Moles vs. Skin Melanoma: How to Tell the Difference

Moles are non cancerous skin growths that may often be mistaken for melanomas. In order to be at ease or to act in a timely manner, you need to be able to distinguish between moles and skin melanomas.


A mole, also known as nevus, is a benign tumor that doesn’t contain cancerous cells and will not cause any health problems. Most nevi typically occur in childhood or adolescence and will not change their size, shape or color.

The nevi may be removed through surgery, but only if they cause discomfort or are unaesthetic (i.e. are located close to the eyes or on the face). Moles are not a cause for worry; however, if you have more than 50 nevi on your body, you are more prone to developing melanoma.

Skin Melanoma

The skin melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer. The melanoma will be a colored tumor with asymmetrical shape that will grow at a fast rate and may spread to other areas of the body. The melanoma may start off by looking just like a mole, but will develop quickly and may change its shape, size and color. Melanomas may bleed.

There are several types of melanomas including superficial spreading melanoma, nodular melanoma (black), lentigo maligna (flat, freckled like spots), acral lentiginous melanoma (dark patch) or amelanotic melanomas (pinkish).

You should check your body for tumors on a regular basis, making sure to look at areas that are less visible; use 1 or 2 mirrors to help you. The sooner a melanoma is detected, the higher chances of recovery.

The ABCDE Rule

An efficient way to distinguish between moles and melanomas is to use the ABCDE rule. This is a guide that should be used whenever you detect a growth on the surface of your skin.

  • A stands for asymmetry; if the tumor is asymmetrical, there are high chances that it is a melanoma; typically, moles have a regular shape
  • B stands for border; melanomas may have irregular borders, while moles have rounded and regular edges
  • C stands for color; melanomas have uneven coloration (a mixture of 2 or more of the followings: brown, black, dark brown, red, gray, white or blue) and may change their color; moles are typically pink or brown and evenly colored and will not change their coloration
  • D stands for diameter; melanomas are typically larger than 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser) and may expand; moles are smaller in size and will not grow
  • E stands for evolution; melanomas evolve in a short period of time (within weeks); moles remain unchanged for years and rarely grow

The ABCDE guide is a good starting point; some melanomas may not fit the ABCDE criteria, but they are still malignant (i.e. amelanotic melanomas). However, for a clear diagnosis, a dermatologist needs to take a look and perform a biopsy. A biopsy is the only test that can confirm if a tumor is benign or malignant.

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