Moles, Freckles and Skin Tags – What to Worry About
There are several types of skin lesions that are quite common and almost always benign (non-cancerous). These conditions include moles, freckles, skin tags, benign lentigines, and seborrheic keratoses. However, moles are most commonly examined for cancer if changes are detected.
What are the Differences between Moles, Freckles and Skin Tags?
Moles are growths that can appear anywhere on the skin and are usually brown or black in color. Most moles appear in early childhood and during the first 25 years of a person's life. As the years pass, moles usually change slowly, becoming raised and/or changing color. Sometimes, hairs develop in the mole. Some moles may not change at all, while others may slowly disappear over time.
A skin tag is a small benign skin growth very commonly found on adult skin, they are harmless but an annoying skin problem nonetheless. Skin tags tend to occur on the eyelids, neck, armpits, groin and underneath the breasts. Skin tags are so common that almost everyone will develop one at some point in their lives. Middle-aged and overweight people are most prone to developing skin tags.
Freckles are small brown spots on the skin that (in most cases) are also harmless. Freckles form as a result of the overproduction of melanin, which is responsible for the pigmentation in our hair and skin colors. Overall, freckles are a result of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. There are two different types of freckles: ephelides and solar lentigines. Ephelides are the most common type (and the type that most people would think of as freckles). Solar lentigines are different in their appearance – these show as dark patches of skin that develop during adulthood. Solar lentigines includes freckles, ageing spots, and sunspots. The two types of freckles can look similar but differ in significant ways. Ephelides can form on anyone not protecting their skin from UV exposure (another reason to always wear sunscreen), while Solar lentigines generally occur in Caucasians and those over 40 years of age.
What to Look for and When to Worry
While moles, freckles and skin tags are all considered skin lesions, moles are different in that they can assume different shapes and colors (ranging from brown to pink), and they aren’t necessarily associated with sun exposure. On a young person, a harmless mole will keep pace with a person’s growth as they age. Moles also need to be monitored and carefully examined, as they can be an early sign of skin cancer.
Although your moles are largely influenced by your genetics, and they aren’t brought on exclusively by UV exposure like Ephelide freckles, sun exposure can still have an effect on them – it can cause you to have more moles, or cause the ones you already have to get darker. If you are worried about a mole, it’s important to consult your doctor or a dermatologist since it may be an early sign of malignant melanoma, which is a life-threatening form of skin cancer.
Examine your skin regularly, looking for any new skin moles as well as changes in the moles you already have. If you have a family history of atypical moles or skin cancer, or a large number of moles or freckles, your primary doctor may suggest that you see a dermatologist for regular skin evaluations to monitor them.
How to Self-Examine Moles
When you examine your moles, remember the ABCDEs of melanoma. If you notice any of the following, consult your doctor or dermatologist:
A for asymmetry: A mole in which one half of the mole does not look like the other
B for irregular border: A mole with a scalloped or poorly defined border
C for varied color: A mole that consists of multiple shades of black, brown, white, red, and/or blue
D for large diameter: A mole that has a diameter larger than that of a pencil eraser
E for evolving: A mole that's size, shape, or color changes over time
If in examining your mole(s) you find any of the above to be true then it’s important to have it checked by a qualified professional such as a doctor or dermatologist. Catching symptoms early is key to successful treatment for moles that are cancerous. There are several different types of treatment options when caught early too, including Mohs Surgery, which you can read more about here.
At the Idaho Skin Institute, we are dedicated to caring for all of your skin needs. If you notice any new moles (especially after age 20) or if you have a bothersome mole that bleeds, itches or is painful it is best to have it looked at by your doctor or dermatologist. We have a free skin cancer screening on the first Tuesday of every month, from 5:00 to 6:15 PM (except when they fall on a holiday or election). For more information on how we can help you, visit our website. Whatever specific skin concerns you may have, you can expect genuine and personalized care from the practitioners at Idaho Skin Institute to optimize your individual outcome.