“Mole” can be used as a generic term to describe a variety of different skin growths, but most commonly, it refers to melanocytic naevi. Generally a benign lesion, a melanocytic naevus can occasionally cause complications, and even if not, its appearance may damage self-esteem. In these cases, there are some relatively simple removal options.


What is a mole?


Melanocytic naevi are a type of growth formed from melanocytes, or cells that produce melanin. Melanin is a source of pigment, which is why a mole generally appears darker than any fair skin around it. Naevus cells are a particular subset of melanocytes. Melanocytic naevi may be flat or raised, hairy or smooth, and are often rounded in shape. The colour may be brown, black, blue or pink. Sizes can range from less than 1.5cm to more than 20cm across. They can be found anywhere on the body.


Most people who develop this kind of mole do so in the first few decades of life, often in childhood. Mole growth will slow by the age of 30 and it is very rare for new melanocytic naevi to appear past the time you are 40. The older you are when a mole develops, the more important it is to have it checked.


There appears to be a genetic element to your likelihood of developing moles, but they can also be a result of sun exposure. People who are pregnant or immunosuppressed are at increased risk, and they are associated more with paler skin.


Why would I want a mole removed?


Cancer concerns are common with moles, despite most being benign. It is important to consult a doctor if you suddenly develop a new mole, or if an existing mole changes in size, shape or colour. Sometimes, a raised mole may catch on clothing or other objects, potentially causing bleeding, scarring or infection. Even if there is no medical reason for mole removal, having it carried out as a cosmetic procedure can improve a person’s self-image. Very often, the recommendation is simply to leave and monitor the mole.


What is the removal process?


First there will need to be a full assessment, including the taking of a medical history, to evaluate the mole and to determine if it is benign or cancerous. The most appropriate course of treatment will depend on the exact nature of the mole, including its type, size and location. Often, a small biopsy will be taken so it can be fully analysed in a laboratory. 


A numbing agent can be used to minimise any pain. For smaller moles, a scalpel can swiftly cut away the lesion in whole or in part. Excision biopsy is full surgical removal, a shave biopsy slices away a smaller sample that can be sent for testing. There is a small risk of scarring or infection, but most people will be able to immediately return to normal activities. Electrosurgery is a rarer option. Whilst laser treatments may remove hair and reduce pigmentation, they make it impossible to preserve testing samples.


Not all moles need to be removed, but the only way to decide on the most appropriate way to manage your melanocytic naevi is for a professional to carry out a full assessment of your lesion.