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When should you get your moles checked?

Most people have moles, and most of those moles never cause health problems. But some develop into melanoma, a dangerous skin cancer.

To reduce your risk of cancer, it’s important to check your moles regularly. You should examine them routinely at home and get more thorough exams from a physician, says Piedmont dermatologist Jodi Ganz, M.D.

Most moles remain consistent in size, color and appearance, she says. If you find one that’s changed or looks drastically different from other moles, it’s time to see a dermatologist.

“Look for the ugly duckling,” Dr. Ganz says.

How often should moles be checked?

Dr. Ganz recommends you check your own moles at home every one to three months. When you get out of the shower, scan your entire body for moles that appear larger, discolored or asymmetrical. Jagged borders can also be a red flag.

“Moles shouldn’t change,” Dr. Ganz says.

They can appear in places you may not be able to view yourself, such as on your back or scalp. A spouse, partner or other trusted person can look at those areas for you. But when is it time to visit a dermatologist?

If you’ve never had a skin check before, it’s wise to make an appointment now.

“I always tell people that everyone deserves a skin check,” Dr. Ganz says. “Everyone deserves the education of knowing what you’re looking for and why.”

A dermatologist can examine your skin and assess your general risk level, she says. People with lighter skin, for example, are at higher risk for cancer, and they may need to get checked more often. Older people should also be seen annually, she says.

Even if you check your skin at home, it’s still a good idea to book an appointment with a dermatologist. Moles can indicate melanoma, but they don’t tell you anything about other skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Those can be difficult to spot without a doctor’s expertise.

What is a mole biopsy?

If your dermatologist finds a mole that raises concerns, she or he may perform a shave biopsy. It sounds like a big procedure, but it’s usually simple and relatively pain-free.

The doctor will give you a local anesthetic to numb your skin. Then, they’ll shave a sampling of the area to send to a lab for testing.

“A biopsy doesn’t have to be scary,” Dr. Ganz says.

Taking care of your skin

Unlike freckles, moles are genetically predetermined, says Dr. Ganz. Spending more time in the sun may give you more freckles, but freckles are not the same as moles and can never turn into them.

“Moles are programmed to be there,” Dr. Ganz says.

Whether you have lots of moles or just a few, you can reduce your chances of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Be sure to check moles skin regularly, says Dr. Ganz, and limit your time in the sun.

Although reducing sun exposure won’t prevent new moles, it will help keep the moles you do have (and the rest of your skin) healthy, she says. Avoid tanning beds, apply sunscreen daily, and wear hats or sleeves if you can.

You can’t control how many moles you have, Dr. Ganz says, but “you can control how much sun you’re getting.”

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