The Facts About Moles

Posted on the 26 October 2012 at 11:15

Moles are a fact of life for most of the UK population. The medical name for a mole is a naevus; the plural is naevi (in the US spelt nevus/nevi).

Moles are very common. While the average adult will have around 30 moles, some people have up to 400.

Moles, or nevi, fall into two broad categories.

  • Harmless Moles” are usually smaller than 5 mm wide and is pink, tan, or brown with a distinct edge. People who have more than 50 common moles have a greater chance than others of developing a dangerous type of skin cancer known as melanoma. Most common moles do not turn into melanoma.
  • Malignant Melanoma” is more unusual. It could be a fast-growing new mole or else a pre-existing mole that changes size, shape, colour or starts to bleed, itch or redden.

Harmless Moles

The good news is that the majority of moles are medically harmless. However, even harmless “normal” moles can be troublesome if they are in a prominent, visible place such as the face; or if they are large, raised so that they catch on clothing, are hairy or annoying in any other way.

Many people are bothered by unwanted moles. Unfortunately, there is very little mole removal done nowadays on the NHS. However, private mole removal offers an excellent alternative for those patients who are looking to get rid of a troublesome mole.

Even apparently harmless moles should always be tested as a precaution if they are being removed.

Melanoma Moles

Most moles are harmless, but in a few rare cases they can develop into malignant melanoma, which is an aggressive form of skin cancer.

It is therefore important to be vigilant for any change in moles. The "ABCDE" rule describes the features of early melanoma

  • Asymmetry. The shape of one half does not match the other half.
  • Border that is irregular. The edges are often ragged, notched, or blurred in outline. The pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
  • Colour that is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, gray, red, pink, or blue may also be seen.
  • Diameter. There is a change in size, usually an increase. Melanomas can be tiny, but most are larger than 6 millimeters wide (about 1/4 inch wide).
  • Evolving. The mole has changed over the past few weeks or months.

Any of these mole concerns should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible. This may not necessarily mean melanoma, but it should be investigated.

The most common areas for melanoma are (for men) on the back and (for women) on the legs. Although the risk of melanoma has been clearly linked to sun exposure, melanomas are not exclusively sun-related. Anyone can get a melanoma and they can get one on any area of skin even if they have never been sun burnt. That’s why everyone is advised to check themselves all over every 2-3 months and seek urgent attention for any suspicious moles. 

If melanoma is suspected, mole removal may be carried out on the NHS and this should include mole testing.
Surgical or laser mole removal is also available in the private sector, where waiting lists are not an issue.

Remember, the majority of moles are actually harmless, but it is very important to be alert to any that may cause a problem.

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Blog Comment(s) [2]

Thank you Ross, but where do dysplastic nevi fit into this model? May I suggest three catergories; Common Moles, Dysplastic Nevi, and Malignant Melanoma. Particularly as we spend most of our life screening and doing histopathology on this middle section

Dr Patrick J. Treacy |

Dear Patrick

I agree with your comments from a medical aspect and for doctors / healthcare professional - to include dysplasia would be a more comprehensive categorisation. However this article was more for the public awareness and information. The problem with adding an extra category like dysplastic naevi is that it can be confusing for people despite the best and full explanations given. My patients get concerned if I tell them it is atypical but normal, as they then worry needlessly despite going through everything in detail. I would ideally want the public to take home key messages about self awareness and monitoring rather than the grey area of dysplasia which are still in mild moderate cases categorised as ‘normal’.

I prefer to educate patients on the key messages of when to visit a doctor; as getting patients to visit us early is the key should they be concerned about any mole changes.

Kind regards


Dr Ross Perry |