole has multiple colors in it, it could be cause for concern.

“If you have a mole that started out as brown in color and suddenly has black or red (or both) in it, you should get it checked out by your dermatologist,” she says.

If you notice moles that are spontaneously bleeding, this could be another sign that something isn’t right. But before you jump to conclusions – this bleeding could simply be caused by accidental scratching or a mole getting caught on clothing, too. However, it’s best to get a professional evaluation.

In addition, if you notice your moles are continuing to grow into adulthood, you should see a specialist.

“Moles in children and teens continue to grow in proportion to the person, but at some point that growth should stop,” Kohen says. “If you notice a mole that looks like it’s getting bigger, especially as an adult in your 40’s and 50’s, you should have it checked out.”

Furthermore, developing new moles after age 50 is rare. If you notice new moles appearing on the skin, talk with your dermatologist.

What are the best ways to protect my skin and moles?
You’ve heard it before: The number one protector is sunscreen. Wearing SPF 30 or higher, and re-applying every 2-3 hours is crucial for protecting against skin cancer. But did you know that UV rays can reach our skin even if we are wearing long sleeves and pants?

Choosing photo protective clothing with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) 50 or higher will protect your non-exposed skin from these harmful rays.

“It’s important to remember that melanoma – the most dangerous form of skin cancer – runs in families, so it’s extremely necessary to protect yourself especially if you have a family history of skin cancer,” Kohen says. “Wear enough sunscreen, reapply when necessary and keep tabs on your moles. If you notice changes, check in with your doctor or dermatologist.”

Have concerns about the appearance of your moles? Overdue for a skin cancer screening? Schedule an appointment with a dermatologist by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) or visiting henryford.com.

Dr. Laurie Kohen is a dermatologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – New Center One and Henry Ford Medical Center – Troy.