Moles are collections of skin pigments that usually appear in adolescence. While they’re usually harmless, there are certain moles we should be concerned about — specifically moles that start to change their appearance.
A mole that changes the way it looks could indicate melanoma. A melanoma is a severe and sometimes deadly form of skin cancer that grows in melanocytes or pigment-producing cells in the skin.
If one of the changes you notice is scabbing over your mole, should you be concerned? Yes. It’s possible that the scabbing is a melanoma indicator. But, you may also have accidentally scraped your skin and injured the mole. Keep reading to learn how to identify cancerous moles and when to seek medical help.
When you see a mole that you’ve had for some time and it has a scab or appears “crusty,” there are two potential possibilities:
- The first is that you simply scraped your skin and injured your mole.
- The second is the scab is a warning sign for melanoma.
A scabbing mole that bleeds or is painful may be a cause for concern
One of the key factors dermatologists look for in cancerous moles is changing. Crusting or scabbing can be a melanoma indicator. A scabbing mole may be especially worrisome if it also bleeds or is painful. So can other changes, including size, shape, color, or itching.
Melanomas can scab because the cancer cells create changes in the structure and function of otherwise healthy cells. The skin cells can react in different ways, ranging from color changes to changes that lead to a crusting or scabbing texture.
A scabbing that won’t heal should also be checked by a doctor
Another concern regarding scabbing is if you have a scab that won’t seem to heal.
Not all scabby moles are cancerous. But scabby moles can be cancerous. For this reason, it’s important to get them checked out if you can’t trace the scabbing to a known skin injury.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends two approaches for identifying dangerous moles: the ABCDE approach and the “ugly duckling” approach.
ABCDE can help you when you examine a mole. It stands for:
- A = Asymmetry: Most healthy moles have a round or oval shape. You could draw a line down the middle, and it would appear even. Melanomas are usually uneven in shape.
- B = Border: Healthy moles typically have smooth, even borders. Melanomas may have irregular edges.
- C = Color: Healthy moles are usually consistent in their color. Melanomas may have multiple different colors in one area, including black, tan, brown, red, white, or blue.
- D = Diameter/Dark: Healthy moles are usually smaller than a pencil eraser. If you notice a mole starting to enlarge, see a dermatologist.
- E = Evolving: An evolving mole involves any changes, such as crusting, bleeding, itching, or even elevation of the mole area.
The second ”ugly duckling“ approach is to identify if you have one mole that seems to be different from your other moles. Ways to recognize melanoma using the ”ugly duckling“ approach include:
- noticing one mole is darker/lighter than others.
- noticing one mole has a different texture than others.
- noticing one mole is larger/smaller than others.
Looking for “ugly ducklings” can help confirm your skin care suspicions.
Doctors don’t find most cancerous lesions — people do. Because you’re the owner of your body, you’re more apt to recognize skin changes. Early detection involves performing regular skin checks to examine moles and skin, and look for changes.
There are a few tips to make this process easier and more consistent:
- Set a reminder or alarm on your calendar or phone for monthly/bi-monthly/bi-yearly skin checks. If you have a family or personal history of skin cancer or of significant sun exposure, choose a more frequent timeframe (like monthly).
- Download an app to help you with skin checks. UMSkinCheck is a free app for Apple and Android that will provide notifications and reminders as well as information on how to perform a skin cancer self-exam.
- Download an app that tracks your skin and moles. Some apps can even assess skin changes and assign a warning level. These aren’t usually free (and are not a replacement for seeing a dermatologist). Examples include Miiskin, SkinVision, and MoleScope, which has a skin-magnifying attachment for your phone.
- Take photos of moles to track them over time. Take them from the same distance for greatest accuracy.
In addition to at-home screening, see a dermatologist for yearly skin checks. Depending on your risk factors, your doctor may recommend more frequent visits.
For example, if there’s a history of melanoma in your family, your doctor may recommend visits every 6 months. If you have a personal history of melanoma, then your doctor will probably want to see you every 3 months.
Other risk factors that might warrant more frequent skin checks by a doctor include:
- a family history of other cancers, such as pancreatic cancer
- the number of pigmented moles you have on your body (a higher number of moles means a higher risk of melanomas)
You should see a doctor at least once yearly for a skin examination, more frequently if you have risk factors for melanoma.
If you have a scabbed or crusty mole and you can’t identify a skin injury that may have caused it, see a doctor. A doctor can examine the mole and conduct testing if needed to determine if it could be more worrisome.
Early detection is key in treatment and survival for melanoma. Don’t ignore a mole out of fear or uncertainty. Having a doctor check a mole that’s causing you concern will not only give you peace of mind, but could also change the outcome if the lesion proves to be dangerous.
About 20 to 30 percent of melanomas develop in existing skin moles. The remainder arise at other locations on the skin.
Watch your existing moles for changes like crusting and scabbing. Consult with a dermatologist or doctor if you notice these changes. There are other types of skin cancers that can cause scabbing or bleeding without an associated injury, such as basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.
It’s important to have your skin checked in its entirety, not just your moles. Talk with a doctor about how often you should come in for skin checks given your medical and health history.