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Updated 05 July 2013

Your moles

Eighteenth century aristocrats considered moles a beauty; these days moles have acquired a more sinister character, because of their association with skin cancer.

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Eighteenth century aristocrats considered moles such a beauty asset that they used to pencil fake ones onto their faces if they weren’t lucky enough to have them naturally. These days moles have acquired a more sinister character, because of their association with skin cancer; but, as long as you keep a weather eye on them, they shouldn’t be a cause for paranoia.

What is a mole exactly?
A mole, which appears as a dark brown pigmented spot, is a little group of pigment cells called melanocytes. With time, they rise gradually through the skin layers, up from the lower layer (the dermis) to the upper layer (the epidermis).

When moles go bad
The reason moles have a bad rap is that sometimes they develop into a benign cancer or the much more serious malignant melanoma, which can spread to other parts of the body.

When a melanocyte lies in the dermis, it’s unlikely to cause trouble. Most moles found on the arms, face and torso are of this kind. As they mature, they can enlarge, protrude from the skin surface and sometimes grow hairs.

However, when a melanocyte stops migrating upwards from the dermis into the epidermis, it could spell trouble – particularly if it lies at the junction of the two skin layers. Many moles on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet and the external genitalia are of the junctional variety, so you need to examine these more often and with more care than other moles.

When the cells of a mole start to invade adjacent tissue, the mole is renamed a malignant melanoma. The condition can be treated, but catching it early is very important. The following tips will help prevent moles turning nasty, and nipping them in the bud if they do:

Develop that ‘pale and interesting’ look
The less pigment you have at birth (with red-heads and pale-eyed Caucasians at the top of the list), the higher your risk for malignant melanoma, but in the fierce South African summer everyone, no matter how dark, needs to consider sun protection.

You’ve no doubt heard ad nauseum about the wisdom of avoiding the sun during the middle of the day, which means at least between 10am and 3pm, or better yet, between 9am and 4pm. If you must be in the sun, wear a high-factor sunscreen (minimum SPF15), and cover up with a hat, long sleeves and trousers. Dermatologists are increasingly recommending that we wear sunscreen all day every day, as a matter of course, and the younger we start the better.

And no, a tan does NOT afford protection against sun damage or cancer.

Do a spot check
Check all your existing moles for changes, and any new skin lesions, once a month – better yet, get a friend to give you the once-over, literally from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. Incorporate the following handy ABCD mnemonic into your routine, and consult your doctor if you notice any of the following:

Asymmetry. A mole that looks lopsided. Border. A mole with an irregular outer edge Colour. A mole changes colour. Diameter. A mole seems to be gradually enlarging. If a mole is large, or repeatedly rubs against clothing or gets in the way of shaving, then it may be advisable to have it removed.

Did you know?
The average man will have 25-40 moles in the course of his lifetime.

 
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