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Melanoma Explained

What does melanoma look like?

MoleMap Team
October 11, 2023
17 minutes

Melanoma skin can­cer can appear in a huge range of shapes, sizes, and colours, and can become life-threat­en­ing sur­pris­ing­ly quick­ly (some­times in just a few months). Read to find out how to iden­ti­fy the dif­fer­ent types of melanoma, from ear­ly stage to advanced (with images), and what melanoma looks like on dif­fer­ent parts of the body, from head to toe.

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Part I: What do dif­fer­ent types of melanoma look like?

There are sev­er­al dif­fer­ent types of melanoma, includ­ing nodu­lar melanoma, super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma, ame­lan­ot­ic or​‘pink’ melanoma, lenti­go maligna melanoma and acral lentig­i­nous melanoma and each looks a lit­tle different.

What to look for: Usu­al­ly, the most obvi­ous warn­ing signs of ear­ly stage melanoma are changes to your moles or spots: in size, shape, colour or in how they look or how they feel. Melanoma can also appear as a new mole (more com­mon­ly in peo­ple aged 50 years or more).

We’ve out­lined the five com­mon types of melanoma below — how­ev­er, remem­ber that melanoma is only one form of skin can­cer (albeit the most dan­ger­ous). If you have a sus­pi­cious mole that doesn’t fit the cri­te­ria below, check out the oth­er types of skin can­cer.

Skin cancer types — nodular
As these images show, nodu­lar melanoma is usu­al­ly raised, often sym­met­ri­cal, firm to the touch and grows or changes with­in a few months.

1. Nodu­lar melanoma

Nodu­lar melanoma is one of most dan­ger­ous forms of melanoma — and accounts for about 15% of melanoma in Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

The most wor­ry­ing thing about nodu­lar melanoma is that it can grow fast: it is malig­nant from the time of appear­ance, which is why ear­ly diag­no­sis and removal is so important.

What does nodu­lar melanoma look like?

Nodu­lar melanoma is not nec­es­sar­i­ly dark or coloured, but the key fea­tures are that it’s raised, often sym­met­ri­cal, firm to touch and, most impor­tant­ly, is chang­ing or​grow­ing progressively.

In the ear­ly stages, you might not notice vis­i­ble signs of change — per­haps the mole is itchy or just feels fun­ny. This type of melanoma can affect any­one but is gen­er­al­ly much more com­mon in men over 50 and those with fair skin.

Skin cancer types shape
As you can see in these pho­tos, super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma can be irreg­u­lar in shape, vari­able in colour and sim­i­lar to a freck­le. It often appears on the legs, tor­so and upper back.

2. Super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma

Super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma is the most com­mon form of melanoma, account­ing for around 70 percent of all cas­es. It tends to grow slow­ly and hor­i­zon­tal­ly across the top lay­er of skin before mov­ing to the deep­er lay­ers. It usu­al­ly occurs on the back, chest and legs — areas that are all like­ly to get intense, peri­od­ic UV expo­sure from the sun. How­ev­er, it can also appear in parts of the body that see lit­tle sun.

While it can affect peo­ple of all ages, this type of melanoma occurs most often in peo­ple in their 40s and 50s. Oth­er risk fac­tors include hav­ing fair skin, a lot of moles, a fam­i­ly or per­son­al his­to­ry of skin can­cer, hav­ing been sun­burnt at ear­ly age and hav­ing reg­u­lar expo­sure to the sun or tan­ning beds.

How do I iden­ti­fy super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma?

Super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma some­times looks like a freck­le, which can make it hard to iden­ti­fy, espe­cial­ly in the first stages. When check­ing your skin, look for these ear­ly signs:

Shape: Look for an irreg­u­lar shape and bor­ders. Super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma can be raised or flat and can look like a freck­le that is grow­ing at its edges.

Colour: It may be brown, tan, black, red, blue and even white but usu­al­ly has a com­bi­na­tion of these colors.

Loca­tion: It usu­al­ly appears on the tor­sos of men, the legs of women and the upper backs of both sex­es — even in places that do not see the sun. It can appear in an exist­ing mole or a new mole.

Changes: The mole or spot tends to change slow­ly, usu­al­ly over the course of sev­er­al years. It can some­times feel itchy.

You can also use the ABCDE guide­lines to help you iden­ti­fy the ear­ly stages of melanoma skin can­cer. Ear­ly diag­no­sis is the key in suc­cess­ful­ly treat­ing super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma. So, if you notice any unusu­al spots on your skin, book a professional skin check straight away.

