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Dr. Vernon Sodak performing a skin screening

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and it’s often difficult to recognize, partly because it can develop in places you wouldn’t expect. Although melanoma can be triggered by sun exposure, it also occurs in locations that are usually protected from the sun’s rays. It’s critical to keep your eye out for changes in your skin anywhere on your body and report suspicious growths to your dermatologist because melanoma is a highly aggressive form of cancer that is best treated in the early stages.

The most common places for melanoma differ for men and women

Melanoma forms in the pigment-producing cells, or melanocytes. Men are more likely than women to develop this type of skin cancer, and it’s more commonly found in the torso area—especially the back—in men than in women. Men are also at higher risk for melanoma forming on the scalp.

For women, melanoma is more often found in the lower part of the body, particularly on the legs.

Melanoma can also develop in parts of the body other than the skin. This is because melanocytes are located in the digestive tract, genital area and mucous glands. Non-skin melanomas are fairly rare, with the most common being ocular melanoma, or melanoma of the eye.

What does melanoma look like?

Melanomas of the skin can vary widely in appearance. In many cases, a melanoma looks like a dark mole or freckle, but it can also be lighter, look more like a cyst or appear simply as a discolored area of the skin. A good tip for evaluating any suspicious changes in your skin is to consider their features according to the “ABCDE” list:

  • Asymmetry – Look for moles that are oddly shaped or display a different shape on one side compared to the other.
  • Border irregularity – If the edges of a mole are ragged or blurred, or its coloration has spread into the adjacent skin, have it checked by a dermatologist.
  • Color variation – Sometimes, a melanoma may display multiple shades of the same color (typically brown), or it may look mottled, with areas of gray, white, pink, red or blue.
  • Diameter – Although melanomas can be smaller, most are at least a quarter-inch in diameter, or larger than a pea.
  • Evolving characteristics – If you have a mole that has changed in size, shape or color over the course of a few weeks or months, consult with a dermatologist.

Additionally, in some advanced cases of melanoma, the mole’s texture might change, becoming hard and lumpy or even breaking down, oozing or bleeding.

With that generalized description in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most common locations for melanoma in the human body.

Melanoma on the face

About 30% of melanomas diagnosed in the U.S. are discovered in the head and neck region, according to the National Institutes of Health, and many of those are located on the face. In addition to being on the lookout for changes in facial moles and age spots, you should visit your dentist regularly because melanoma of the lip is often first spotted during a dental exam. When melanoma develops in this area, it usually resembles a cold sore on the lower lip. It may appear reddish on a light-skinned person but brown or gray on someone with darker skin. Cold sores usually go away within 10 days, while melanoma lesions won’t heal without treatment.

Melanoma can also develop on the nose or eyelids, though this is not nearly as common as other types of skin cancer in those areas.

Melanoma on the scalp

Accounting for less than 5% of melanoma cases, scalp melanoma is not common. But it’s frequently deadly because it goes undiscovered until it has advanced and metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body. This happens partly because the malignancy may be covered by hair growth. Moreover, a mole or discolored area of the skin on or near the top of the head can be difficult to see, even for those who routinely use a mirror to check their scalps for signs of skin cancer. It’s a good idea to recruit family members to take a look at your scalp periodically and ask your hairdresser to let you know if any suspicious growths are spotted during your salon visits.

Melanoma on the leg

Anyone can have skin cancer on their leg. But for women, the legs—especially the calves—are the most common location for melanoma to strike. Periodically examining your legs from your thighs to your feet using the ABCDE approach can help you detect any suspicious growths in the early stages. Be on the lookout for nodular melanoma, a particularly aggressive form of skin cancer that feels like a hard, raised bump and quickly grows in size and shape, often within two or three weeks.  

Melanoma on the foot

Various types of melanoma can develop on the feet, including on the soles and heels, between the toes and under the toenails. You should be especially wary of any discoloration or growth that develops in a place where you injured your foot. Melanoma may also appear as a sore that never heals, or one that seems to heal but then returns .

Using the ABCDE guidelines can help you identify suspicious areas, but the type of melanoma that can develop under the toenails (and fingernails) is different. Known as subungual melanoma, this malignancy is uncommon, but it happens often enough that you’ll want to periodically examine your toenails along with the other parts of your feet. Subungual melanoma typically creates vertical streaks of brownish-black discoloration in the nail bed, and it can be quite painful. In the majority of cases, subungual melanoma develops in the big toe or thumb, but it can show up under the nails of other toes and fingers.

Other melanoma locations

Rarely, melanoma can develop in an eye, the mouth or a nasal cavity, where signs of the malignancy are not visible without the use of specialized medical equipment. Regular visits to your eye doctor and dentist can increase the odds of early detection. Frequent nosebleeds, nasal obstruction that causes pain or breathing difficulties and loss of the sense of smell can be signs of mucosal melanoma in the nasal cavity, although these are also symptoms of other more common health conditions.

Melanoma diagnosis and treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center

Whether you’ve received a melanoma diagnosis or you’re concerned that an unusual growth on your body might be skin cancer, you can be confident turning to the experts at Moffitt. Our Cutaneous Oncology Program offers skin cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up services, all provided by medical practitioners who specialize in the treatment of melanoma and other types of skin cancer.

We take an individualized approach to cancer treatment, and the patients we treat for melanoma have survival rates that are higher than the national average. We’re also committed to connecting every new patient with a cancer expert as quickly as possible. Get in touch today by calling 1-888-663-3488 or filling out our online new patient registration form. You don’t need a referral to visit Moffitt Cancer Center.


National Institutes of Health – Melanoma of the Head and Neck
American Academy of Dermatology Association – Melanoma Strikes Men Harder
Skin Cancer Foundation – Melanoma Overview
National Cancer Institute – What Does Melanoma Look Like?
Medical News Today – What to Know About Lip Cancer
WebMD – What is a Subungual Melanoma?