Why You Should Be Checking Your Moles

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The skin cancer melanoma affects around 16,000 people every year in the UK. The good news is, by being aware of your moles, 86% of cases can be treated, or even prevented altogether. We went to two of the industry’s leading skin experts to find out more…
Photography ISTOCK/ANASTASIIA GORSHKOVA

First – what exactly are moles?

“Moles are common, pigmented skin growths that are either present from birth, or develop in childhood and early adult life. Genetics play a part in the number you have – multiple moles tend to run in families, but excessive sun exposure (including sun beds) is a significant factor in the formation of new moles. It’s considered normal to have anywhere up to 40 moles by the time you’re an adult. However, these can change over the years – they can change colour, become raised, change in size, or start crusting, bleeding or itching. Some even disappear with time.” – Dr Paul Banwell, mole removal expert and leading plastic surgeon

What about freckles – do these develop into moles?

“No – freckles do not develop into moles. The fairer your skin, the higher the risk of skin cancer. An increased number of moles increases your risk of skin cancer to a certain degree. That said, some fair-skinned people have no moles, and some darker-skinned people have lots. Hence, everyone should protect their skin and watch out for moles.” – Dr Amelie Seghers, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic

What’s the most common mistake PEOPLE make when checking their moles?

“The majority of people simply don’t check often enough. Living in a country where we wear layers of clothes all year round, it’s not uncommon to see older patients who’ve never even looked at their own skin. Patients in countries where there is more of a beach culture, such as Italy and Australia, are much more aware of their own moles. You should be checking your moles every month or so.” – Amelie 

Genetics play a part in the number of moles you have, but excessive sun exposure is a significant factor in the formation of new moles.

So, what should you be looking for?

“If you notice a mole changing in size, shape or colour, it should be checked out straight away. You can use the ABCDE guide to remember the warning signs:

Asymmetry: Both halves of a mole should look the same. Ask yourself: does the left side look like the right side, and does the top half mirror the bottom half?

Border: A mole’s border should be well-defined and sharp, so look out for unclear and irregular edges.

Colour: Keep an eye out for changes in colour, especially black or blue colours, multiple colours or pale areas.

Diameter: Check that your mole is smaller than the end of a pencil. A melanoma is usually more than 6mm in diameter.

Evolving: Get into the habit of checking your skin monthly – is it changing in size, shape or colour?” – Paul 

Where should you be looking? 

“As well as the obvious places, such as your arms and legs (the legs are the most common place on the body for women to develop melanoma), don’t forget to look in between your toes and fingers, behind the ears and on your genitals. You can also ask your hairdresser to check if you have any moles on your scalp. Always check your nailbeds, too, as a mole can appear on the nailbed as a brown line. To make it easier to check moles on your back, take a photo of your back as a baseline and ask your partner or a friend to check for changes every few months.” – Amelie 

If you are worried about one of your moles, what should you do?

“A mole that is standing out from the others (darker, larger and more asymmetric than the others) and one that is changing in appearance over time are two signs that should push you to see a professional. You should go to your GP first – although if they do not have the right equipment, such as a dermatoscope, you have every right to ask for a referral to a dermatologist. If you’re self-funding an appointment, you can go straight to see a dermatologist privately. If your GP recommends you have your mole removed for histological diagnosis (i.e., when a pathologist looks at a removed skin specimen with a microscope to ascertain whether it’s benign, precancerous or malignant), then you can have this done on the NHS or privately. If there is a concern that your mole is cancerous, your GP can refer you to the two-week rule clinic, where you will usually be seen within two weeks. If they deem it necessary, they will remove the mole for you. Sometimes, they will recommend monitoring of the mole rather than excision.” – Amelie 

If you want to get a mole removed for aesthetic reasons, what are your options?

“It’s very common for people to want non-cancerous moles removed, either because they’re a nuisance, or because they don’t like the look of them. They can get cut during shaving or get caught on clothing or jewellery. Aesthetic treatments like this are not covered on the NHS, but you can have it done privately. For example, in my clinics, I offer mole shave excision – this method removes moles quickly and simply without the need to cut the skin or have stitches. It is usually carried out under local anaesthetic. Moles on the face and neck respond best to such removal techniques as if a mole is cut out, it can leave a small patch of pale skin.” – Paul 

A mole that is standing out from the others and one that is changing in appearance over time are two signs that should push you to see a professional.

Where can you get your moles checked professionally?

“If you are worried about a mole, go and see your GP first. Alternatively, arrange to see a dermatologist who will be able to review the mole of concern and complete a full-body check. At the Cadogan Clinic, we offer a head-to-toe mole mapping service, which is the UK’s most comprehensive service for screening, diagnosing and treating skin cancer. It’s also the only mole check of its kind approved by the British Skin Foundation. At your appointment, you’ll be seen by a consultant dermatologist, who will digitally map your entire body with a special tool designed to detect the subtlest changes in the number of moles. Any mole that your dermatologist is concerned about will be examined on the spot under a high-powered microscope and a digital image taken to enable monitoring.” – Amelie 

How do you prevent moles from developing now the weather is getting warmer?

“Always wear SPF, whatever the weather. Don’t assume that if the sun isn’t shining you don’t need to wear SPF, because you still do. Apply SPF regularly and don’t forget areas such as the scalp, which can easily be covered with a hat. Hands and feet are often areas that are forgotten, too, so always ensure these are protected with a high-factor SPF. Also don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you have dark skin you can’t develop a melanoma, because anyone can.” – Paul 

 

Dr Paul Banwell is a leading plastic surgeon and has clinics for mole removal and excision in Harley Street, East Grinstead and Tunbridge Wells; visit PaulEBanwell.com for more information. To book an appointment with Amelie, visit CadoganClinic.com. The NHS MoleCare app can also help you self-screen your moles.
 

DISCLAIMER: Features published by SLMan are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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