Skin Cancer Explained

Is it a sunspot or could it be skin cancer?

Sunspots, liv­er spots, age spots or solar lenti­gines (their med­ical name) — what­ev­er you call those small brown spots that form on your hands, face or oth­er sun-exposed areas — tend to become more preva­lent with age. While they may not be pret­ty, they could be doing you a favour. Read on to find out why.
MoleMap Team
August 16, 2023
11 minutes

Sunspots are lit­tle areas of hyper­pig­men­ta­tion that are gen­er­al­ly harm­less (although they can be unsight­ly). They’re caused by years of sun expo­sure, which trig­gers pig­­ment-pro­­duc­ing cells called melanocytes in your skin to pro­duce more pig­ment in a small con­cen­trat­ed area.

This excess pig­ment is trig­gered in response to injury (sun dam­age), sort of in the same way scar tis­sue forms after a cut or punc­ture wound. Unlike moles that tend to​‘stick out’ above the skin, sunspots aren’t raised at all — run your fin­ger over a sunspot and it will feel just as smooth as the skin around it.

But just because sunspots are con­sid­ered harm­less doesn’t mean they should be ignored. The prob­lem with sunspots (and moles, for that mat­ter) is that skin can­cer in its ear­li­er stages can also look very much like a flat, brown­ish spot (as you can see in the image below). This means that if you ignore an area of hyperpig­men­ta­tion on your skin, you could be delay­ing treat­ment for what may turn out to be melanoma.

Sunspots on the face
Above: Sunspots are lit­tle areas of hyperpigmentation.

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Sunspots vs. skin can­cer: how can you tell the difference?

Here’s one of the major dif­fer­ences: sunspots tend to crop up on areas of your skin that have had a lot of sun expo­sure over the years. On the oth­er hand, melanoma — the fastest grow­ing and most dead­ly form of skin can­cer — can appear any­where, even in areas with no sun expo­sure or lim­it­ed expo­sure to UV rays.

The oth­er key dif­fer­ence is hard­er to detect with an untrained eye. A sunspot forms when the melanocytes over­pro­duce pig­ment in a tiny area of your skin, while skin can­cer forms when the cells them­selves repro­duce in an abnor­mal and rapid fash­ion. Even­tu­al­ly, these can­cer­ous cells can spread to oth­er areas of your body (a process called metas­ta­sis) and can be life-threatening.

The trou­ble is that the dif­fer­ence between a benign skin change and ear­ly skin can­cer can be very sub­tle, which is why we rec­om­mend hav­ing your skin checked by an expert skin can­cer detec­tion ser­vice at a specialised MoleMap skin cancer clinic every year.

Appear­ance and loca­tion: What do sunspots look like and where do they show up?

There are a few key dif­fer­ences in how sunspots vs skin can­cers appear on the skin.

Sunspots are usu­al­ly iden­ti­fied by these characteristics:

  • Smooth to the touch
  • Not raised or flat on the skin
  • Appear on areas of skin that have had pro­longed sun expo­sure like the hands, arms and face

Skin can­cers, on the oth­er hand, typ­i­cal­ly have these characteristics:

  • Appear any­where on the body — even on areas of the skin that are not exposed to the sun

It’s impor­tant to note that melanoma can also be smooth to touch and not raised, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from sunspots or solar lentig­ines at times.

is it a sunspot or skin cancer
It can be very dif­fi­cult to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from sunspots or solar lentig­ines

What's my skin cancer risk?

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Are sunspots cancerous?

Sunspots are con­sid­ered to be harm­less, ran­dom marks on the skin that do not become can­cer­ous. How­ev­er, this doesn’t mean they should be ignored. In order to devel­op sunspots, your skin must have had pro­longed expo­sure to the sun and the dam­age from UV expo­sure increas­es your risk of skin can­cer over time. This means that if you have sunspots, you may be more sus­cep­ti­ble to devel­op­ing skin cancer.

If you’ve noticed any new spots appear­ing on your skin or are con­cerned your sunspots may be some­thing more sus­pi­cious, be sure to have them pro­fes­sion­al­ly checked by a der­ma­tol­o­gist or melanog­ra­ph­er as soon as possible.

