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Moles: the A-Z

Moles: the A-Z

A mole or nevus, is an abnormal cluster of melanocytes - cells that produce the melanin pigment responsible for skin color and tanning - that form on the surface of the skin. They're flat or raised with a brown or pink surface and can grow up to 6mm in diameter. They can appear during childhood, or later in life up to around the age of 30. Frequently exposed areas often have more moles, for example the back in men or legs and forearms in women. Most adults will have a dozen or so nevus, but their true number depends on genetic factors and sun exposure.

Most beauty spots are harmless and benign. However, in 20% of skin cancer cases it's an existing mole that has become malignant. Although identifying any problem moles oneself can be difficult, there are early warning signs that need to be taken into account. This is where the ABCDE acronym comes into play:

- A for asymmetry: if you draw an imaginary line through the middle of a mole and the two halves have dissimilar shapes.

- B for border: the edge of the mole is blurred.

- C for colour: the mole is a blend of different colors: light brown, dark brown, pink...

- D for dimension: the mole is larger than 6mm

- E for evolution: the most crucial of them all. Any mole that changes shape or colour, becomes itchy or raised, grows in size or bleeds needs to be checked out by a medical specialist to make sure it's not an early stage cancer.

Certain factors can increase the risk of a melanoma forming. Although 60% of melanomas affect women and 50% are detected in women over the age of 50, gender and age are not defining factors. People most likely to develop skin cancer have fairer complexions that tend to suffer from sunburn, as well as light-coloured eyes and hair. There's also a 10% increase when an immediate member of the family (father, mother, brother, sister or child) has had a history of skin cancer. Finally, sunburn and childhood burns can increase the likelihood of problems further down the line.

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