Does a Macule Mean I Have Skin Cancer?

Skin blemishes are common, and some are worrisome and some are harmless

FDA Announces Stricter Guidelines For Sun Screens. Credit: Joe Raedle / Staff / Getty Images

A macule is a flat, distinct, and discolored area of skin that is less than 1 centimeter in diameter and does not include a change in skin texture or thickness. If you were to close your eyes and run your finger over the skin, you would not be able to feel any change, as macules are only detected visually.

Macules are not the result of any trauma, such as bruising or impact. Rather, a macule is a symptom associated with several different skin conditions.

For example, macules can be a symptom of vitiligo, rosacea, and skin cancer. People of all ages can have macules, from small infants to elderly adults. 

Macules are often present from the time a person is born, but they can grow or increase over time. 

How Are Macules Identified?

Macules can be seen on any part of the body, but are most frequently found on the chest, back, face, and arms. Macules can be lighter than other areas of skin or darker than the rest of the skin. Lighter patches are known as hypopigmented and darker patches are referred to as hyperpigmented. 

Skin Cancer and Macules

While macules can sometimes be a symptom of harmless skin disorders like sun spots or age spots, they also frequently appear in people with skin cancer. 

If you have recently found a macule on your skin, consult a dermatologist. It is likely that it's nothing serious, but since macules can indicate the presence of cancer, it's important to check to be sure.

Your doctor may take a biopsy of the macule to test it in a lab, since a visual inspection of the size and color does not reveal if the macule is harmless or not. 

Can Macules Be Treated?

If the biopsy comes back negative and does not any signs of serious skin diseases, the macule was likely caused by sun exposure and will be permanent.

Some macules will respond to skin lightening creams or treatments. In these cases, the pigment is in the top layer of skin, making them more susceptible to topical ointments

Others are too deep in the skin to be affected by creams or surface treatments. A dermatologist may recommend laser therapy to treat the macules. This can often be an extensive process, with multiple treatments over the course of months needed to get the desired results. 

How Can Macules Be Prevented?

To prevent macules caused by sun exposure and skin cancer, protect yourself when you go outside. Wear good sunscreen whenever it's sunny out, not just when it's hot. Invest in a wide-brimmed hat to protect the skin on your face and stay in shaded areas or wear long sleeves when outside for any length of time. Since the hands are often affected, routinely apply sunscreen and moisturizers to help prevent sun spots or macules from appearing. 

A Word From Verywell

Macules are typically harmless, but in some cases, can indicate the presence of skin diseases like skin cancer. If you have noticed any new macules on your body, consult with a doctor to have those marks evaluated. Early diagnosis and treatment is key to treating skin cancer, so being cautious and performing regular skin exams at home can help protect you.


Plensdorf S, Martinez J, Common Pigmentation Disorders. Am Fam Physician. 2009 Jan 15;79(2):109-116.

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