Past public health messages have suggested that people with many skin moles are at higher risk for melanoma, a dangerous type of skin cancer.
But a new study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology found that most patients who are diagnosed with melanoma have very few moles. This means that people who have few moles should be aware that they are still at risk for melanoma and receive regular skin examinations.
"The main takeaway is that everybody should really have a baseline skin exam from a physician and people should be counseled on how to do self skin examination," study author Alan C. Geller of the Harvard School of Public Health told CBS News.
Geller's team analyzed 566 patients with melanoma to determine the association between age, total moles and atypical moles and whether there was a relationship between total or atypical moles and tumor thickness, a crucial indicator for this type of skin cancer.
Two-thirds of the patients had zero to 20 total moles, and nearly 75 percent had no atypical moles at all.
The findings don't mean we should quit the practice of counting moles: The number of moles on a person's body is still a helpful indicator for skin cancer risk, especially because keeping track of them can help someone notice any changes they should report to a doctor.
Rates of melanoma have risen over the past 30 years. Approximately 76,380 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society, and 10,130 people are expected to die from the cancer this year.