Skin cancer types spread
Image 1: an ame­lan­ot­ic, super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma on the leg/​arm/​back.
Image 2: an exam­ple of a red­dish-coloured ame­lan­ot­ic melanoma.

3. Ame­lan­ot­ic or​‘pink’ melanoma

Just to make check­ing your skin even more dif­fi­cult, there is a rel­a­tive­ly uncom­mon type of super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma that has no colour at all. Known as​‘ame­lan­ot­ic’ or​‘pink’ melanomas, these unusu­al spots are miss­ing melanin, the dark pig­ment that gives most moles and melanomas their colour.

Ame­lan­ot­ic melanoma is no more dan­ger­ous than any oth­er form of melanoma yet its mor­tal­i­ty rates tend to be high­er than oth­er types of melanoma. This is because it often goes unde­tect­ed for longer, which gives it time to spread.

Ame­lan­ot­ic melanoma — what to look for?

Ame­lan­ot­ic or pink melanomas can be pink­ish-look­ing, red­dish, pur­ple, nor­mal skin colour or even clear and colour­less. They may even look just like a patch of abnor­mal skin, mak­ing them very easy to miss when self-check­­ing your skin. How­ev­er, there are oth­er melanoma warn­ing signs to look for, such as an asym­met­ri­cal shape and/​or an irreg­u­lar bor­der, or if a spot or mole appears sud­den­ly or changes shape drastically.

Some­times, they resem­ble a tiny scar or acne that is heal­ing. The biggest thing to look for is the​‘E’ for​‘evo­lu­tion’ in the ABCDE guide — if you notice any changes in a mole or spot (no mat­ter what the colour), seek a clin­i­cal diag­no­sis as soon as possible.

Skin cancer types — Lentigo maligna
Lenti­go maligna look like a flat or slight­ly raised brown patch, sim­i­lar to a freck­le or sun spot.

4. Lenti­go maligna melanoma

Lenti­go maligna melanoma is the least com­mon type of melanoma. It is a type of inva­sive skin can­cer that devel­ops from​lenti­go maligna.

Lenti­go maligna grows slow­ly and often stays on the out­er sur­face of the skin. How­ev­er, if it starts grow­ing into the sec­ond lay­er of the skin, it becomes the more malig­nant form: lenti­go maligna melanoma.

What does lenti­go maligna melanoma look like?

Both forms of lenti­go maligna look like a flat or slight­ly raised brown patch, sim­i­lar to a freck­le or sun spot. They have a smooth sur­face and an irreg­u­lar shape. While they are usu­al­ly a shade of brown, they can also be pink, red or white.

They are usu­al­ly larg­er than oth­er types of skin can­cer — often being at least six mil­lime­ters wide but can grow to sev­er­al cen­time­ters. This form of melanoma most often appears on the neck or face, espe­cial­ly on the nose and cheeks.

Keep an eye out for a mole with increased thick­ness, mul­ti­ple colours (par­tic­u­lar­ly black and blue), bleed­ing, itch­ing or sting­ing. And if you have any of these symp­toms, get the mole or spot checked imme­di­ate­ly.

Skin cancer types — Lentigo
As these pho­tos show, acral lentig­i­nous melanomas are usu­al­ly brown or black, and occur on the palms of the hand, the soles of the feet and under fin­ger­nails or toe­nails. (Image ref­er­ences DermNet NZ)

5. Acral lentig­i­nous melanoma

Acral lentig­i­nous melanoma (ALM) is a type of melanoma that most com­mon­ly occurs on the palms of the hand or the soles of the feet. It can appear as a new spot or can devel­op with­in an exist­ing mole.

What does acral lentig­i­nous melanoma look like?

Often, acral lentig­i­nous melanoma starts as a flat, slow­­ly-enlarg­ing patch of dis­coloured skin. Although it can also be red­dish, orange or ame­lan­ot­ic in colour.

This type of melanoma is usu­al­ly much dark­er than the sur­round­ing skin (usu­al­ly brown or black) and tends to have a sharp bor­der between the dark skin and the lighter skin around it. This con­trast in colour is one of the most notice­able symp­toms of this type of melanoma.

Acral lentig­i­nous melanoma is the most com­mon type of melanoma in peo­ple with dark­er skin and those of Asian descent, although it can be seen in all skin types. It may be hard to detect in the first stages, when the patch of dark­ened skin is small and looks like a stain or bruise. As with all types of melanoma, ear­ly diag­no­sis and treat­ment are essen­tial to catch this rare form of melanoma before it spreads further.

