Atypical Moles vs. Normal Moles
May is Skin Cancer Awareness month. Part of being aware is knowing what to look for, especially when it comes to suspicious-looking moles. Read on to learn about what's normal and what may be cause for alarm.

What's a "Normal" Mole?

Normal moles are common benign skin growths that form when cells in the skin grow in a cluster with tissue surrounding them. They are usually a solid shade of pink, tan or brown, or flesh-colored; round or oval with regular, sharp, well-defined borders; no larger than 1/4 inch; and symmetrical. They can be flat or raised. They typically look similar to your other moles. According to the National Cancer Institute, most people have between 10 and 40 moles.

What's an "Atypical" Mole?

Atypical moles (a.k.a. dysplastic nevi) are skin growths that usually range in color from tan to dark brown, with more than one shade within a single mole. They're asymmetrical and have a raised center with irregular and/or indistinct, flat borders that fade into the surrounding skin. They're often larger than common moles.

Dysplastic nevi are found mostly on the back, chest, abdomen and extremities, but may also appear on the scalp, buttocks, groin or female breasts. They usually look different from any normal moles you have on your body and sometimes resemble a melanoma (a potentially deadly skin cancer).

Why "Atypical" Moles Should Concern You

Although atypical moles are benign, their presence poses an increased risk of developing melanoma. The greater the number of atypical moles, the greater your melanoma risk. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, people who have 10 or more atypical moles have 12 times the risk of developing melanoma compared to the general population.

People who have atypical moles and who have two or more close blood relatives with melanoma are at an extremely high risk of developing melanoma. Even those who have atypical moles but no melanoma family history face a seven to 27 times higher risk of developing melanoma compared to the general population, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

Warning Signs That "Atypical" May Lead to Cancer

If you develop a new mole or pigmented spot; or if you notice a change in size, shape or color in an existing mole; or if an existing mole itches, hurts, becomes elevated, bleeds, crusts, swells, oozes, forms ulcers, and/or is a bluish-black color, see your physician or dermatologist immediately.

What You Should Do if You Have "Atypical" Moles

Perform monthly skin self-examinations and get regular professional skin exams from your doctor or dermatologist. Wear sunscreens and clothing that protect you from the sun's ultraviolet rays and stay out of the sun whenever possible.

For more information visit The Skin Cancer Foundation, The American Academy of Dermatology and The National Cancer Institute.