More people are asking to have moles removed and it's not just because of concerns about skin cancer. Why do some people feel self-conscious about their moles, asks Hannah Sander.
The average person has around 30-40 moles. Some have as many as 600.
And yet a lot of people have a problem with these "blemishes".
The number of people in the UK asking to have a mole removed increased by 127% in the past year, according to a survey by a cosmetic surgery website. Famous faces that have become mole-free include Madonna, whose upper lip mole has long vanished from sight.
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Consultant dermatologist Dr Sasi Attili says that the majority of those asking him for mole removal are women. "Usually it is an anxious mother bringing a child, or an anxious young lady in their twenties or early thirties who has developed a new mole. Sometimes they just think their mole is ugly." Male patients are in the minority, even though Cancer Research UK has warned that men are more prone than women to die from skin cancer.
The vast majority of the time, Attili assures, moles turn out to be benign. "Most of the time people are worrying about nothing. But that doesn't mean we should stop looking."
The NHS advises people to keep an eye on their moles, and watch for any changes - particularly if a mole becomes asymmetrical.
But cancer concerns are not the only reason why people want their moles taken off. Ayden Millar, an assistant at a television company, had a large mole on her nose. "I was obsessed with it. It was like something from a Halloween witch's costume. At my high school in Glasgow some girls were nasty about it."
Millar took her mole to the doctors, who declared it benign. But she was still not satisfied and decided to have it removed privately. She thinks it was a life-changing decision.
"I wish I had done it sooner. They removed it with a scalpel, and then I had four or five stitches and a line across my nose. I was worried initially because there was a lot of swelling. And I am still a little worried about the scarring - it has been two months now, and my nose is still a bit red with marks from where the stitches were." Even so, she would recommend the operation to anyone embarrassed about a beauty spot.
Attili discourages people from having moles removed for cosmetic reasons. There are two main methods for taking one off. Flatter benign moles can be shaved away. Bigger moles, or those that might be cancerous, have to be dug out of the face with a scalpel. The mole is then sent off for a biopsy. "Scarring is unpredictable," warns Attili. "Sometimes the scar can look worse than the original mole."
Health advice on moles
Most moles are completely harmless, but you should check your skin every few months for any new moles that develop or any changes to existing moles. A helpful way to remember what to look for is to use the ABCDE method:
- A - asymmetry
- B - border irregularity
- C - colour change
- D - diameter
- E - elevated (raised) or enlarged
People's preoccupation with facial moles is not new. In traditional Chinese culture, mole-reading or moleomancy predicted fortunes. In some parts of medieval Europe, moles were considered a sign of evil. Witches and devil-worshippers were often depicted with moles bulging out of their cheeks and nose.
And then moles became spectacularly fashionable.
Karen Hearn, honorary professor of English at University College London, is fascinated by the spread of beauty marks. As part of the National Maritime Museum's new exhibition "Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution", she is giving a talk on beauty marks.
"The fashion began in France in the 17th Century. Women were wearing patches made of silk, satin, taffeta or leather. Sometimes they were quite large pieces of cloth." The fake mole, known as a mouche, was glued on to the skin.
Diarist Samuel Pepys saw his first mouche in the Netherlands. He was visiting during huge political upheaval but still paused to make a note in his diary about Dutch beauty marks. "The obsession with beauty marks goes back to classical times," Hearn explains. "The goddess Venus was said to have had a mole. This slight defect on an otherwise perfect body made her seem even more beautiful."
Wealthy British women used fake moles to show off their pale skin. Pale skin was a sign of luxury, indicating a life without manual labour. Women sometimes glued on as many as a dozen beauty marks, covering up their spots and acne.
Pepys spotted the king's mistress, Lady Castlemaine, stealing the beauty spot from her maid's face and sticking it on her own cheek. He decided the famous courtesan must have felt a pimple coming up.
Alarmed by the new fashion for fake beauty spots, critics called society women vain and declared moles immoral. Pepys forbade his wife from wearing a beauty mark, but later changed his mind. "He found them worrying," Hearn laughs, "but he obviously also found them sexy."
By the 18th Century, fake moles came in elaborate shapes. Stars, half moons and hearts were all common. Moles were even used as political symbols. Wearing a beauty mark on the left side of the face was supposed to show you were a Tory. The right side was for Whigs. This led to embarrassing encounters in which women had to explain that their beauty mark was genuine, rather than a badge of allegiance.
Under Queen Victoria's reign, a natural mole was "absolutely a mark of disgrace", says Madeleine Marsh, author of The Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day. Victorian beauty standards required lily-white skin, but in the new moral climate only prostitutes and actresses wore makeup. "There were a lot of recipes for skin whiteners that would take away your freckles and moles. These were basically bleaches. We can imagine what happened."
It was not until the rise of Hollywood that moles lost their reputation as a hideous defect. "Hollywood revolutionised women's faces," Marsh reveals. "Suddenly you were seeing these HUGE women's faces, bigger than we had ever seen them before. The starlets had to wear makeup on screen, and so the beauty industry exploded."
Marilyn Monroe used makeup to accentuate her beauty mark. A mole was part of her sex appeal. Other starlets drew on moles with eyebrow pencil. And just like the women of Pepys's time, these fake moles would be moved to cover a new pimple. Marilyn's famous mark even inspired the Monroe lip piercing, a modern twist to the traditional beauty mark.
Today however, the mole - with its unpredictable bulges, bumps and dark hairs - is once again considered a defect.
Farid Haddad, managing director of BMA Models, says he has never had anyone on his books who became known for their mole. "We are open to all different looks - our books are full of different characters and we are proud of that."
But it is a world where beauty is skin deep.
"Men and women are both expected to be 'flawless' in the fashion world. Any moles or flaws are usually Photoshopped out to create the image of beauty."
Nevertheless, Haddad is optimistic that people will get over their fear of moles. "Perfection in the modelling world is still apparent. The hope is this notion will change soon, and we will embrace moles and other individual qualities."