Our skin is the most accessible organ we have—one that we can easily see and touch. This can be helpful in monitoring and supporting skin health, as rashes can be spotted as soon as they appear and new lesions can be evaluated early.
When it comes to growths on the skin, sometimes treatment is necessary and sometimes it's elective—if we don't like the way a feature on our skin looks, we can, in some cases, have it removed. Moles, also called nevi, are among the most common of these features. But what exactly are moles, and what does the removal process look like?
A mole occurs when melanocytes—cells that give our skin its natural color—grow in a cluster instead of spreading evenly throughout the skin. Closely grouped bunches of these pigment-producing cells present themselves on the skin as a colored, flat or raised lesion that we call a mole. There are three main types:
These are benign, or non-harmful, growths that are present at birth. They can be just a few millimeters to giant in size, taking up the entire surface of a body part.
This type of mole is a benign lesion that can develop any time between childhood and our third to fourth decade of life. A person with light skin, for instance, will have an average of 10 to 40 acquired nevi on the skin. Having 50 or more increases the risk of melanoma. These growths can be flat or raised, skin-colored, pinkish, tan, shades of brown, or even blue. They usually are smaller than six millimeters (about the size of a standard pencil eraser) and symmetrical, with round borders and even color throughout.
This type of mole can be larger than six millimeters and asymmetric, with jagged borders and an irregular color pattern. Although atypical moles can look like melanoma, they are benign. The difference can be hard to tell, however, so if you find something like this on your skin, it's critical to have it checked out by a Dermatologist.
Where to Look and What to Look For
Moles can occur anywhere on the body, from head to toe. Some are genetic and all types can be found even where the sun doesn't shine. Mostly, moles stay put, minding their own business on whatever piece of skin they call home. Some can look different due to irritation or getting older—yes, moles age too—looking a bit more raised as the years go by. More rarely, a changing mole can mean that the cells are atypical or becoming cancerous.
Daily sun protection, monthly self-skin checks, and yearly visits to a board-certified Dermatologist are the best ways to protect yourself from shifting moles.
Making Your Decision
Certainly, if a mole presents a health concern, the removal of the lesion is the most prudent action. Once your doctor has determined it could be dangerous, they will order follow-up testing and treatment. But what if the lesion just isn't to your liking?
For some people, moles may simply pose a cosmetic issue or get easily irritated, in which case removing it becomes a personal choice. The best first step here is to discuss the risks versus benefits of removal with a Dermatologist or Plastic Surgeon.
These professionals can review your medical history, perform an exam on the mole itself, evaluate your risk of scarring, and help to guide your decision with their insight. Larger moles are generally more difficult and expensive to remove, with the potential for scarring increasing with size. It's also worth noting that elective removals likely will not be covered by health insurance.
Preparing for Removal
If either medical necessity or personal preference has you settled on getting a mole removed, here is what you can expect.
Small, benign, acquired moles are commonly removed in-office under local anesthetic, so you won't feel a thing during the procedure. The process may involve stitches, but it's usually a quick outpatient procedure that gets its patients back to business as usual within the same day.
Larger or cancerous lesions may require a more involved surgery that will be done in a Dermatologist's office, surgical center, or, in some cases, a hospital. Most of these procedures are still outpatient, with variable recovery time.
Regardless of the size of the lesion, specifics of the procedure, or your own research, the most important thing for you to do is carefully follow your doctor's instructions for how to prepare for the removal and care for the site afterward.
If you're looking for the best ways to ensure skin health, make sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day, conduct monthly skin exams yourself, and schedule total body skin checks with board-certified Dermatologists annually.
Once you've established a relationship with a Dermatologist, they can advise you should any skin issue, including a possible mole removal, arise. These experts have seen it all, and they're there to help you look and feel your best.