am i dying

Is My New Mole Actually Skin Cancer?

Photo: Alton Thompson/Getty Images

I got sunburned this summer and I noticed a new mole. Do I need to see a dermatologist?

In a word, yes, says Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, a senior vice-president of The Skin Cancer Foundation and a board-certified dermatologist practicing in New York City. It could be nothing, but better safe than sorry.

“Some benign spots can darken at the end of the summer, so things like freckles and sun spots will often come out — especially if someone was spending a lot of time outdoors and was maybe not so careful with their sunscreen,” Dr. Hale says. “But I don’t want to offer any kind of false reassurance.”

It’s particularly worth getting a skin check if you’re talking about an isolated spot, not, say, a cluster of freckles on your nose or chest, or one spot that looks way different than the rest. “If it’s really one lesion that appears much darker, then certainly that should not be ignored,” she says.

While freckles will change color from sun exposure, moles appear the same throughout the year, or they’re supposed to, anyway. What looks like a new mole to you could be one that you’ve had all along but was lighter or smaller (or both) and you never really noticed it.

Whether a mole is new to you or old and changing, it should be evaluated because it represents the E in the initialism ABCDE — a method doctors and the general public can use to detect melanoma. The letters refer to asymmetry, border irregularity, color variability, diameter, and evolution or change. “E is the one that was added most recently … and as dermatologists, we now consider that the most important factor when determining whether something could be suspicious.” It’s somewhat normal to develop new moles in your 30s and 40s, she says, but only a dermatologist can tell if they’re benign or something to worry about.

But don’t let the fear of potential bad news keep you away from a derm’s office. Skin cancer might be the most common cancer (one in five Americans will develop it and those rich in melanin are sadly not immune) but most cases are completely curable when caught early.

Not only that, but early detection also means less flesh that would get cut out of your face (or back or arms) — always a good thing. “We do these very non-invasive skin biopsies, and I’d rather do one that’s less invasive than watching and waiting for it to turn [cancerous],” Dr. Hale says. “Then if you need a major excision you would think, ‘Oh, I wish I removed it right when it started to change.’” To that end, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone get an annual skin-cancer check regardless of your history, and sooner if you see a mole changing.

Even though it’s October, here’s where it’s worth including another plug for sunsreen. Using it can help ensure that the people carding you will do a double-take for years to come. About 90 percent of the signs of premature skin aging are associated with overexposure to the sun, and most of that damage is from what’s known as incidental exposure — the everyday kind from walking around or driving, Dr. Hale says.

UVB rays are what burn you and are most prevalent in the summer, but UVA rays cause skin aging and can also contribute to skin cancer and are present year-round. They can also penetrate clouds and windows. That’s why it’s important to use a broad-spectrum formula that protects against both UVB and UVA rays, though it doesn’t have to be the coconut-scented stuff you take to the beach — moisturizer with SPF will do the trick. “You should at least do your face, neck, chest, and the backs of your hands. Basically, any area that’s exposed year-round,” she says.

Still, sunscreen can be a hard sell for some people. “Even my skin-cancer patients will say things like, ‘Oh, I know I’m bad, but if you find a mole I know you’ll just cut it off and it’s fine,’” she says. “But then when they want Botox for their wrinkles and lasers for brown spots and I explain so much of that could be prevented or minimized by regular sunscreen use, their vanity takes over and they finally start wearing it.”

Is My New Mole Actually Skin Cancer?