Melanoma Explained

The 4 most common types of melanoma — and how to spot them

Most people have heard of melanoma, but did you know there are different types of melanoma? Here’s a look at the 4 most common.
MoleMap Team
May 24, 2023
8 minutes

Aus­tralia has the high­est rate of skin can­cer in the world. One Aussie is diag­nosed with melanoma every 30 min­utes. The pos­i­tive news? Melanoma is usu­al­ly cur­able when detect­ed and treat­ed ear­ly. This is why learn­ing about the dif­fer­ent types of melanoma is important.

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What is melanoma?

Malignant melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer. It’s also called cutaneous melanoma. This comes from the Latin word ‘cutis’, which means ‘of the skin’—so in other words we’re talking about ‘cancer of the skin’.

Melanoma starts in the melanocytes. These are the cells found in the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis). Their job is to make melanin—the pigment that gives your skin its natural colour. Over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or tanning beds damages the skin. You’ll notice it tan, darken or maybe even burn. This triggers changes in the melanocytes, which can lead to mutations and cause the cells to multiply uncontrollably and become cancerous.

Alongside excessive sun exposure and sunburn, there are many other factors that can increase your risk of skin cancer. Take a look at the seven key risk factors for melanoma and other skin cancers here.  

While most people are familiar with melanoma, they may not be aware that there are different types of melanoma cancer. There are actually four main types of malignant melanoma. (Plus a few other types, but these are *very* rare.) Keep on reading to find out more about each of these melanoma types.

Superficial spreading melanoma

What you should know:

This is the most common type of melanoma. It accounts for up to 70 per cent of melanoma cases in Aus­tralia and New Zealand. While superficial spreading melanoma is more common in people with very fair skin, it may also occur in those who tan eas­i­ly. It is rare in brown or black skin. It’s also uncommon in people under the age of 20 years. In fact, only 15% of these types of melanomas occur before the age of 40 years.2

Where it is usually found:

Superficial spreading melanoma appears on the surface of the skin and can develop anywhere on the body—even areas that see little sun. In men, it’s usu­al­ly found on the central part of the body (chest and back). And in women, it’s more common on the legs. 

How to spot it:

Superficial spreading melanoma tends to grow slowly at first. It ‘spreads’ outwards (hence the name), rather than growing down into the skin.3 It can appear raised or flat and may look like a freckle that’s growing at its edges. 

​​Images of superficial spreading melanoma.
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.

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Nodu­lar melanoma

What you should know:

This is the second most common of all types of melanomas, accounting for 15-20 per cent. It is most frequently diagnosed in people in their fifties. Nodular melanomas can grow deeper into the skin and spread quicker than other types of melanomas.3

Where it is usually found:

Nodular melanoma common locations include the chest, back, scalp and neck.

How to spot it:

This type of melanoma may look like a raised bump on the surface of the skin. It may start off blue or black in colour and become pink or red as it grows.

Images of nodu­lar melanoma.
Nodu­lar melanoma is usu­al­ly raised, often sym­met­ri­cal, firm to the touch and grows or changes with­in a few months.

Lenti­go maligna melanoma

What you should know:

Lentigo maligna melanoma accounts for approximately 5-15 per cent of melanomas. It is most common in older adults (aged 60+). This is a slow-growing melanoma. 

Where it is usually found:

This type of melanoma develops on areas of the body that get the greatest amount of sun exposure. So, one of the most common places to find lentigo maligna melanoma is on the face, ears, and neck.

How to spot it:

It begins life as a pre-cancerous disease called lentigo maligna. Like superficial spreading melanoma, it grows on the outer layer of the skin (epidermis). It may look like a stain on the skin or a big freckle (AKA Hutchinson’s freckle). It can appear flat or slightly raised with an uneven border. Usually, it is blue-black in colour, but can also be tan or brown.

Lentigo maligna is highly curable when spotted and treated early. But, if left untreated, it can spread into the deeper layers of the skin and become a cancerous form of melanoma—referred to as lentigo maligna melanoma.

Images of lenti­go maligna melanoma.
Lenti­go maligna looks like a flat or slight­ly raised brown patch, sim­i­lar to a freck­le or sun spot.

Acral lentig­i­nous melanoma

What you should know:

This type of melanoma is rare, accounting for only 2-3% of melanoma diagnoses. It is more common in people with black or brown skin. Unlike other melanomas, it’s not believed to be caused by UV exposure. While it’s unknown what exactly causes acral lentiginous melanoma, it’s thought to be linked to pressure, friction, irritation, and skin trauma.4

Where it is usually found:

This type of melanoma is usually found in tricky-to-spot areas—or in places you might not think to check for cancer, such as the soles of the feet, under fingernails or toenails, and on the palms of the hands. 

How to spot it:

Acral lentiginous melanomas tend to look like a flat lesion with an irregular border. They may be black, brown, or greyish in colour.


Images of acral lentig­i­nous melanoma.
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.

Preventing the different types of melanoma

Spotting an odd-looking or changing mole can be scary. So, what can you do to prevent a melanoma from developing?

Here are a few actions you can take to help reduce your risk of melanoma skin cancers, as well as non-melanoma skin cancer.

  • Avoid the sun when the UV index is at its highest, typically between 11am-3pm. (Check the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency website here to see the UV Index in a location near you.)
  • Wear sunscreen (ideally SPF 30 or higher) whenever you go outdoors.
  • Keep arms and legs covered and wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. 
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Regular self-check your skin for changes

Melanoma is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in men and the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in women.5 If you know you’re at risk, getting a professional skin check is essential, as early diagnosis is linked to a more positive outcome.




Melanoma Institute Australia:; DermNetNZ –; Cancer Research UK:; National Institutes of Health:; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

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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