What is a mole?
A mole is a common benign skin lesion due to a local proliferation of pigment cells (melanocytes). It is more correctly called a melanocytic naevus (American spelling ‘nevus’), and is sometimes also called a naevocytic naevus. A brown or black mole contains the pigment melanin, so may also be called a pigmented naevus.
A mole can be present at birth (congenital naevus) or appear later (acquired naevus). There are various kinds of congenital and acquired naevi.
Who gets moles?
Almost everyone has at least one mole.
- About 1% of individuals are born with one or more congenital melanocytic naevi. This is usually sporadic, with rare instances of familial congenital naevi.
- Fair-skinned people tend to have more moles than darker skinned people.
- Moles that appear during childhood (aged 2 to 10 years) tend to be the most prominent and persistent moles throughout life.
- Moles that are acquired later in childhood or adult life often follow sun exposure.
Most white-skinned New Zealanders have 20–50 moles.
What causes moles?
Although the exact reason for local proliferation of naevus cells is unknown, it is clear that the number of moles a person has depends on genetic factors, on sun exposure, and on immune status.
- People with many moles tend to have family members that also have many moles, and their moles may have a similar appearance.
- Somatic mutations in RAS genes are associated with congenital melanocytic naevi.
- New melanocytic naevi may erupt following the use of BRAF inhibitor drugs (vemurafenib, dabrafenib).
- People living in Australia and New Zealand have many more naevi than their relatives residing in Northern Europe.
- Immunosuppressive treatment leads to an increase in numbers of naevi.
What are the clinical features of moles?
Moles vary widely in clinical, dermatoscopic and histological appearance.
- They may arise on any part of the body.
- Moles differ in appearance depending on the body site of origin.
- They may be flat or protruding.
- They vary in colour from pink or flesh tones to dark brown, steel blue, or black.
- Light skinned individuals tend to have light-coloured moles and dark skinned individuals tend to have dark brown or black moles.
- Although mostly round or oval in shape, moles are sometimes unusual shapes.
- They range in size from a couple of millimetres to several centimetres in diameter.
Classification of melanocytic naevi
Congenital melanocytic naevus
Congenital melanocytic naevi are classified according to their actual or predicted adult size in maximum dimension, and on specific characteristics.
|Small congenital naevus||Medium congenital naevus||Giant naevus||Hairy congenital naevus|
|Small congenital naevus is < 1.5 cm diameter.||Medium congenital naevi are 1.5–19.9 cm diameter.||A large or giant congenital melanocytic naevus is ≥ 20 cm||Hairy congenital naevi grow thick long hairs.|
|Café au lait macule||Speckled lentiginous naevus||Naevus of Ota||Mongolian spot|
|Café au lait macule is a flat brown patch.||Speckled lentiginous naevus is a flat brown patch with darker spots.||Naevus of Ota is a bluish brown mark around forehead, eye and cheek.||Mongolian spot is a large bluish mark most often seen on buttocks of newborn.|
The pathological classification of melanocytic naevi relates to where naevus cells are found in the skin.
Dermatoscopy has given rise to a new classification based on the pigment patterns of melanocytic naevi. Examples include:
|Reticular naevus||Globular naevus||Blue naevus||Starburst naevus|
|Reticular naevus reveal a lattice of intersecting brown lines.||Globular naevus characteristically show aggregated brown oval structures.||The blue naevus is a uniform structureless lesion, steel blue in colour.||Starburst naevus reveals radial lines around periphery of lesion.|
|Site-related naevus: facial||Site-related naevus: acral||Naevus with special features||Unclassifiable naevus|
|Facial naevi reveal pseudonetwork around hair follicles||Acral naevi (these are on palms and soles) tend to be made up of parallel lines.||Naevi with special features include eczematised naevus (illustrated), irritated naevi and halo naevi.||The unclassifiable naevus doesn't have any of the other patterns.|
Acquired melanocytic naevus
Ordinary moles that appear after birth may be referred to as acquired naevi. Acquired melanocytic naevi are given a variety of names and there is considerable overlap of descriptions.
Signature naevi are the predominant group of naevi in an individual with multiple moles.
Uncommon types of melanocytic naevi include:
- Spitz naevus or epithelioid cell naevus: a pink (classic Spitz) or brown (pigmented Spitz) dome-shaped mole that arises in children and young adults.
- Reed naevus: darkly pigmented type of Spitz naevus with starburst dermatoscopic pattern
- Agminated naevi: a cluster of similar moles
The term atypical naevus may be used in several ways.
- A benign mole that has some clinical or histopathological characteristics of melanoma
- A mole with specific characteristics: large (> 5 mm); ill-defined or irregular borders; varying shades of colour; with flat and bumpy components.