Skin cancer types — ABCDE check
It’s impor­tant to know the ABCDE­FG rules when check­ing for ear­ly signs of melanoma.

Part II: How to iden­ti­fy the ear­ly signs of melanoma

Melanoma is the most seri­ous form of skin can­cer — it can spread and become life-threat­en­ing very quick­ly. But the good news is that if it’s found ear­ly, it’s almost always treat­able and beat­able. That’s why know­ing what a can­cer­ous mole looks like and what to watch out for when check­ing your skin is essential.

The most obvi­ous warn­ing signs of melanoma are any new spots on your skin or any changes to your exist­ing spots or moles. If you notice any vari­a­tions such as a change in size, shape, colour or tex­ture, it could sug­gest a melanoma or can­cer­ous mole may be devel­op­ing. But keep in mind that these changes aren’t often accom­pa­nied by pain so ear­ly warn­ing signs can go unno­ticed if you’re not vig­i­lant about check­ing your skin regularly.

How can you spot melanoma yourself?

Learn how to check your skin reg­u­lar­ly and get to know your skin well. It’s a good idea to do a self-check every three months (at the begin­ning of each sea­son is an easy way to remem­ber). Use a small mir­ror to check all areas, freck­les and moles. And if pos­si­ble, ask some­one to check the areas you can’t see, such as your neck, scalp, back, under your arms, the backs of your legs and the soles of your feet.

What to look for: the​‘ABCDE­FG’ rules

There are three sim­ple guide­lines that skin can­cer experts rec­om­mend using when self-check­ing: the ABCDE guide, the EFG rule and the​‘ugly duck­ling’ rule.

Taught by many non-prof­it skin can­cer author­i­ties around the world, includ­ing the Melanoma Insti­tute of Aus­tralia, the ABCDE­FG rules are a handy guide when check­ing for the ear­ly signs of melanoma.

“Know­ing the ABCDE­FG rules is a sim­ple step we can all take to learn to recog­nise the ear­ly signs of melanoma and oth­er skin can­cers” says Niy­ati Shar­ma, Chief Med­ical Officer.

“Aus­tralia and New Zealand have the high­est inci­dence of melanoma in the world, which is why know­ing what to look for is so cru­cial. On a more pos­i­tive note, melanoma is almost always cur­able if it is detect­ed ear­ly — which is why I can’t stress this enough: if you notice any sus­pi­cious warn­ing signs, book a pro­fes­sion­al skin check as soon as possible.”

The ABCDE rule

  • Asym­me­try: the shape of one half doesn’t match the other
  • Bor­der: the edges are often ragged, notched, blurred or irreg­u­lar in out­line and the pig­ment may spread into the sur­round­ing skin
  • Colour: the colour is uneven – there may be shades of black, brown and tan or even areas of white, grey, red, pink or blue
  • Diam­e­ter: the size changes and usu­al­ly increas­es – typ­i­cal­ly, melanomas are at least 6mm in diameter
  • Evolv­ing: look for new moles

The EFG rule

  • Ele­vat­ed: the mole is raised
  • Firm: the mole is firm to touch
  • Grow­ing: the mole is grow­ing and chang­ing rapidly

Find out more about the ABCDE­FG rules of melanoma images.

Oth­er melanoma warn­ing signs to look for

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, melanoma doesn’t always fit the ABCDE or EFG rules. Be sure to book in for a pro­fes­sion­al  skin check if you notice a mole or skin lesion that is:

  • Dif­fer­ent from oth­ers (the​‘ugly duck­ling’ rule)
  • New
  • Chang­ing in shape, size or colour
  • Itch­ing or bleeding
  • A sore that doesn’t heal

Impor­tant dis­claimer: Although the ABCDE­FG rules are handy for self-check­­ing your skin, they are not a sub­sti­tute for a pro­fes­sion­al assess­ment using the lat­est tech­nol­o­gy that looks deep into moles and tracks changes over time, such as our full body mole check.

If you’re con­cerned about a chang­ing mole, we rec­om­mend book­ing a skin check with us as soon as pos­si­ble. It includes Ear­ly­De­tect mole map­ping and mon­i­tor­ing over time to spot any changes in your moles ear­ly, when they’re most treatable.

