Of all the skin conditions I treat on a daily basis, moles and skin tags are by far the most common. As a matter of fact it is normal for adults to have between 10-40 moles by adulthood with the majority appearing during the first 20 years of a person’s life. Although they are a nuisance and sometimes unsightly, moles and skin tags are almost always benign (non-cancerous).

As you age, moles are likely to change in color and/or size. They may disappear over time, remain the same, or appear for no reason. Moles that are of particular concern from a medical standpoint are those that look different than other moles or you notice changes in color, height, size, and shape.

It’s a good idea to examine your skin from time to time, paying special attention to areas exposed to the sun, such as hands, arms, chest, neck, and face. If you notice a change in a mole or it bleeds, oozes, appears scaly, or becomes tender or painful, you should have a dermatologist evaluate it.

Skin tags are harmless flaps of tissue that hang off the skin by a connecting stalk. Although they are not painful, rubbing against clothing or jewelry can irritate them. Skin tags are likely to appear on the neck, armpits, or groin. Women and elderly people are more likely to get them, especially with weight gain.

It may seem that knowing about moles and skin tags is not so important, but that’s not the case. Many people who let moles go unchecked run the risk of developing melanoma (cancer) or increase their risk of precancerous cells. Even if health were not your major concern, living with skin tags and moles is something you can easily do without, so why not take a preventive approach to their removal?

Moles Could Be your Skin’s Nemeses!

What is a mole anyway? I get this question all the time from patients. Moles are nothing more than growths on the skin that are caused when cells grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. When exposed to the sun, these cells called melanocytes may darken and become brown or black in color. They may also be affected by pregnancy or during the teen years.

There are two types of moles:

•Congenital nevi – usually appear at birth, occur in about one in 100 people, and are more likely to become cancerous than moles that appear after birth. Moles can be flat or raised, smooth or rough, and can range in color from yellowish to black.

•Dysplastic nevi – larger than normal moles that are usually more than ½ inch across, and not always round. They are described as atypical because they can be tan to dark brown, on a pink background, and can been found on any part of your body. Dysplastic nevi are inherited and the chance of developing skin cancer in one of these moles is greater than in others.

Don’t Wait – Check It Out

So often people neglect moles because they take it for granted that they are nothing to worry about. But it’s always better to be safe than sorry! Watch for noticeable signs that may alert you to the dangers of skin cancer. Here are some red flags when it comes to identifying important characteristics that could mean trouble for your skin. See your dermatologist if you notice a change in a mole as follows:

•Asymmetry – your mole is not round in shape, rather one half does not match the other.
•Border – edges of the mole are ragged, blurred, or irregular.
•Color – the color it not consistent throughout or has shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red.
•Diameter – it is larger than the eraser of a pencil.
•Elevation – it looks like it is raised from the skin.

Whether you are concerned about the possibility of melanoma or you just want to remove moles or skin tags for cosmetic reasons, there is no reason to hesitate. Here is what you can expect.

If a mole looks suspicious, your skin doctor will either remove the entire mole or take a small tissue sample (biopsy). This is a very simple procedure and will not cause the cancer to spread. If the mole proves to be cancerous, the entire mole will be removed along with a rim of normal skin around it.

It is usually best to remove an atypical mole just to be on the safe side. If you are a person who has dysplastic nevi you should avoid sun exposure because sunlight may accelerate changes in this type of mole.

As for skin tags, you may wish to have them removed not because they pose a potential cancer threat but simply because they can be annoying and bothersome. If so, removal is painlessly done in a doctor’s office by freezing the tags with liquid nitrogen or with simple surgery.

Skin tags and moles may seem harmless, and for the most part they are. However, it is always best to schedule periodic checkups with a skin doctor just to be sure you have no suspicious looking skin lesions on your body.

Very often, people wait too long and then it’s too late. If discovered early, melanomas can be removed successfully before spreading to other parts of your body. Go for a mole check soon…you might be glad you did!

Jay Brachfeld, M.D.


Author's Bio: 

•BS Chemistry Massachusetts Institute of Technology
•MD State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine
•Dermatology Residency: Baylor College of Medicine
•Board Certified in Dermatology
•Member American Academy of Dermatology