- Or, any funny-looking mole; large, or different from the patient’s other moles
Atypical naevi usually occur in fair skinned individuals and are due to sun exposure. They may be solitary or numerous. Pathology is reported as dysplastic junctional or compound naevus and has specific histological features (the Clark naevus).
|Common naevus||Naevus in dark skin||Atypical naevus||Dysplastic naevus|
|A common naevus is a flat mole with a single uniform colour.||In dark skin, naevi are often black in colour.||People with multiple atypical naevi are at increased risk of melanoma (cancerous mole).||Dysplastic naevus describes an atypical mole that has specific microscopic criteria.|
|Blue naevus||Cellular naevus||Miescher naevus||Unna naevus|
|Blue naevus is a deeply pigmented type of dermal naevus.||Cellular naevus is a non-pigmented dermal naevus.||Miescher naevus is a dome-shaped smooth dermal naevus often found on the face.||Unna naevus is a papillomatous dermal naevus that is in the shape of a raspberry.|
|Meyerson naevus||Halo naevus||Spitz naevus||Reed naevus|
|Meyerson naevus is a naevus affected by a halo of eczema/dermatitis.||Halo naevus or Sutton naevus has a white halo around the mole. The mole gradually fades away over several years.||Spitz naevus or epithelioid cell naevus, is a pink (classic Spitz) or brown (pigmented Spitz) dome-shaped mole that arises in children and young adults.||Reed or spindle cell naevus, is a very 5dark-coloured mole with spindle-shaped dermal melanocytes, usually found on the limbs.|
|Recurrent naevus||Agminated naevus||Acral naevus||Nail unit naevus|
|Recurrent naevus refers to the reappearance of pigment in a scar following surgical removal of a mole – this may have an odd shape.||An agminated naevus is a cluster of similar moles or freckles.||Acral naevus refers to one on the palm or sole.||Nail unit naevus causes a uniform longitudinal band of pigment on a nail.|
© Dr Ph Abimelec – dermatologue
What are the complications of moles?
- At first, melanoma may look similar to a harmless mole, but in time it becomes more disordered in structure and tends to enlarge.
- People with a greater number of moles have a higher risk of developing melanoma than those with few moles, especially if they have over 100 of them.
Moles sometimes change for other reasons than melanoma, for example following sun exposure or during pregnancy. They can enlarge or regress (disappear).
- A Meyerson naevus is itchy and dry because it is surrounded by eczema.
- A Sutton or halo naevus is surrounded by a white patch, and fades away over several years
- A recurrent naevus is one that appears in a scar following surgical removal of a mole — this may have an odd shape.
How is a mole diagnosed?
Moles are usually diagnosed clinically by their typical appearance. If there is any doubt about the diagnosis, an expert may be consulted in person or with the help of clinical and dermatoscopic images. This is especially true if:
- A mole changes size, shape, structure or colour
- A new mole develops in adult life (> 40 years)
- It appears different from the person’s other moles (a so-called ugly duckling)
- It has ABCD characteristics (Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Colour variation, Diameter > 6 mm)
- It is bleeding, crusted or itchy
Most skin lesions with these characteristics are actually harmless when evaluated by an expert using dermatoscopy. Short-term digital dermatoscopic imaging may be used in equivocal flat lesions to check for change over time.
What is the treatment for moles?
Most moles are harmless and can be safely left alone. Moles may be removed in the following circumstances:
- To exclude cancer
- The mole is a nuisance: perhaps irritated by clothing, comb or razor
- Cosmetic reasons: the mole is unsightly
Surgical techniques include:
- Excision biopsy of flat or suspicious mole
- Shave biopsy of protruding mole
- Electrosurgical destruction
- Laser to lessen pigment or remove coarse hair
Can moles be prevented?
The number of moles can be minimised by strict protection from the sun, starting from birth. Sunscreen alone is not sufficient to prevent new moles from appearing.
- In New Zealand, the SunSmart Sun Protection Alert advises when protection is required.
- Cover up. Wear a hat, long sleeves and long skirt or trousers. Choose fabrics designed for the sun (UPF 40+) when outdoors.
- Apply sunscreen to areas you can't cover. Choose broad-spectrum high protection (SPF 50+) sunscreens, applied frequently to exposed areas.
What is the outlook for moles?
Most moles that appear in childhood remain forever. Teenagers and young adults tend to have the greatest number of moles. There are fewer in later life because some of them slowly fade away.
To increase the chance of spotting melanoma early, recommend:
- Self-skin examination monthly
- Significant changes in moles or new lesions are reported to doctor or dermatologist
- Regular skin examinations in patients with many moles, atypical naevi or previous skin cancer
- Total body photography and digital dermatoscopic imaging (mole mapping) for patients at high risk of melanoma, especially if they have many moles
- Signature nevi. Suh KY, Bolognia JL. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2009 Mar;60(3):508-14. Review. Medline.
On DermNet NZ:
- Melanocytic naevi – pathology
- Atypical naevi
- Halo moles
- Basal cell carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
- Self skin examination
- Benign melanocytic lesions – common skin lesions course
- Moles – Medline Plus
- Nevus Outreach, Inc.: A non-profit organization dedicated to improving awareness and finding a cure for Congenital Nevi and Neurocutaneous Melanosis.
- MoleMap New Zealand
- Melanocytic nevi – Medscape Reference
- Melanocytic Naevi (Moles) – British Association of Dermatologists
- Grain de beauté – Dr Ph Abimelec website (French)
- Moles and melanoma: Patient Handouts – The Society for Pediatric Dermatology
Books about skin diseases:
See the DermNet NZ bookstore