Is It a Mole or Skin Cancer?

Find out the differences between regular moles and skin changes that could be potentially cancerous.

Skin cancer is the most common—and most preventable—form of cancer. It occurs when cells in your skin grow out of control and is often caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. You are more at risk for skin cancer if you have a family history of the disease, as well as if you have light-colored skin, blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair, or skin that burns, freckles, or reddens easily.

Luckily, if skin cancer is found early, it can be treated easily. The best way to find it early is to be aware of the warnings signs by checking your skin and moles often.

How To Check Your Skin for Cancer

Checking your skin is a crucial step to preventing skin cancer. A dermatologist can check your skin but you can also keep a look out for anything suspicious. The "ABCDE" rule—asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolving—can be a great tool to monitor your moles. You should talk to your healthcare provider or dermatologist if any of your moles appear to be:

  • Asymmetrical
  • Irregular or blurred on the edges
  • Varying shades of color
  • Larger than 1/4 inch across in size
  • Changing in color, size, or shape

To find out whether it is a mole or cancer, check your skin every few months, because most skin cancers start as irregular spots, Ariel Ostad, MD, said assistant professor of dermatology at New York University.

Normal Mole


What it is: A mole is a harmless spot that develops during childhood or later in life and can be found anywhere.

Looks like: Typically smaller than a pencil eraser, moles are round and symmetrical with smooth borders and an even color. According to Dr. Ostad, "They usually don't evolve or change shape."

Actinic Keratosis


What it is: Actinic keratosis is a common precancerous growth often found on your face, lips, ears, scalp, shoulders, neck, and back of the hands and forearms. "They should be removed because 5 to 10 percent of them become cancerous," Dr. Ostad explained.

Looks like: You'll see a rough, dry, scaly, or crusty patch that is flesh-toned pink, red, tan, or white in color.

Basal Cell Carcinoma


What it is: Caused by sun damage and typically found on sun-exposed areas like the face, ears, neck, lips, and back of the hands, this type of cancer is treatable if it's caught early.

Looks like: It normally appears as a pinkish or reddish patch that have raised edges and may bleed or scab. "Picture a pimple that seems to heal, only to return again," Dr. Ostad said. It can also appear as:

  • Open sores
  • Flat yellow patches (like a scar)
  • Raised, itchy, red patches
  • Pink or red translucent, shiny, bumps

Squamous Cell Carcinoma


What it is: Similarly to basal cell carcinoma, this type of cancer often appears on sun-exposed areas like the face, ear, neck, lip, and back of the hands.

Looks like: You'll notice a thick growth that can peel and bleed and may have an irregularly shaped border. "It's more like a wart than a pimple," Dr. Ostad said.


The Skin Cancer Foundation (all) (

What it is: This serious form of cancer can spread quickly but is curable if caught early. "Melanoma is usually found on women's legs, rarely on their faces," Dr. Ostad said. "In men, it's more common on the torso," Dr. Ostad explained.

Looks like: Alert your dermatologist if you see a dark, irregularly shaped growth with uneven tan, brown, or black coloring. In more advanced growths, the mole may ooze, bleed, itch, or be painful.

Prevention Is Key

Luckily, skin cancer is preventable. Because it is known that most skin cancers are caused by UV rays, there are different ways you can protect yourself from the UV rays.

Keep in mind that you can be exposed to UV rays anytime of the year—not just in the summertime—and even when it is cloudy outside.

Covering your skin is an easy way to protect yourself from harmful UV rays. If you wear clothing that covers your arms and legs, a hat to cover your head, and sunglasses to cover your eyes, you are protecting multiple parts of your body from exposure to UV rays. For the spots that you can't cover—sunscreen is your best bet. Make sure the sunscreen you use has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.

A Quick Review

Keeping an eye on your skin and moles can be crucial to the prevention of skin cancer. Remember to look out for any changes in color, shape, and size, and follow the ABCDE guide to monitor your moles. When in doubt, you can always have a healthcare provider check your skin.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Skin cancer basic Information.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the risk factors?

  3. American Cancer Society. How to spot skin cancer.

  4. Ferrara G, Argenziano G. The WHO 2018 Classification of Cutaneous Melanocytic Neoplasms: Suggestions From Routine PracticeFront Oncol. 2021;11:675296. Published 2021 Jul 2. doi:10.3389/fonc.2021.675296

  5. The Skin Cancer Foundation. Actinic keratosis overview.

  6. American Cancer Society. Basal cell carcinoma.

  7. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of basal and squamous cell skin cancers.

  8. American Cancer Society. What is melanoma skin cancer?

  9. National Cancer Institute. What does melanoma look like?

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What can I do to reduce my risk?

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