Anatomy Skin Freckles Moles

Freckles and moles are both areas of pigmented skin. However, they differ in that freckles are a harmless skin condition caused by sun exposure, while moles can progress into skin cancer.

Freckles

Freckles are small, flat areas of skin pigmentation that develop after birth. Usually seen on the arms and face, freckles can be red, brown or tan. Light skinned or light haired people are generally more susceptible to developing freckles, as are redheads.

Freckles develop on a person’s skin due to sun exposure. While genetics are not the direct cause of freckles, genes do determine whether we have light colored skin or hair, both of which increase a person’s chances of developing freckles.

Most freckles develop in late childhood, but it is possible to develop freckles later in life.

Freckles and Skin Cancer

Although freckles do not cause skin cancer, significant freckling may indicate a heightened risk of developing skin cancer through moles or other skin conditions. In addition, some early symptoms of skin cancer resemble freckles. As a result, always have new growths or alternations in your skin’s pigmentation checked out by a dermatologist.

Moles

Moles are collections of melanocytes, the cells that determine skin color. Most moles resemble small brown or spots on the skin and may be either flat or raised. Moles can also be:

  • bluish
  • red
  • tan
  • the same color as the surrounding skin
  • white.

Types of Moles

Unlike freckles, moles can be present from birth. Called congenital moles, these moles have a higher risk of progressing into skin cancers than moles that develop later in life. Congenital moles occur in approximately one percent of the population.

Another type of mole is the dysplastic mole. These are moles that are larger than a typical mole. Also known as atypical moles, dysplastic moles are irregularly shaped, with uneven coloration and borders.

People with dysplastic moles have a higher chance of developing malignant melanoma, one of the most aggressive skin cancers, than those with non-dysplastic moles. While most adults have 10 to 40 moles, people with dysplastic moles can have up to 100 moles, and should be examined regularly by a dermatologist for signs of skin cancer.

Skin Cancer and Moles

The vast majority of moles are harmless, but any mole can develop into skin cancer. Dermatologists recommend having moles with any of the following characteristics examined:

  • asymmetrical moles (one half of the mole does not look like the other half)
  • bleeding moles
  • itchy moles
  • moles larger than a pencil eraser in diameter
  • moles that appear scaly
  • moles that are raised or elevated above the skin
  • moles that develop after age twenty
  • moles that change shape over time
  • moles with blurred or irregular borders
  • moles with uneven coloration or shading
  • tender or painful moles.

Moles that may indicate skin cancers are usually surgically removed and examined microscopically for signs of cancer. Removing moles is often the only treatment needed for early stage skin cancers.

Preventing and Removing Moles

No sure way to prevent moles exists. However, avoiding excessive sun exposure can reduce the number of moles that you may develop. As genetics play a role in mole development, prevention is not always possible.

Unsightly or irritating moles can be removed by a dermatologist. They can either be removed surgically or frozen and then shaved away. If new moles develop where moles were removed, it’s best to return to the dermatologist for an evaluation.

Resources

American Academy of Dermatology (2008). Moles. Retrieved April 3, 2008, from the American Academy of Dermatology Web site  www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/common_moles.html.

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (October 10, 2006). Freckles and moles: What’s the difference? Retrieved April 3, 2008, from the Mayo Clinic Web site www.mayoclinic.com/health/skin/AN00399.

WebMD (Updated March 1, 2007). Skin conditions: Moles, freckles and skin tags. Retrieved April 3, 2008, from the WebMD Web site www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/guide/moles-freckles-skin-tags.