Am I at a greater risk for skin cancer if I have a lot of moles?

All moles are not created equal. Having certain types of moles or a large number of moles on your body can put you at an increased risk of melanoma, but you shouldn't worry about every mole.
Aug. 7, 2020

If you have a lot of moles on your body, you may have heard that you are at a greater risk of skin cancer. You have probably worried a lot about your moles and the possibility of getting melanoma, or skin cancer, and you might wonder whether or not you have something to worry about.

Skin cancer and moles

talking about skin cancer and moles, this woman's back has some different size and shaped moles.
Worried about skin cancer and moles? All moles are not created equal and that’s why self screenings and talking with your doctor about concerns is so important. Source: Getty Images.

Unfortunately, having certain types of moles or a large number of moles on your body can put you at an increased risk of melanoma, but you shouldn’t worry about every mole. Instead, you should assess your moles before you start worrying about developing skin cancer.

“The best way to detect skin cancer early is to recognize new or changing skin growths, particularly those that look different from other moles,” said UCHealth Oncologist and Hematologist Dr. Miho Scott. “All major areas of the skin should be examined regularly.”

If you are concerned that you might be at a risk for skin cancer, however, you should consider consulting a physician to have yourself checked out and to talk about risk factors and ways to prevent skin cancer.

Types of Moles

All moles are not created equally. It is completely normal to have moles on your body if you are between the age of ten and 40, but some moles should be taken more seriously than others. Therefore, you should assess the types of moles that you have before worrying if you are at an increased risk of skin cancer.

Common Moles

Common moles are round-shaped moles that appear on your body. Some people are born with noticeable moles; others are born with small moles that aren’t noticeable when they are babies but that are more apparent as they grow.

ABCDEs of skin cancer screening

Asymmetry – one half of the mole doesn’t match the other half.

Border irregularity – the edges are ragged, notched or blurred.

Color – the pigmentation is not uniform, with variable degrees of brown, black, red, blue, gray or white.

Diameter – areas greater than 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser).

Evolution – a mole that is changing in size, color, shape, or the appearance of a new lesion.

Sometimes, moles develop with age; these moles typically appear on areas of your body that are or have been exposed to the sun. These moles should be round or oval-shaped, and they should be smooth but should have distinct edges and might be dome-shaped. These moles come in brown, pink and tan, and individuals with darker hair typically have darker moles than those who have blonde or another light-colored shade of hair.

Although common moles do sometimes turn into melanoma, they aren’t as dangerous or put you at as much of a risk as abnormal moles. You should watch out for your common moles, however. If you notice a color change or an uneven change in size as an adult, you should consult a doctor immediately. Bleeding or oozing, a dry or scaly surface, an itchy feeling on the mole or a hard or lumpy feeling should also be taken seriously.

Abnormal Moles

An abnormal mole, which is also known as a dysplastic nevus or atypical mole, is a more likely sign of skin cancer risk than a common mole, but you should know that abnormal moles typically do even out over time and typically do not turn into skin cancer. If you are wondering whether or not you have an abnormal mole, you should examine the mole. If it is much larger than a common mole, is formed from a mixture of colors, has an irregular edge or feels scaly or pebbly, it is probably a dysplastic nevus. By consulting a doctor, you can find out more about your skin cancer risk and check to make sure that your abnormal mole is not dangerous.

“It’s helpful to have a loved one, spouse or friend help because you can’t see everything, such as your back, but what you can see, you should look for those ABCDEs,” UCHealth Oncologist and Hematologist Dr. Ross McFarland said.

Number of Moles

Along with paying attention to the type of moles that you have, it is also important for you to look at the number of moles that you have on your body. Although common moles are pretty normal and shouldn’t always be a cause for concern, having more than 50 common moles on your body puts you at a drastically increased risk of skin cancer. If you have a lot of moles on your body, regardless of the type of moles that they are, you should consult your physician.

Other Risk Factors

Although having certain types of moles or an abnormal and excessive amount of moles can put you at risk for skin cancer, there are other risk factors that you should look out for to protect yourself. For instance, you should take a look at your skin tone; unfortunately, very pale skin can put you at an increased risk for skin cancer.

Even if your skin isn’t very pale, you should also use caution in the sun if you are prone to be sunburned or if you live in an exceptionally sunny climate. Exposure to certain unnatural substances, such as arsenic, can put you at a risk for skin cancer, and exposure to radiation can be risky as well.

Skin cancer and moles

Non-melanoma skin cancer appears in areas where the skin has been consistently or severely exposed to the sun, such as the head and neck, shoulders, forearms, and back of hands, McFarland said.  Melanoma can occur in other places, such as between the toes or upper thighs – areas not normally exposed to the sun.

There are four types of skin cancer: actinic keratosis, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Most people have heard of melanoma, as it is the most dangerous of skin cancers. The most common are basal cell carcinoma.

“Almost all cases of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer can be cured, especially if the cancer is detected and treated early,” Scott said.

If you have ever had skin cancer in the past, you should keep in mind that you are more prone to developing it again, and a family history of skin cancer isn’t a good sign either. It is also important for you to take care of yourself if you have a weakened immune system because it puts you at an increased risk of developing skin cancer as well.