Beauty marks can give a person character. But as striking as they can be, they also needed to be understood for what they are: moles. And moles can be dangerous. Obviously this doesn't apply to every speck that calls your body home, but it's important to be alert about their appearance and if that changes. To advise, we called New York-based dermatologist Neal Schultz. You won't be able to diagnose a mole on your own, but you can know when it's time to get it checked out by a professional.
Know What You're Dealing With
Semantics are important. “All birthmarks are moles, but not all moles are birthmarks,” Dr. Schultz says, referring to the fact that many moles can appear a good long time after we're born.
But more importantly, not all moles are the same in terms of risk. “People are always concerned with raised moles, but very rarely are raised moles bad,” Dr. Schultz says. “It’s usually the flat moles that get into trouble. Raised moles are intradermal moles, or compound moles, and they have a much lower rate of malignant degeneration. Flat moles are where most of the cases of melanoma come from,”
Symmetry Can Be Good And Bad
'All normal moles have what’s called an axis of symmetry,” Dr. Schultz explains, meaning that if you could fold it in half over some point, one half would be the mirror image of the other half. “Any mole that does not have an axis of symmetry, you should show your doctor,”
But there's a caveat: “There’s one other peculiar sign that’s really useful—if you draw a line down the middle of your body, from your chin down through your groin, and you have two moles that are mirror of each other, meaning roughly the same distance from that middle line and approximately the same level up and down, there is a good chance they are precancerous,” Dr. Schultz continues. “It’s one of the few times in medicine where symmetry is bad,”
Be On The Lookout For Change
'I tell people moles can change because they get hit, beaten up, and inflamed. But if in two weeks they don’t return to their normal appearance, then show up to somebody. Nothing terrible is going to happen in two or three weeks,”
Check In Once A Year—And Thoroughly
'Your skin is the only organ in your body that you get complete control on whether or not you get cancer,” Dr. Schultz explains. “I don’t mean by avoiding the sun—I mean by getting it checked regularly,” Make sure you're seeing a dermatologist at least once a year—and dress down for it. “Go without your nail polish because you can get melanomas under the nail that we'll look for. Don’t go with tight-braided hair because we want to look through your scalp, too,” Dr. Schultz adds. Basically, you can get a mole anywhere, so be prepared to check everywhere.
When you don't have an appointment imminently approaching, you can still be vigilant. “If you have any type of procedures done on your hair—a cut, straightening, trimming, whatever—there is somebody looking through your scalp. Know to ask before you go to your hair professional, 'Hey, if you see anything up there, let me know so I can show it to my doctor.''
Photo by Jen Steele.