Moles, or nevi, are clusters of melanocytes, a type of skin cell containing the pigment that gives our skin color. Having moles on your body — even those found to be normal — can more than quadruple your risk of developing melanoma, according to a recent study presented at the 2014 World Congress on Cancers of the Skin. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer and is the leading cause of death from skin disease.
The study examined medical records for two groups of UK residents: 271,656 patients diagnosed with moles in the hospital and a second group of some 10 million people with no moles. Tracking these groups from 1999 to 2011, researchers found that those with moles were more than four and a half times more likely to develop melanoma both around the site of the mole and elsewhere on the body.
Approximately half of all melanomas develop in pre-existing moles, and previous studies have shown that the greater the number of moles someone has, the greater their odds of developing melanoma.
If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable, but if it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal. While it is not the most common of the skin cancers, it causes the most deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that at present, more than 120,000 new cases of melanoma in the U.S. are diagnosed in a year. In 2014, an estimated 76,100 of these will be invasive melanomas.
While the study did not differentiate normal moles from atypical moles or track the number of moles in each patient, it was noteworthy in showing that people with moles, even normal ones, have a significantly increased risk of ultimately developing melanoma, and thus should be especially vigilant.
Moles or no moles – everyone needs to protect their skin against skin cancer. Even if you carefully practice sun safety all summer, it’s important to continue being vigilant about your skin in fall, winter and beyond. You should examine your skin from head to toe once a month, looking for any suspicious lesions. Self-exams can help you identify potential skin cancers early, when they can almost always be completely cured.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher as one important part of a complete sun protection regimen. Plan on hitting the slopes this winter? Don’t forget to pack sunscreen. Although sunburns are more common in summer when people are outside longer and have more exposed skin, sunburns can occur any time of year. The sun’s rays can bounce off of snow and ice, so it possible to get a bad burn on your face or other skin that is not covered up during the winter. That’s why it is always a good idea to wear sunscreen no matter the weather.
Sunscreen alone is not enough to prevent skin cancer. Here are some other tips:
- Seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Avoid tanning and never use UV tanning beds.
- Cover-up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.
- Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
- See your physician every year for a professional skin exam.