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How to Tell the Difference Between Harmless Moles and Melanoma

Written by on July 5, 2012 in Diseases & Issues, Health -
Difference Between a Malignant Moles and Benign Moles

To begin with, technically speaking, melanoma is a malignant tumor of melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that produce the dark pigment, melanin, which is responsible for the color of skin. They predominantly occur in skin, but are also found in other parts of the body, including the bowel and the eye. Melanoma can originate in any part of the body that contains melanocytes.
Melanoma is less common than other skin cancers. However, it is much more dangerous if it is not found early. It causes the majority (~80%) of deaths related to skin cancer, thus making it the deadliest form of skin cancer and it can be hard to identify.

If a mole or blemish fits the characteristics below, you might want to consider a dermatologist appointment:
AsymMETRY — if the mole could be folded in half, the two halves wouldn’t match;
BoRdER irregularities — the mole’s borders are uneven or blurred;
Color variations — the mole has mixed shades of tan, brown, black or other hues;
D i a m e t e r — the spot is way bigger than a pencil eraser;
Evolution — its appearance has changed in some way;

How to tell if a mole is melanoma or normal blemish - skin cancer

Visual differences between benign and malignant moles or blemishes

All cancers are caused by damage to the DNA inside cells. This damage can be inherited in the form of genetic mutations, but in most cases, it builds up over a person’s lifetime and is caused by factors in their environment. DNA damage causes the cell to grow out of control, leading to a tumor. Melanoma is usually caused by damage from UV light from the sun, but UV light from sunbeds can also contribute to the disease.
Skin cancer is highly curable when it’s found early. Still, not every mole or mark is dangerous. Below are some more tips to tell the difference between a dangerous blemish and a simple, typical, normal mole.

Don’t Make a Mountain Out of a Mole
Benign mole, normal moles, harmless blemish, atypical moles

Harmless, benign moles (click to enlarge)

In most of the cases, a mole or a blemish is simply a cluster of pigmented cells, creating a spot that can be light-colored, pink or very dark brown. Some moles are raised off the skin’s surface, and some sprout hairs, but neither is a bad sign in itself. It doesn’t mean it’s an atypical mole. Moles can usually be left alone but should be monitored for changes. If a mole appears suspicious (based on the above characteristics) or it becomes easily irritated, your dermatologist can numb the skin and remove it by cutting or shaving it of without any danger. The mole will be sent to the lab for evaluation afterwards, to make sure it’s harmless.

 Serious Signs of Sun Damage
Actinic Keratosis - Sun Damaged Skin - Premise to cancer

Actinic Keratosis – precancerous sun damage (click to enlarge)

An actinic keratosis is a rough, crusty, red or brown, flat, scaly covering the skin’s top layer and it’s considered pre-cancerous. These occur in sun-exposed areas and you can often feel them before you can see them. If left untreated, it can turn into squamous cell carcinoma, another form of skin cancer that can also spread but isn’t as deadly as melanoma. Dermatologists typically recommend using a topical cream (containing fluorouracil) to destroy the precancerous cells, or treating actinic keratosis with other treatments like liquid nitrogen, laser or photodynamic therapy that can destroy abnormal cells on the surface.

Mysterious Mark or Melanoma?

A seborrheic keratosis (see accurate description) can be light-colored, light brown or tan, and it may have a waxy or scaly, wart-like appearance. Sometimes a seborrheic keratosis can have variations in color and be confused with a melanoma, so it’s important to get them checked out. These common growths, which can range in size, are benign. However, if they become itchy, red, irritated or inflamed or if they’re unsightly, they can be gently scraped off the skin’s surface or frozen off with liquid nitrogen.

Other Spots and Blemishes
Solar lentigo, Lentigo senilis, Old age spot, Senile freckle, Liver spots

Liver spots, Solar lentigo, Lentigo senilis, Old age spot, Senile freckle – they are the same (click to enlarge)

A lentigo (popularly called liver spot) is a flat, brow blemish (usually in cluster) caused by long-term sun damage. These spots derive their name from the fact that they were once incorrectly believed to be caused by liver problems, but they are physiologically unrelated to the liver. They may be “unpretty”, but they’re benign. They only occur in sun exposed areas – for some people it takes a lot of sun exposure. Lentigos can be left alone, but if they bother you for cosmetic reasons, your dermatologist may recommend applying a tretinoin cream and a topical bleaching cream. You can also have them removed with a chemical peel, liquid nitrogen or zapped with a laser. Wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to prevent more from developing (not to mention, to protect your skin).


Melasma, not Melanoma
Melasma, after birth

Woman with Melasma

As if pregnancy didn’t bring enough changes to a woman’s body, some women develop brown patches on their faces during the nine-month stretch, often called the mask of pregnancy – melasma. While its exact causes aren’t known, there are genetic, sun-related, and hormonal components, so melasma can also happen if you’re taking oral contraceptives. The longer you’re on the Pill, the greater your risk. Fortunately, melasma is harmless. Sun exposure can darken the patches though, so wear sunscreen with an sun-proof factor of 30 or higher every day, and stay in the shade as much as possible. Sometimes, melasma fades after childbirth or going off the Pill. If it doesn’t, a prescription-strength bleaching cream, a chemical peel, or intense pulsed light treatment (IPL) can help.

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