Spot the difference: How to check moles for cancer


As the lucky Australians that we are, we enjoy sunny days almost all year round. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, however, is certainly not all fun and games. Moles can develop into skin cancers and so it is important to get to know the skin you are in. Skin cancers rarely hurt and are far more frequently seen rather than felt. So even though you might feel perfectly fine, it’s what’s on the inside that counts when it comes to identifying cancerous moles.

How to identify moles

Almost all of us have moles. They normally appear in childhood and early teenage years. Here are some characteristics of what moles may look like:

  • Harmless, coloured spots that range from 1mm to 10mm
  • Uniform in shape and may have colour or be raised
  • May have uneven borders and multiple colours like brown and black

What to check?

  • New moles or moles that have increased in size
  • Moles that become rough, scaly or ulcerated
  • Changes in the outline of a mole
  • Moles that itch, tingle, bleed or weep
  • Moles or skin spots that change colour
  • Moles or skin spots that become raised or develop a lump
  • Moles or skin spots that look different compared to others on your skin

Where to check?

  • Head and neck, including scalp, ears, face and lips
  • Upper body, including front, back and sides
  • Arms and hands, including your nail beds
  • Buttocks and legs, including the soles of your feet, between your toes and your nail beds

How to check?

  • Check your entire body as skin cancers may occur in parts of your body not exposed to the sun
  • Undress completely and ensure there is good lighting
  • Use a mirror to check for spots unseen by the eye, including back and scalp or ask a friend or family member to check for you

When to check?

Everyone should check their own moles at least every three months. There are even apps available on your smartphone that can help you take a picture of your mole and compare it to cancerous moles. If you can, you should ask your parents and grandparents whether they ever had any skin cancers.

If you have developed any new moles or you have a family history of skin cancer, you should get regular mole checks from your GP or dermatologist more often. You should also check your own moles at least once a month to make sure you notice any changes in size or colour.

How to check your skin in the mirror

What you need know for your skin type:

Skin type Reaction to the sun What you need to know
Type I ·         Often burns easily

·         Rarely tans

·         Extremely sun sensitive

·         Tends to have freckles, red or fair hair, blue or green eyes



The Cancer Institute NSW considers these skin types to be at the greatest risk of developing skin cancer and therefore it is encouraged that you protect your skin, regularly check for changes and see a doctor if you have any concerns.

Type II ·         Often burns

·         Sometimes tans

·         Very sun sensitive

·         Tends to have light hair, blue or brown eyes

Type III ·         Occasionally burns

·         Usually tans

·         Minimally sun sensitive

·         Tends to have brown hair and eyes.






Although you skin tans, it is still a sign of UV damage which can lead to skin cancer, according to the Cancer Institute NSW. It is important to protect your skin from the sun when the UV index is 3 and above.

Type IV ·         Burns minimally

·         Often tans

·         Slightly sun sensitive

·         Tends to have dark brown eyes and hair

Type V ·         Rarely burns

·         Tans well

·         Skin not sensitive to sun

·         Dark brown skin

Type VI ·         Never burns

·         Deeply pigmented

·         Skin not sensitive to sun

·         Dark brown to black skin

According to the Cancer Institute NSW, Type VI skin offers more protection against UV radiation compared to other skin types. Skin cancer, however, can occur even in people with very dark skin. As the eyes are vulnerable to damage from UV radiation, it is recommended that hats and sunglasses are worn to avoid excessive exposure.

What are the risks from moles?

It is easy to mistake a harmless mole for a cancerous mole. So why should you be checking? Regular checks can assist with early diagnosis and help with the treatment of skin cancers. The three main types of skin cancers that moles can develop into are melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.

  • A melanoma is a dangerous skin cancer and if left untreated can spread to other parts of the body. It appears as a new or an existing mole, spot or freckle that changes in size, colour or shape. It makes up about 5% of all skin cancers.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) makes up about 20% of all skin cancers. It appears as a thickened red, scaly spot that may bleed.
  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is a common form of skin cancer and normally appears as a lump or becomes scaly. It makes up about 75% of all skin cancers.

Are you ready to get skin savvy?

It’s important to get into the habit of always protecting your skin and frequently checking for any changes. If this is all sounding too overwhelming or you’re worried that you’re not checking properly, it’s definitely worth your while to consult a professional. You should have periodic skin cancer checks at a dedicated clinic anyway. Visit your local skin cancer specialist and ask for guidance on how to monitor your moles. We all want to stay happy and healthy, so why wait to check your moles?

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