An expert guide to cancerous moles and the skin cancer signs that should raise your suspicions

Itchy, raised or bleeding moles? Spotting the signs that could save your life…

cancerous moles: the signs to look out for
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cancerous moles are more prevalent than ever, with 14,445 new melanoma cases in Great Britain each year, says the Derma Plus Skin Cancer Index 2018. So, do you have an itchy, raised, or bleeding mole you’re worried about? 

With a busy lifestyle, essential routines, such as checking your moles, can easily slip down the priority list. But being aware of your moles – and if they are changing – is key for surviving skin cancer. That’s because 86% of cases are said to be preventable according to Cancer Research UK. So, if you’re still sunbathing, it’s time to switch to the best fake tan instead.

Want to find out if you are at risk of developing cancerous moles? From using the right SPF to the mole changes to spot, here's everything you need to know...

How many moles does the average person have?

Some people think moles add character, while many of us don’t notice them. Other people, however, really can’t stand them. But, whatever you feel about moles, you’ve probably got at least one. 

“There’s not really a normal amount, but less than 50 moles would be compatible with most of the population,” says Dr Ross Perry, skin cancer expert and medical director of CosmedicsUK.

Moles occur when cells grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. “These are called melanocytes, and they make the pigment that gives skin its natural colour,” says Dr Ross. Got more moles than most? It’s probably down to your family. “Our genetic make-up has a lot to do with the number of moles we have,” explains Dr Ross. “Plus, high amounts of sun exposure means we are more likely to develop more.”

Cancerous moles: why skin cancer is on the rise

Melanoma rates in the UK have risen faster over the last 30 years than any other of the current top 10 cancers. According to Cancer Research UK, the rise in cancerous moles has been caused partly by a rise in cheap package holidays, plus there’s the desire for a Hollywood glow.

cancerous moles: legs are the most common place that melanoma appears

Mole changes: what makes a mole become cancerous?

Most moles are harmless and will look the same for many years. “Yet, in theory, all moles have the potential to change into a skin cancer,” warns Dr Ross. So it’s important to check even the ones you’ve had since childhood. “Non-cancerous moles are often termed along the lines of how they look, such as warty moles, flat moles, raised moles, flat moles with ring of white around them, and freckles,” says Dr Ross.

The majority of melanoma cases in adults are new moles, usually due to either long-term or short periods of over-exposure to the sun. UVB rays penetrate less deeply and cause sunburn, while UVA rays go deeper into the skin, causing longer-term invisible damage. So, if your skin has gone pink or red, or you need to treat it for sunburn, it’s a sign it has been damaged by too much UV radiation.

And it doesn’t have to be sunny for your skin to be at risk. “Even if you can’t see any blue sky, a significant amount of UV rays can still get through the clouds – even in the UK,” warns Dr. Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. “You can even be affected indoors as UVA radiation can penetrate glass, such as a car window or conservatory.”

Signs of skin cancer and cancerous moles

“If a mole shows any of these features, it should be seen by your GP who will refer you to a dermatologist to exclude melanoma,” says Dr Mahto. “They will perform a full skin examination and may either excise a mole, take a sample or biopsy.”

Follow the ABCDE rule! A suspicious mole that may be a cancerous mole has one or more of the following attributes:

  • Asymmetry One half of the mole is different to the other.
  • Border Irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge.
  • Colour Uneven colour or variable colours within a mole.
  • Diameter The mole is bigger than 6mm in size (roughly a petit pois size).
  • Evolving The mole is changing in its size, shape or colour.

cancerous mole size

How to check for skin cancer and cancerous moles

“Check your body once a month and seek medical advice early,” says Dr Mahto. “Study your moles after a bath or shower in a well-lit room with the aid of a full-length mirror. Look closely at the entire body including the scalp, buttocks and genitalia, palms and soles, including between the fingers and toes. Seek assistance from a trusted individual to examine the hard-to-see areas.”