While we always encour­age reg­u­lar self-checks (at least every three months), the melanoma images in the fol­low­ing sec­tion of this arti­cle show just how dif­fi­cult it is to spot a can­cer­ous mole ver­sus a benign mole.

Skin cancer type — dermatoscope
To an untrained eye, melanoma can look much like any oth­er spot. At MoleMap Melanog­ra­phers use​‘der­mato­scopes’ and oth­er high res­o­lu­tion imag­ing equip­ment to look deep inside a mole’s struc­ture. For medi­um-to-high risk patients, our skin-map­ping tech­nol­o­gy is used to track changes over time.

What does melanoma look like at dif­fer­ent stages?

Melanoma can be dif­fi­cult to spot in the ear­ly stages (espe­cial­ly to the untrained eye), as a malig­nant melanoma can some­times look very sim­i­lar to a nor­mal mole or spot.

That’s why MoleMap skin cancer clinics uses state-of-the-art imag­ing tech­nol­o­gy that can view both the exter­nal and sub­sur­face struc­ture of any mole — see­ing far more than your naked eye. This, cou­pled with ongo­ing mon­i­tor­ing of all at-risk moles, plus diag­no­sis by a spe­cial­ist der­ma­tol­o­gist, gives you the reas­sur­ance that any signs of melanoma or oth­er skin can­cers will be detect­ed early.

In the fol­low­ing pic­tures of can­cer­ous moles, we will show you some exam­ples of melanomas that we iden­ti­fied ear­ly by track­ing skin changes over time.

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Part III: What does melanoma look like on dif­fer­ent body parts?

So, now that you know what dif­fer­ent types of melanomas look like, let us look specif­i­cal­ly at what melanoma can look like on dif­fer­ent parts of the body.

Melanoma devel­ops in dif­fer­ent areas of the body in men vs women. In men, melanoma is most often detect­ed on the back and chest, and in women, it’s most often found on the legs. But remem­ber that melanoma can appear any­where on the body, even where you least expect it — from your scalp to your tor­so to the soles of your feet (see 7 places you wouldn’t expect to find skin can­cer).

Skin cancer types — legs
These melanomas were all detect­ed on dif­fer­ent parts of the leg. In women, the legs are the most com­mon site of melanoma.
Skin cancer types — face
A range of images of melanoma found on the face. Oth­er types of skin can­cer such as basal cell car­ci­no­mas and squa­mous cell car­ci­no­mas are also com­mon­ly found on the face.
Skin cancer types — arms
These melanomas were all detect­ed on dif­fer­ent parts of the arm — arms tend to be exposed to the sun more than oth­er parts of the body.
Skin cancer types — nose
As these pic­tures show, melanomas is fair­ly com­mon on the nose — a good rea­son to wear a hat when­ev­er you’re out in the sun!
Skin cancer types — back
All of these melanomas were detect­ed on the back. In men, melanoma is more like­ly to affect the chest and back.

Iden­ti­fy­ing moles — what’s normal?

Most moles appear when we’re chil­dren or young adults. In gen­er­al, nor­mal moles are:

  • Even­ly coloured brown, tan or black
  • Flat or raised on the skin
  • Round or oval and sym­met­ri­cal in appearance
  • Most often, less than 6 mil­lime­tres across (the diam­e­ter of a pencil)

Your skin is con­stant­ly chang­ing: moles usu­al­ly increase in num­ber dur­ing child­hood and ado­les­cence, reach peak count in your 20s, then reduce with age.They can also increase in num­bers with sun expo­sure and grow dur­ing preg­nan­cy. Once devel­oped, a mole usu­al­ly stays the same size, shape and colour for many years.

If you notice a new mole that appears lat­er in life — espe­cial­ly if you’re aged 50 years or old­er — make sure you have it pro­fes­sion­al­ly mapped and mon­i­tored for any fur­ther changes.

mole checking
If you have a high num­ber of moles (espe­cial­ly if you have more than 100 moles), you have a high­er risk of devel­op­ing melanoma and should get yur skin screened regularly.

What does skin can­cer look like on your scalp, lips and feet?

Melanoma and skin can­cers on most areas of the body are fair­ly con­sis­tent in appear­ance as they begin to devel­op. How­ev­er, there are a few unique attrib­ut­es that you should look out for when check­ing for skin can­cer on your scalp, lips and feet.

scalp checking
Scalp melanomas are typ­i­cal­ly more lethal and aggres­sive than oth­ers, like­ly because they are eas­i­ly hid­den by hair and more dif­fi­cult to detect and diagnose.

