Mole or Melanoma? How To Spot The Difference & Stay Sun Safe

Woman shields herself from the sun and getting melanoma under a big hat

Australia has a lot of big things. The Big Banana, The Big Pineapple, The Big Prawn, and The Great (Big) Barrier Reef, but we also have a big problem. Melanoma.

Every 30 minutes, an Australian is told they have melanoma. Often referred to as our ‘national cancer', it’s the 3rd most common form of cancer in men and women, and the deadliest of the skin diseases. However, a diagnosis doesn’t have to mean terminal. If caught in its early stages when still confined to the top layer of the skin, melanoma can be treated very effectively. But that’s just it: early diagnosis is crucial, and prevention and protection, even more so. It may be Winter now, but it’s the perfect time to develop sun safe habits before Summer is upon us once again and we’re blinded by its long-awaited warm welcome.

So firstly, what is Melanoma? Melanoma is an aggressive type of skin cancer that develops in the skin cells called melanocytes and usually occurs on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun or artificial UV (ultraviolet) radiation. Australia has the highest melanoma rates in the world and it particularly affects the 15 to 39-year-old population. This could be a by-product of a combination of factors, including our predominately Anglo ancestry and predetermined fair skin prone to sunburn, close proximity to the Equator, frequent record-breaking heatwaves, and a risky tendency to stay outdoors for extended periods of time.

Despite all we now know about skin cancer and being sun safe, people still continue to behave irresponsibly in Summer. Kids compete to peel the biggest pieces of sunburnt skin from each other’s backs. Men play beach cricket bare-chested. Leathery-skinned ladies lie up and down coastlines nation-wide, stretched out on sandy towels and soaking up the sun’s potent rays. Sunbakers are a common breed, but their bad habits are not to be emulated and their bronzed bodies are not to be admired. “There’s nothing healthy about a tan.”

Every time your skin pigment gets darker, it’s a protective mechanism and a warning that it’s beginning to damage. The first symptom of a melanoma is usually the appearance of a mole, freckle or spot, or a change of colour, shape or size in an existing one noticed over several weeks or months. Skin checks are the simplest ways to monitor your skin and detect early signs of melanoma, and a good habit you can get into at home. (These are basic guides, however, and should be in addition to and not in lieu of professional screenings or “mole mapping” as it is always important to ensure you haven’t missed anything). 

The easiest form of detection, is the Ugly Duckling method. Most moles that are fairly normal on the body resemble one another, while melanomas tend to stand out. Comparing spots and lesions on the body can help determine whether one is changing or if a new one should be of concern. An isolated or raised mole, for example, could be considered an ugly duckling.

The ABCDE technique is another great and more detailed way to remember what to look for:

  • A is for ASYMMETRY: One-half of a mole or spot does not match the other.
  • B is for BORDER: The edges are irregular or uneven.
  • C is for COLOUR: The colour is not the same all over, but may have differing shades of brown or black, sometimes with patches of red, white, or blue.
  • D is for DIAMETER: The area is growing or larger than 6 mm.
  • E is for EVOLVING: Changes in size, shape, colour, elevation, or itching, bleeding or crusting. This is typically the strongest of all of the warning signs.
Magnifying glass spotting a mole or melanoma on a woman's arm

Being proactive about signs & symptoms, however, is only one half of the solution. Practicing sun safety all-year-round is key. A bit of sunshine is good for your mental health and daily vitamin D intake, but like anything, it’s about moderation and knowing how to mitigate the threat of sunburn and long-term damage.

One of the most successful TV advertisement health campaigns in Australia's history was SunSmart’s Slip! Slop! Slap! jingle launched in 1981 featuring Sid the Seagull. Dressed in board shorts, t-shirt and hat, the scholastically minded lisping seabird coined a chorus still widely recognised today:

Slip, Slop, Slap!
It sounds like a breeze when you say it like that
Slip, Slop, Slap!
In the sun this Summer say 'Slip, Slop, Slap!'
Slip, Slop, Slap!
Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat
Slip, Slop, Slap!
You can stop skin cancer - say 'Slip, Slop, Slap!'

Wearing sunscreen, of course, is crucial, but not as straightforward as it sounds. UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes, so ensure you are covered well before you head outdoors and re-apply it every 2 hours whether you’ve been swimming or not. Choosing a lotion with SPF30 or SPF50 is ideal as well as one that offers broad-spectrum protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. People4Ocean's sunscreen range not only includes all of these essentials, but is cruelty-free, made in Australia and dedicated to being reef-safe by omitting coral health harming ingredients and chemicals used in 97% of traditional brands.

Keeping covered also extends to clothing. Wearing protective outfits such as long but breathable pants and sleeves is the most sensible, as well as wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses (look for pairs that that meet the Australian Standard, boast good UV protection and have a lens category between 2-4). Limiting your time in the sun is also a no-brainer, especially during the heat of the day or the hours of 10am-4pm, so try to schedule outdoor activities early, take breaks and seek shade where possible.

As previously mentioned, tanning is not a safe practice, whether it be done outdoors or using beds, booths and sunlamps. In 2007, Australian woman Clare Oliver became the tragic face of melanoma when she announced in an open letter that she had only days to live after receiving a diagnosis 5 years earlier during a health check-up at her work. She blamed her cancer on regular solarium use, but also admitted that excessive tanning at the beach sans sunscreen could have contributed. It was her belief that the Australian government didn't fully realise the dangers of solariums, and that young people needed to be warned. Following her death in September 2007 (just 3 weeks after her 26th birthday) Clare’s wish for action began to take effect, and as of 1st January 2015, commercial sunbed units were banned across the country. 

It’s also common for people to think they are more protected in Winter or on cloudy/cool days. UV rays, however, are present all-year-round, with UVA responsible for initiating skin cancers and being able to penetrate cloud-cover, and UVB being the cause of sunburn and having the ability to reflect off snow and ice (making them a problem on the ski slopes). And in cases were mild sunburn or exposure has already occurred, it is still paramount to undertake after-sun care. Unless it is severe or blistered (which requires medical attention) there are 5 simple steps you can take to ensure you’re giving your skin the best chance to heal:

  1. Take a cool shower or bath to soothe the burnt skin
  2. Apply nourishing and moisturising after-sun lotion such as an Aloe Vera based cream or gel
  3. Give your skin a break from other products, shaving/waxing or constricting clothing for a few days
  4. Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids
  5. Avoid further sun exposure for at least 24 hours

Being aware of your skin and its changes, your time spent in the sun, and enacting measures to reduce your risk of harm is essential. The melanoma statistics in Australia are scary, but continued education and common sense can help drive the numbers down and turn our sun damage destiny around. We may love our sunburnt country, our home girt by sea, but our real pride should lie in our people being sun smart, sun safe and having each other’s backs – even when they’re burnt!

Comments (2)

  • Vicki Franklin on Apr 26, 2022

    I am sorry we call melanoma ski. Cancer as it tends to diminish the severity of its occurrence and possible outcomes… really more like an iceberg where the top breaks the surface!
    Great post. Thankyou.

  • Shammy Peterson on Apr 26, 2022

    It made sense to me when you said that melanomas tend to stand out, so you must consider comparing spots and lesions on the body. This is something that I will consider because the mole on my right leg has increased in size and changed in color. I find it alarming since it used to look like a normal mole. For sure, I will see a skin cancer treatment specialist within the week.

Leave a comment