You should make an extra effort to look out for:

  • A mole that looks significantly different to the others.
  • Moles or skin lesions that itch consistently.
  • Moles or skin lesions that bleed or fail to heal.
  • Dark spots or persistent streaks in your nails. In rare cases, malignant melanoma can develop in the skin around and under nails.
  • Delicate areas, such as your lips. The sun tends to hit the lower lip, so it's more likely to be affected by skin cancer.
  • Moles on your legs. “The legs are the most common site on the body for melanoma in females,” says Dr Mahto.

Types of cancerous moles

There are three types of cancerous moles:

  • Malignant melanoma
    Typically: Dark black mole, often flat, irregular edge. Very dangerous with a high risk of spreading. Caught late it can be fatal, but caught early it’s easily removed.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
    Typically: Red moles or a reddish lump on the skin that can bleed and ulcerate. Moderate risk of spreading.
  • Basal cell carcinoma
    Typically: Either a flat red patch of skin that bleeds or is painful but also a reddish lump. Has a low risk of spreading.

Pictures of cancerous moles

Pictures of cancerous moles: malignant melanoma

cancerous moles: malignant melanoma

cancerous moles

cancerous moles: Squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer

cancerous moles: Basal cell carcinoma

How to prevent skin cancer and cancerous moles

Despite sun exposure being a key factor in developing skin cancer, 23% of Brits admit they don’t use any sun cream, a study by YouGov found. 

Stay safe by avoiding the sun when it’s at its hottest between 11am to 3pm. Wear a hat with a wide brim and always apply sun cream. 

Not sure what to choose? “A higher price doesn’t necessarily mean the sunscreen is better quality,” says Dr Mahto. “Look for SPF 30 or more to protect against UVB, and the UVA circle logo and/or 4 or 5 UVA stars to protect against UVA.” 

Get into the habit of applying your sunscreen before venturing outside as SPF needs up to 20 minutes to sink in.

How to get vitamin D safely from sunlight

Covering up makes sense to avoid skin cancer risks, but you could be missing out on other benefits. “Sunlight should be the body’s main natural source of vitamin D, but levels of deficiency in the UK are high,” says Mike Wakeman, clinical pharmacist at Vitmedics.

However, research by the University of Manchester recommends the following, Mike explains:

  • Lighter skin
    “Daily sunlight exposure of unprotected skin for just 10-15 minutes during the spring and summer should provide adequate vitamin D. For most, this will balance the benefits of vitamin D production and the risks of skin cancer. It is preferable that this is undertaken in the middle of the day, with lower arms and legs exposed to maximise benefit.”
  • Darker skin
    “Around 25-40 minutes of exposure in the UK is recommended. Importantly, levels of exposure that make skin look pink or sunburnt – either during or after exposure – should always be avoided.”
  • Very light or sensitive skin
    “Seek guidance from your GP about alternative sources of vitamin D.”

Mole removal: is it safe?

Want to get rid of your moles for vanity reasons? Show them to your GP first.

“As long as the moles are not overly numerous or irregular in colour or shape then there is no positive or negative to having them,” says Dr Ross. But removal won’t, unfortunately, reduce your risk of skin cancer in the future. 

“Moles can be safely removed for cosmetic purposes but it won’t decrease your risk of skin cancer. This is because 70% of all melanomas are NEW moles. So removing moles to reduce your skin cancer risk is not advisable.”

My cancerous mole story: a woman&home reader shares her experience

Woman&home reader Denise Palmer-Davies, 42, from Surrey, came to regret her sun-loving youth when she would apply oil without using SPF.

“About four years ago, I noticed I had a small, flat mole on my back which kept on growing. After about a year, I went to see my GP, but I was told it was nothing. I went back again after having my second child as it had grown significantly, but was told it was a skin infection. I then asked a friend, a skin specialist, to take a look and he told me to see my GP again.

”On this occasion, I explained it was now irritating me. I also said that my mum had melanoma three times and my grandfather died from skin cancer. This time, pictures were taken of the mole and sent to Dermatology. Less than 24 hours later I was called as they believed it was a type of skin cancer – it was removed less than a week later. I would urge anyone who is worried to monitor their moles by taking regular pictures. Personally, I will never sunbathe again – it just isn’t worth it.”

Faye M Smith

Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. Currently Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships.