Count your moles and know your skin cancer risk


The average person has between 10 and 40 moles which may be present at birth or may appear later, usually before the age of 40. About one in 10 people has at least one unusual mole.

The ABC of what to look out for in your moles

A is for asymmetry. Look for moles with irregular shapes. If a mole has two very different-looking halves it could mean trouble. If the mole is symmetrical it should be fine.

B is for irregular border. Look for moles with irregular, notched or scalloped borders or swollen ridges – these are characteristic of melanomas. It’s a good sign if the border is sharp and clearly defined; it’s a bad sign if it blends into the skin.

C is for changes in colour, from light to dark or white to pale pink. Look for growths that have several colours or an uneven distribution of colour. If your mole is black or more than one colour it’s best to have it checked out. Also watch out for a lesion that peels, heals and peels again, usually with a roughness you can feel rather than see; a lesion that forms an ulcer in the centre and doesn’t heal; or a lesion that suddenly reappears. These rough lesions may itch.

D is for diameter. Look for new growth in a mole larger than about 5 mm (the size of the eraser on a pencil).

‘‘Take note of any change to a spot on the skin and of any spot that appears and doesn’t heal normally,’’ says Johannesburg melanoma patient and activist Peter Hers.

‘‘You’ll soon learn which are senile warts that can be ignored and which should be checked by your GP or dermatologist.’’

Read: 8 types of warts

Cansa SunSmart's tips to care for your skin when you're in the sun

- Wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15+. Regular application of sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 during the first 18 years of life can lower the risk of some types of skin cancer by more than 75 per cent. But don’t stop slapping it on when you’re older than 18!

- Cover up!Wear clothes to protect the skin on your neck, arms, midriff and legs against the sun.

- Wear a hat (not a cap) that covers your neck and face.

- Seek shade and stay cool.

- Avoid direct sunlight from 10 am to 3 pm.

- Protect your and your child’s eyes against UV rays. Avoid toy sunglasses; they do more harm than good. A child should wear sunglasses with at least 400 UV-ray protection.

- Don’t expose babies younger than a year to direct sunlight.

- UV penetrates glass and water so protect your skin while in a vehicle or when you’re swimming or snorkelling.

How to examine your skin

The best time to do a skin selfexam is after a shower or bath. You should check your skin in a well-lit room using a full-length as well as a hand-held mirror. It’s best to begin by learning where your birthmarks, moles and blemishes are and what they usually look and feel like. Check yourself from head to toe – don’t leave out any area of skin.

- Look at your face, neck, ears and scalp. You may need to use a comb or a blow-dryer to part your hair so you can see better. Ask a relative or friend to check through your hair if it’s too difficult to do yourself.

- Check the front and back of your body in the mirror then raise your arms and look at your left and right sides.

- Bend your elbows and look carefully at your fingernails, palms, forearms (including the undersides) and upper arms.

- Examine the back, front and sides of each leg. Also look between your buttocks and around your genital area.

- Sit down and closely examine your feet, including the toenails, soles and spaces between the toes.

Checking your skin regularly means you’ll become familiar with what’s normal for you. If you find anything unusual see your doctor right away.

Are you at risk?

If you have more than 50 ordinary moles you have a higher risk of melanoma.

Did you know?

Sunbeds and tanning lamps emit UVA rays and are unsafe. A welding torch also emits dangerous UVA rays.

Blame it on the sun

The sun’s invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays are especially dangerous. They act as chainsaws that cut up the DNA in skin cells, thereby destroying the building blocks of the cells.

The results are visible as wrinkles and ageing. When it becomes impossible for the body to keep up with the constant repair the wrecked DNA under the skin’s surface starts mutating, resulting in cancer cells which may appear anywhere on the skin.

UVA rays are the tanning rays. They’re not blocked out by clouds and are dangerous throughout the day. They penetrate deep into the skin and cause serious damage to the deeper skin layers even before your skin turns red. These are the rays that bring about long-term damage such as wrinkles, sagging and discoloration.

The sun is responsible for 80 per cent of premature skin ageing, making sun protection one of the best defences against wrinkles. UVA rays also lay the foundation for skin cancer in the future and are associated with melanoma in the eye. Not all sunscreens protect against damage caused by UVA rays so look for packaging that clearly states the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB.

UVB rays cause redness and tan your skin slightly. It’s the UVB rays that cause the pain, inflammation and redness known as sunburn. This sort of damage can happen within as little as 15 minutes and can continue to develop for up to three days after you’ve been exposed to the sun. You need a sunscreen that protects you against UVA and UVB as both can penetrate thick glass, a metre of water or wet cotton clothing.

UVC rays are lethal. Fortunately most of these are absorbed by the ozone layer that protects us against skin cancer as well as other types of cancer.

Read more:

Ordinary vs. unusual moles

Natural cancer remedies: sorting fact from fiction

Moles on your arm may predict melanoma risk

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