Moles are unpredictable. Some lay like glorified exclamation points on the creamy skin of models and others grow into grotesque mini-mounds of tissue better suited to an ogre. But do you know which ones are dangerous?
Yes, Cindy Crawford and Marilyn Monroe made moles into beauty marks. But looks can be deceiving. Since most all moles grow, can you tell which ones just look like they’re trying to kill you and which ones mean you’re facing a real health danger?
What is that thing? Moles are pigment cells, called melanocytes, that grew in a cluster instead of spreading out. “These types of cells continue to grow,” says Retna Billano, MD, a dermatologist at Montclair Dermatology & Aesthetic Center in Birmingham. Most moles appear by the time you hit 20, with the average person having 10 to 40 moles by adulthood. Some grow slowly, some fast, some change color, many get lighter, and some may even disappear.
It all means something. And those changes can tell you, or more importantly, a dermatologist, if or when to do something about them. “The growing mole is not a concern unless it changes in character, like shape or texture or darkens in color,” says Dr. Billano. “Growing larger, but the same, is fine.” Otherwise, go see your dermatologist.
The sun, it burns! “Nothing can inhibit the growth of a mole, but changes can be triggered by sunlight or some hormones, such as during pregnancy,” says Dr. Billano.
You can even get moles there. “The scalp and the bottom of the feet are places people don’t think to look for moles,” says Dr. Billano. Moles on the sole of your foot are most likely melanoma (skin cancer), so head right to your dermatologist.
Get it off me! If your dermatologist suspects the mole is cancerous, they will likely numb the area and cut the whole thing out, leaving you with some stitches. If they think it’s precancerous or it’s a mole that’s simply irritating to you, such as rubbing against your clothing, they will use a scalpel to “shave” it down to skin depth or freeze it off.
Young women are the worst. Because moles are so unpredictable, get a full body check of your moles every year. Start as early as 20 years old, because melanoma is the most common cancer in women ages 25-29. “Catch it early,” emphasizes Dr. Billano. “It’s curable if you catch it early.”
Remember that if you’re looking for certainty, look to your dermatologist. They can always tell whether that mole you’ve got is a burgeoning beauty mark or a little time bomb that needs defusing.