Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Why do pale people get more moles?” (Caterpickles consults the dermatologist)

This is melanoma. If you have one of these, see your doctor immediately. If you don’t have one of these, see your doctor for a skin check anyway. (Photo: Milomingo via Flickr)

Earlier this summer, after viewing the Dear 16-Year-Old Me video, I decided to finally make good on my three-year-old intention to get a yearly skin check from my friendly neighborhood dermatologist.

Turns out I had three moles that were threatening to go rogue. My dermatologist gave me the option of simply watching them to make sure they behaved, but as my husband says, “The only place a mole belongs is with the pathologist,” so I had them taken off.

My four-year-old daughter has been fascinated by this process.  Her questions have come thick and fast.

Why do you get your skin checked?

Because annual skin checks are one very important way to take care of myself.

“What’s the doctor looking for?”

Moles that look funny. The ABCDE warning signs:

    • Asymmetry: One side of the mole looks different from the other side.
    • Border irregularity: The mole’s edges are ragged, notched, or blurred.
    • Color: The mole contain two or more different colors–most often shades of tan, brown, or black, but occasionally red, white and blue dashes (a form of patriotism we can all do without).
    • Diameter: A big mole. Caveat: Although most melanomas are larger than the eraser on a typical #2 pencil when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
    • Evolving: A mole that looks different from the other moles your body’s mole factory produces, or a mole that has changed its size, shape, or color.

(A handy-dandy visual aid from the American Academy of Dermatology for those of you who prefer pictures to words.)

“How many moles do you have anyway?”

More than I can count.

“Why can’t you count them?”

Some of them are hard to see.

“Can your dermatologist count them for you?”

Probably. But since I have so many, it would take too long, so I expect she won’t.

“Why do you have so many moles anyway?”

(Insert Mom’s-guessing-now response here) Because I’m pale, and pale people get more moles.

“Why do pale people get more moles?”

I didn’t know, so I asked my dermatologist during my next visit. Turns out that the number of moles you get has less to do with your skin color and more to do with your genetics. Your family history is a better predictor of the number of moles you’ll get than your skin tone. If your mom or dad had a lot of moles, chances are you’ll get a lot of moles too.

“So am I going to get as many moles as you?”


“Ew! Your arms are covered with them!”

Those aren’t moles (for the most part, anyway). Those are freckles.

“What’s the difference between moles and freckles?”

This turned out to be another excellent question for my very patient dermatologist. Turns out your mole factory’s output is determined at birth. Freckles are caused by sun exposure. As my dermatologist explained, “You could live in a cave your entire life and never get any freckles, but your moles would still show up.”

Final Thoughts:

I recognize that my family is fortunate to have health insurance coverage that makes getting an annual skin cancer screening a relatively trivial process. However, the American Academy of Dermatology has partnered with dermatologists nationwide to offer free skin cancer screenings through its website, Melanoma Monday. You can find a list of providers and/or sign up for a free skin cancer screening here.

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14 Responses to ““Why do pale people get more moles?” (Caterpickles consults the dermatologist)”

  1. Victoria

    Having just gone through this process a couple of weeks ahead of you, this is so cool!! You guys have a great question producer and excellent question response skills. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Susan

    Is an annual trip to the dermatologist advisable even if you don’t have any moles? In other words, are there forms of skin cancer that don’t start out as moles but perhaps start out as freckles? I have pale skin and tons of freckles but no recognizable moles (although given the number of freckles I have, I can’t be absolutely sure that one or two moles aren’t hidden somewhere among them). My freckles are relatively small and round and are light brown in color. I get new ones every summer, but they fade to some extent in the winter (only to pop out again as soon as I get more than 10 minutes of sun exposure in the spring). I know you’re not a dermatologist yourself, but I’d be curious to hear what your dermatologist thinks.


    • shalahowell

      It’s a Sunday morning and my dermatologist is closed, but I didn’t want to leave you hanging over the weekend.

      This is way out of my field of expertise, and for reasons I’m sure you’ll understand I’m very hesitant to give medical advice. But a closer reading of the American Academy of Dermatologist’s recommendations for performing skin exams on your own at home says “Consult your dermatologist immediately if any of your moles or pigmented spots exhibit” the ABCDE’s. Pigmented spots being the key bit there. Elsewhere on the site it talks about skin lesions, so while I was lazy and called all these things moles, I suspect it isn’t limited to them.

      This ( has some pictures of skin cancer that don’t look like they started from moles (again, not an expert). Its baseline recommendation is to see your dermatologist if “you see anything on your skin that lasts for 2 weeks or longer and is growing, changing shape, bleeding or itching.”

      So I’d say, if you’re concerned about something, ask your doctor. Here in the States you can ask your general practitioner to check your skin (or a skin spot you’re worried about) during your usual annual exam or, if you’re in between annual exams, on a sick visit. My doctor referred me out to a dermatologist because I had a concerning mole, and because my skin type, mole output, and history of sunburns puts me at risk for skin cancer.

      Good luck!


  3. Maside

    My husband has aactully removed some small ones from his armpit with a pair of sterilized scissors. He boils the scissors for 20 minutes, air dries them , swabs the area with rubbing alcohol,cuts them off and then applies an antibiotic cream from the drugstore. Off course you have to make sure that they really are skin tags and they should be small ones. I would think if they were too big you might have too much bleeding. He has had no problem whatsoever and he’s quite a baby when it comes to pain,so if he can do it ..anybody can.


  4. Jugnu Sehgal

    At this time it sounds like Drupal is the best blogging platform out there right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you are using on your blog?


  5. Roxie Scallion

    kin Cancer. Avoid any cosmetics that have tar in them. Tar can potentially cause skin cancer, if used on a regular basis. In addition to cosmetics, some psoriasis treatments and shampoos may also contain tar. Check your labels carefully! Know your family history. Once of the causes of skin cancer is genetics. If you have members in your family that have had skin cancer, you may be at more of a risk to get it as well. :

    Most current short article coming from our own website


  6. livres mobi

    I was wondering if you ever considered changing the page layout of your website?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.

    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so
    people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for
    only having one or 2 images. Maybe you could space it out better?



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