Lots of us have moles, they’re really common speckles on the skin. However, when it comes to suncare we are told to be cautious about them. The shape, the colour, that sort of thing. But if knowing how to check moles properly is as essential as the best facial sunscreens, what exactly are we looking for and why?
According to the NHS, it’s totally normal for babies to be born with moles, new moles to appear, moles to fade over time or disappear with age and for them to darken during pregnancy.
The majority of moles are completely harmless but can develop into a type of skin cancer known as melanoma.
Why is melanoma so worrying? Consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible, Dr Anjali Mahto explains that ‘the reason we worry about melanoma is its ability to spread to other organs, or ‘metastasize’. Melanoma has the potential to spread to the liver, lungs, bone and brain, where it can potentially be fatal. The good news is that most melanomas are picked up at an early stage, well before this happens.
‘There is no national screening programme in the UK for melanoma. Your best chance of picking up a melanoma early is to know the signs and when to seek medical attention. I can’t stress enough how vital this is. For those who have private healthcare, many choose to have annual mole checks performed by a dermatologist as part of their preventative health screening. Educating yourself and your loved ones is key in bringing down rates of melanoma. The skin is a visual organ and any surface changes should, in theory, be easier to pick up than disease in some other organ, which would require an internal scan.’
Research conducted by Boots found that 40% of the people they spoke to said they never checked for signs of melanoma, and when they do 77% said they wouldn’t recognise the signs.
When you consider that skin cancer is the fifth most common form of cancer in the UK (as reported by Cancer Research UK), these statistics aren’t great; that’s why we’ve compiled this handy guide on how to check moles.
As well as sun protection (and with SPF formulas at their most advanced – like the best SPFs to apply over make-up – there really is no excuse) and covering moles with clothing, you should keep an eye on moles for any significant changes.
Below, ScreenCancer UK‘s skin specialist and consultant Donna Smart explains the ABCDE method of changes in moles.
ABCDE of moles
The ABCDE acronym is a handy way of remembering the warning signs of changes in moles; asymmetry, borders, colour, diameter and evolving.
Normally, if you were to draw an invisible line through the centre of a mole, both halves should usually be the same.
Watch out for unclear, irregular or ragged borders against normal skin.
Keep an eye out for any changes in colour, especially black, blue or uneven colours.
Melanoma is usually more than 5-6mm in diameter, about the size of a pea. Look out for any changes in size.
Be aware of any changes in size, colour, crustiness, itching or bleeding of existing moles or lesions or if a new mole/lesion appears. Taking a photo will help you monitor any changes.
How often should you check your moles?
It’s so important to get into the habit of checking your moles regularly. Consultant dermatologist, Dr Adam Friedmann of the Stratum Dermatology Clinics recommends doing a quick once over every month, in front of the mirror where it’s easier to spot anything that’s new or different.
Once you know how to check moles, Dr Mahto recommends developing a system. ‘First, examine the front and then the back, to ensure that you do not miss a section of your body. It can be helpful to get a trusted person to look at your back and other hard-to-examine areas. Take care not to miss sites like the buttocks, genital area, palms and soles. Some people find taking photographs once a year a good way to have a record of their skin. The first few months will purely be an exercise in getting used to where your moles and blemishes are, and what is normal for your skin. This becomes easier over time, although it can be challenging for those with many moles.
‘The take-home message about mole checking,’ Dr Friedmann says. ‘Is that if you can recognise the initial signs of changing moles and catch melanoma early, it can be completely cured. But if you miss the signs and get it late, then you have a much higher chance of it spreading and becoming fatal.’
If you don’t feel comfortable with the above and want some advice, clinics and beauty destinations offer things called mole mapping services. It involves a computer taking pictures of your body and analyses any changes.
If you find any moles that you’re concerned at all, it is always advised that you seek medical attention. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Here’s to all of us being more mole-aware.