Melanoma Explained

What are the 4 most common types of melanoma? And how to spot them

While basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the two most widespread skin cancers, melanoma is the third most common. But more importantly, it poses the biggest danger due to the fact it can quickly spread to other parts of the body.
MoleMap Team
May 24, 2023
5 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.

A look at the dif­fer­ent melanoma types

Did you know that there isn’t just one type of melanoma — there are actu­al­ly four main types of melanomas? (Plus a few oth­er types, but these are *very* rare.) Let’s take a look.

1. Super­fi­cial spread­ing melanoma

What you should know: This is the most com­mon form 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.

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. It can appear raised or flat and may look like a freck­le that’s grow­ing at its edges.

2. 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.

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.

3. 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 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.

4. 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.

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.

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 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 yor skin for changes

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

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MoleMap Team
Specialists in melanoma detection, diagnosis and check surveillance.

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