Melanoma:  What it Looks Like

While only 4% of diagnosed skin cancer is melanoma, melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer because of its ability to spread. This is why it is so important to catch melanoma early when the cure rate with dermatological surgery is about 95%.

Where Occurs
Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body soles, palms, inside the mouth, genitalia, and underneath nails. However, it is most commonly found on the back, buttocks, legs, scalp, neck, and behind the ears.

Warning signs
Melanoma often develops in a pre-existing mole that begins to change or a new mole. It is estimated that 20% to 40% of melanomas arise from an atypical mole. This is why it is so important to be familiar with the moles on your body and perform regular self-examinations of your skin. When looking at moles, keep in mind the ABCDEs of Melanoma Detection:

  1. Asymmetry. If you could fold the lesion in two, the two halves would not match.

  1. Border. Melanomas often have uneven or blurred borders.


  1. Color. Melanoma typically is not one solid color; rather it contains mixed shades of tan, brown, and black.  It can also show traces of red, blue or white.


  1. Diameter. While melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, they can be smaller. If you notice a mole different from others, or which changes, itches, or bleeds even if it is smaller than 6 millimeters, you should see a dermatologist.


  1. Evolving. A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color.


It is important to realize that a mole may have some of the characteristics described above and not be a melanoma. A biopsy is often necessary to distinguish an atypical mole from a melanoma.

Other warning signs of melanoma include:

  • Change in the appearance of a mole, such as the spreading of the pigment from the border of the mole into the surrounding skin

  • A mole that looks scaly, oozes, or bleeds

  • Itching, tenderness, or pain in a mole or lesion

  • Brown or black streak that appears underneath a nail or around the nail

  • Bruise on the foot that does not heal

Diagnosed Cases of Melanoma
Notice that several of these tumors conform to the ABCDEs of Melanoma Detection.

Above are two diagnosed cases of superficial spreading melanoma, the most common type of melanoma, which usually begins as a spot that looks much like a freckle that spreads sideways.



Diagnosed cases of nodular melanoma, a very aggressive type that tends to grow down into the skin rather than sideways.

An advanced case of lentigo maligna melanoma, a type of melanoma that tends to develop on skin that has received years of sun exposure. It usually begins as a patch of mottled pigmentation that may be dark brown, black, or tan.

An advanced case of acral lentiginous melanoma, a type
of melanoma that is often overlooked in its early stages
when it resembles a bruise or nail streak.

(Photos used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology
National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides)

Contact a Dermatologist
When detected and properly treated in its early stages, melanoma has a cure rate of about 95%. Left untreated, the prognosis is poor. Regular self-examinations of your skin play a key role in early detection. Should you spot a suspicious lesion, contact a dermatologist immediately.

All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology

Approximately 20%
to 40% of melanomas arise
in association with a dysplastic nevus (atypical mole).

American Academy of Dermatology

Four Types of Melanoma
More in-depth information about the four types of melanoma includes warnings signs and more photographs

Hidden Melanomas
Information about melanomas that develop on areas of the skin that are difficult to self-examine or are not usually considered necessary to self-examine

     American Academy of Dermatology, 2010  All rights reserved.
Page last updated 12/11/08

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