What does skin can­cer on the scalp look like?

The appear­ance of skin can­cer on the scalp will actu­al­ly vary great­ly depend­ing on the type of skin can­cer it is.

Basal cell car­ci­no­ma (BCC) ini­tial­ly appears as a flat or raised spot that is usu­al­ly pink in colour. These spots can bleed quite eas­i­ly and may also be shiny, rough or crusty. They can also look like a slight­ly dis­coloured patch of skin. BCC is the most com­mon form of skin can­cer but it is also the slow­est spread­ing. If you see some­thing on your scalp that looks like one of the signs described above, book in for a skin check immediately.

Squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma (SCC) is very com­mon on the scalp. It appears as a rough or scaly patch on the scalp. It can also become raised, firm, red or even crusty over time.

Melanoma typ­i­cal­ly appears as a brown or black raised lump with dark, irreg­u­lar colours and bor­ders. But keep in mind that it can also look like a pink­ish raised lump or mole that grows quick­ly in size. Scalp melanomas are very dif­fi­cult to detect as they can be eas­i­ly hid­den by hair. This often leads to a delay in diag­no­sis, mak­ing them more lethal and aggres­sive than skin can­cers else­where on the body.

melanoma
Squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma (SCC) is the most com­mon skin can­cer to appear on the lips, but basal cell car­ci­no­ma (BCC) and melanoma can also devel­op in this area too.

What does skin can­cer on the lip look like?

SCC is the most com­mon form of skin can­cer to appear on your lips and will usu­al­ly take the form of a scaly red patch that bleeds quite eas­i­ly. Some­times SCC can even appear as a painful ulcer or oth­er non-heal­ing sore. This form of skin can­cer is more like­ly to appear on your bot­tom lip as opposed to the top.

BCC skin can­cers are less like­ly to appear on your lips than oth­er forms, but that doesn’t mean it’s impos­si­ble. If a BCC does appear, it’s typ­i­cal­ly more like­ly to do so on your upper lip. Pay atten­tion for any pink spots that devel­op that are ten­der to the touch and bleed quite easily.

Melanomas can appear on your lip and are usu­al­ly dark­er in colour. Nev­er under­es­ti­mate how impor­tant the colour of some­thing is in terms of prop­er skin can­cer detec­tion and diagnosis.

Feet Melanoma
When check­ing for skin can­cer on the foot, be sure to check between the toes, under the soles and under the toenails.

What does skin can­cer on the feet look like?

The feet are typ­i­cal­ly the last place that peo­ple think to look when check­ing for skin cancer.

BCCs are the most com­mon type of skin can­cer to appear in this area and can look like a mole, a scar or even an unusu­al rough spot. These areas tend to bleed eas­i­ly and are par­tic­u­lar­ly prone to becom­ing uncom­fort­able when you’re sweaty.

In the ear­ly stages, SCCs usu­al­ly appear on the feet as a red or scaly plaque which is com­mon­ly referred to as Bowen’s Dis­ease. This indi­cates that the skin can­cer has not had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op into a full-blown SCC yet so there is still time to act.

Melanomas on the feet are gen­er­al­ly rare, but this means that they are often sad­ly over­looked. Acral Lentig­i­nous Melanoma is the most com­mon form of melanoma to appear on your feet and usu­al­ly involves the devel­op­ment of a light-coloured patch of skin. It can be very hard to see at first which is why hav­ing a trained pro­fes­sion­al check your feet for skin can­cer is so vital.

Hands Melanoma, Reg­u­lar skin checks are vital
Reg­u­lar skin checks are vital for mon­i­tor­ing any changes in your skin or ear­ly signs of skin cancer.

Check for changes – ear­ly and often

Here at MoleMap, we thor­ough­ly rec­om­mend check­ing your skin your­self at least every 3 months (depend­ing on your skin can­cer risk — take our quick quiz to check your risk level).

Using our free self-check guide (down­load it here) — and keep­ing the ABCDE and EFG rules out­lined above in mind — check your body from scalp to toe (or ask some­one to check it for you). You may also find this arti­cle help­ful on the ear­ly warn­ing signs of melanoma.

And remem­ber, no mat­ter what your age or risk lev­el, if you notice any changes in the size, shape, colour or tex­ture of a mole or spot, book a Full Body MoleMap straight away. Because the soon­er melanoma can be detect­ed, the more treat­able — and beat­able — it is.

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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