What is the Difference Between Moles and Other Skin Lesions?

Many skin growths and conditions are similar to moles in one way or another, whether it is a similarity in color or shape or texture or some other characteristic. Since moles can be precancerous or cancerous under some circumstances, it is important to be able to identify the difference between different kinds of skin conditions that can look similar to moles. It is always best to consult a doctor or dermatologist about suspicious marks or growths that appear on the skin, but knowing the defining characteristics of different kinds of skin lesions may help save a costly trip to a doctor or specialist.


Typical moles are small, symmetrical, roughly circular lesions that are brown or tan in color. They may be flat or slightly elevated from the surface of the skin. They occur when specialized skin cells called melanocytes grow in clusters. Normally, melanocytes are evenly dispersed throughout the skin. Atypical moles are moles that are potentially cancerous and need to be evaluated by a dermatologist to develop a plan to manage or even remove the mole. Atypical moles may be multicolored in shades of black, brown and tan. They have irregular, ragged borders and may be dry, itchy or flaky in texture. Size is not a reliable indicator of whether a mole is typical or atypical, but typical moles tend to be smaller than six millimeters, about the size of a pencil eraser. It is important to monitor moles for changes in size, border, texture and color, since changes in the mole may indicate that the mole is developing into a melanoma. Melanoma is a rare but often fatal form of skin cancer.

Moles and Freckles

FrecklesMoles and freckles can sometimes look very similar. Both occur because of the overproduction of melanin in the skin. Some moles can be quite small and easily mistaken for a freckle. Both can occur as a result of overexposure to sunlight or other sources of ultraviolet radiation. However, freckles are restricted only to the outermost layer of skin, whereas moles are clusters of cells that penetrate deeper into the skin, generally down into the second layer of the skin. Freckles are also not present at birth, whereas roughly one to two percent of infants may be born with a mole. Freckles often fade away, particularly in the winter months when sun exposure is less frequent.

Moles may also fade, but the fading is not generally seasonal. The most significant difference between moles and freckles is in their association with skin cancer. Though freckles are associated with too much sun exposure, they are not associated with melanoma as moles are and are thus not dangerous in themselves and pose no risk of complications. However, since they can be indicative of overexposure to UV radiation, a person with many freckles may wish to reevaluate their habits, since UV radiation is correlated with higher risk of non-melanoma skin cancers.

Moles and Skin Tags

Skin tagSkin tags may be mistaken for moles. Skin tags are outgrowths of skin that form in areas of the skin where there is a lot of friction, particularly in areas where skin rubs together such as on the neck or in the underarm area. They are small flaps of tissue that are attached by a thin stalk of skin. They may be pliant to the touch. They are generally the size of a grain of rice, although some can grow to the size of a grape, and in rare cases may grow even larger. They are usually the same color as the skin surrounding them but may be brown in color; depending on how far from the surface of the skin the skin tag protrudes, it may be mistaken for a mole.

Skin tags are entirely benign. They are never cancerous and the only complications they may cause are issues of discomfort with wearing certain types of jewelry or clothing or with shaving. A skin tag may become infected if torn off by jewelry or other methods. They can easily be removed by a dermatologist or at home with doctor supervision. Since skin tags and moles may be mistaken for one another, it is important to have skin tags evaluated before attempting to remove them at home with home remedies or other methods.

Moles and Age Spots

Age spotAge spots are another form of skin irregularity that can be mistaken for another condition, although age spots are commonly mistaken for melanomas, which can be particularly frightening, especially if the person has a family history of melanoma. Age spots are reddish-brown areas of pigmentation that result from frequent exposure to the sun. Like typical moles, they tend to be symmetrical and round. They are usually found on the face, hands, arms and shoulders. Age spots are painless and do not undergo drastic changes in appearance as melanomas do. They are completely flat. Age spots may develop into precancerous growths that can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, and should be evaluated by a doctor if their appearance changes or if they feel itchy.

Melanomas are cancerous growths that develop from moles, most frequently on the legs and back, although they can be found anywhere on the body. Melanomas are purplish-black growths that are elevated from the skin. They have irregular borders that can quickly change and may also bleed or appear dry or scaly. They may also itch. Melanoma is a rare type of skin cancer. Roughly five percent of new skin cancer cases are melanoma, but melanoma results in seventy-five percent of skin cancer deaths, so it is important to monitor suspicious moles by performing monthly self-exams of moles and keeping regular appointments with a dermatologist.