A dermatologist checks a patient who has sunspots using a dermatoscope
A dermatologist checks a patient who has sunspots using a dermatoscope

Sunspots and skin can­cer risk factors

When assess­ing your sunspots, it’s also impor­tant to con­sid­er your per­son­al skin can­cer risk fac­tors. You may be at a high­er risk of devel­op­ing skin can­cer if you have any of the following:

  • Fair skin
  • Nat­u­ral­ly light-coloured hair, such as blonde or red
  • A large num­ber of moles all over your skin
  • Had seri­ous sun­burns or pro­longed sun exposure
  • Fam­i­ly his­to­ry or per­son­al his­to­ry of skin cancer

You can also check your per­son­al risk of devel­op­ing skin can­cer by tak­ing our free quiz.

Skin Cancer Sunspots
Regular skin checks will help you know if it's a sunspot or skin cancer

Per­form­ing reg­u­lar self-checks on your spots

Regard­less of whether your skin can­cer risk fac­tor is high or low, it’s impor­tant that you check your own skin reg­u­lar­ly to mon­i­tor for any irreg­u­lar­i­ties or changes in your sunspots — or any spots on your skin, for that mat­ter. Know­ing what’s nor­mal on your skin (and what’s not) is key to ear­ly detec­tion and treat­ment of skin cancer.

The ear­ly signs of skin can­cer: What to look for?

We rec­om­mend check­ing your skin your­self (or ask­ing some­one to check it for you) at least every two to three months. Know­ing the ABCDE and EFG guide­lines below can help you iden­ti­fy the ear­ly signs of skin cancer:

  • Asym­me­try: If you draw an invis­i­ble line down the cen­tre of a non-can­cer­ous growth, the two sides will be almost iden­ti­cal in most cas­es; with skin can­cer, the two sides will look different.
  • Bor­ders: Non-can­cer­ous growths tend to have smooth edges or bor­ders while skin can­cers usu­al­ly have irreg­u­lar borders.
  • Colour: While most moles are one con­sis­tent colour, skin can­cers tend to have more than one colour, like red, brown, black, pink or even blue.
  • Diam­e­ter: Most melanomas have a diam­e­ter larg­er than a pen­cil (about 6mm), how­ev­er, some melanomas can be quite small, espe­cial­ly in their ear­ly stages.
  • Evo­lu­tion: Any spot or growth that changes in size, shape, colour or any oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic is more like­ly to be a melanoma.

Recent­ly, the Can­cer Coun­cil announced an update to the diag­no­sis guide­lines to include ele­va­tion, firm­ness and growth (EFG):

  • Ele­vat­ed: The mole is raised above the skin — how­ev­er, remem­ber melanoma doesn’t have to be elevated.
  • Firm: The spot is sol­id to the touch, firmer than the sur­round­ing skin and doesn’t flat­ten if pressed how­ev­er remem­ber Melanoma doesn’t have to be firm.
  • Grow­ing: The mole is grad­u­al­ly get­ting larger.
ABCDE check if you have sunspots

While the ABCDE and EFG guide­lines are a good start­ing point for eval­u­at­ing a sus­pi­cious spot, the dif­fer­ences between a sunspot and ear­ly skin can­cer can extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to detect with­out prop­er med­ical train­ing. Even your doc­tor might have trou­ble detect­ing ear­ly skin can­cer at a glance.

Only a spe­cial­ist skin-map­ping ser­vice such as MoleMap australian skin cancer clinics has the exper­tise and tech­nol­o­gy to detect the sub­tle dif­fer­ences between benign sunspots and can­cer­ous growths such as basal cell car­ci­no­ma, squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma, and melanoma — which is why we rec­om­mend choos­ing a reg­u­lar, spe­cial­ist skin can­cer check up.

Sunspots: your early warning signs?

Even though sunspots can be pretty ugly, they’re actually doing you a favour by showing up. Sunspots mean that you’ve had a lot of sun exposure during your lifetime and that your risk of developing skin cancer is probably elevated — possibly very elevated.

So, while sunspots may be benign, they’re a good reminder to book a skin and mole check every year.

And if you have any suspicious moles or sunspots that are changing, book a mole check or skin check straight away.

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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