Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Classic Caterpickles: “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)

Sorry for the long silence. Spring cleaning (and painting and landscaping) have taken over my life. Completely. For another week at least. In the meantime, I hate having Caterpickles remain dark. So here’s the most popular post I’ve ever published. With Melanoma Monday coming up on May 6, it seems like a reasonable time to rerun this gem from September 2011. It’s kind of amazing that my most popular post ever is the one about moles. I really kind of expected one of my very many dinosaur posts to take the title.

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 sign up for a free skin cancer screening here.

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

  1. Kate's Bookshelf

    Great awareness post. I have inherited moles from my mother. While I don’t have as many as she does, I seem to get them in odd spots, like the sole of my foot and the palm of my hand. Only one or two, but it is odd. Eh, well, with my lily white skin, it just shows up better. 🙂 Another reason to check them regularly.



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