What to Expect When You Get a Mole Removed

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After having a few moles removed, I was surprised by how long the scars took to heal. Here’s what I learned about smoother—and faster—recovery.

A couple of years ago, I had three moles removed. My trusted dermatologist told me they looked suspicious in my yearly skin exam, and so he wanted to remove and biopsy them. I’m three-quarters Italian and tan easily in the summer, but my grandpa did have melanoma (they caught it early, thankfully).

As a health writer, I know that having a family history increases your risk of melanoma. Furthermore, catching it early is key to prevent it from spreading, and it also increases your chances of successfully treating it, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. So, if my doctor tells me something on my skin looks suspicious, I’d rather be safe than sorry.

I did have some concerns about scarring—two of the moles were on my ribcage right under my breasts, and the third was in my cleavage. My doctor reassured me that as long as I was diligent about wound care, it shouldn’t be so bad. At my next appointment, he shaved them off.

But, despite my tending to my wounds every single day without fail, the scars were pretty noticeable months after they healed. It looked like someone scooped out small chunks of my skin because, well, that’s essentially what had happened. The scars on my ribcage are noticeable in a bikini. The scar in my cleavage was really visible in my wedding dress. If I had expected that scar, I probably would have waited to have it removed until after my wedding. I know that some scarring is simply the cost of doing business. But, I really wish I had known more about what to expect when I said yes to having my moles removed. Now, a few years later, the scars have smoothed out a bit, but they’re still noticeable, discoloured indentations in my skin.

To figure out if my experience was normal, I asked a few dermatologists to explain the typical mole removal process and what people might want to know beforehand.

Two main options for mole removal

When dermatologists remove biopsy moles, they can do it one of two ways, says Amanda Wendel, MD, dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine in St. Charles, Illinois. One option is a shave excision, which is what I had. The doctor will use a razor-like tool to basically shave off the mole and some of the skin around it.

The other option is called a punch biopsy and is often used when the mole goes deeper into the skin, according to the National Cancer Institute. A circular tool with a blade is pressed into the skin around the mole to cut it out. Since the cut usually goes pretty deep, your doctor will then put in a few stitches.

Which mole removal method is best depends on factors like the shape of the mole, the size of the mole, and both your and your doctor’s preference, Dr. Wendel says.

Mole removal should be painless

A lot of people think that mole removal is going to be a painful procedure, says Susan Y. Chon, MD, dermatologist at The University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “The thought of having a biopsy is so stressful and the truth is, it’s quite painless,” she says. “It’s a very tolerable and non-invasive procedure. It’s done very quickly and very effectively.”

Your doctor will use a tiny needle to inject an anesthetic into the area, which numbs you instantly. “People are always shocked that it gets numb so fast,” says Dr. Chon. Personally, I don’t do well with needles, but I’d agree that the numbing part was quick and painless, and all I felt during the removal was some pressure.

Wound care for proper healing

“Either with or without stitches, we want the wound to stay moist and covered,” Dr. Wendel says. “Moisture helps it heal. We want new skin cells to migrate easily and quickly [to the site of the wound], and a moist environment can help with that.” Moisture helps prevent scabbing, which can essentially act as a barrier and makes it harder for new skin cells to migrate to the area and heal the wound. Covering the wound with a bandage will protect it from dirt and debris that can cause infection, Dr. Wendel says. That’s why my doctor had me apply an ointment and change the bandage a few times each day.

Dr. Chon also notes that it’s important to avoid submerging the area in water (swimming or taking a bath) until the wound is healed. On that note, it’s a good idea to time any mole removals for when you don’t have an upcoming vacation planned, she says. Travelling itself makes it harder to keep up with proper wound care, and spending time in the sun can further damage the area and hinder healing. My doctor specifically asked me if I had any beach vacations planned for the near future (I did). We waited a few weeks until I got back to take off my moles.

Your dermatologist will also ask you to limit your activity to prevent pulling and tension, especially if you’ve had stitches, Dr. Wendel says. “Depending on where the spot is, we don’t want any heavy physical activity for at least two weeks.” After my biopsies, I had to avoid movements that required me to lay down on my stomach or really twist or bend my torso, but was able to do pretty much everything else.