Pigmented Lesions of the Eyelid

Updated: Apr 16, 2018
Author: Mounir Bashour, MD, PhD, CM, FRCSC, FACS; Chief Editor: Hampton Roy, Sr, MD 



The eyelids are often affected by a variety of lesions. Most eyelid lesions are of benign origin, but some eyelid lesions may be malignant.

It is estimated that of all benign and malignant lesions of the eyelid, roughly 35% are comprised of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Malignant melanomas are responsible for only 1% of all eyelid lesions. The importance of this lies in the fact that, although only 3% of all skin cancers are melanomas, more than two thirds of all deaths from skin cancer are attributable to malignant melanoma. Therefore, it is important to recognize benign and malignant lesions of the eyelid, especially when pigmented. See the images below.

Lentigo maligna or superficial spreading melanoma Lentigo maligna or superficial spreading melanoma of the eyelid. Courtesy of Joel Sugar, MD.
Focal melanoma of the upper lid in a patient with Focal melanoma of the upper lid in a patient with history of prior excised conjunctival melanoma. Courtesy of M Duffy, MD, PhD.

History of the Procedure

Change in size or pigmentation of an eyelid lesion is significant in the history.


Suspicious eyelid lesions, particularly when they are pigmented, need to be removed for purposes of a biopsy. Although a pigmented eyelid lesion may appear benign, it is wise to obtain a specimen for pathological examination because of the associated risk of mortality associated with malignant melanoma.

Pigmented lesions in infants and small children may pose a significant risk of sight loss. This is particularly true with capillary hemangiomas, cavernous hemangiomas, and giant hairy nevi. Pigmented lesions in infants and children also may be associated with pathology in contiguous structures or associated with systemic disease. These lesions should alert the ophthalmologist that further investigation may be needed. This is particularly true with such lesions as cavernous hemangioma, lymphangioma, and juvenile xanthogranuloma.



The frequency of pigmented lesions of the eyelid varies according to the lesion type and patient characteristics. Certain lesions are seen only in infants and small children, while others are seen only in elderly persons (seborrheic keratosis). Environmental characteristics play a role, with the frequency of benign and malignant eyelid lesions increasing in areas closer to the equator.


Pigment-producing cells derive embryologically from the neural crest. These cells are destined to reside in the basal cell layer of the epidermis. Melanocytes are melanin-producing cells found in the basal cell layer of the epidermis. Nevus cells are incompletely differentiated melanocytes that are found in clumps in the epidermis or the dermis. Nevus cells may or may not produce pigment and, therefore, can be classified as melanotic or amelanotic.

Nevi (moles) can be congenital or acquired. Congenital nevi acquire pigmentation at puberty, at which time they slowly migrate from the epidermis to the dermis.[1]  Coincident with this decent, nevi become less active and, therefore, less capable of converting into a malignant lesion. The most active nevus is the junctional nevus. This resides at the epidermal/dermal border and is the most likely of all nevi to convert to a melanoma. As nevi descend further into the dermis (compound and intradermal nevi), they become relatively inactive and, thus, incapable of malignant transformation.

Melanomas arise from epidermal melanocytes and represent less than 1% of all eyelid tumors. It can occur in 1 of the 3 following forms: superficial spreading malignant melanoma, lentigo maligna melanoma, and nodular melanoma. Lentigo maligna is the premalignant form of lentigo maligna melanoma. This is found on the face of elderly patients and is related to exposure to the sun. Once this lesion penetrates into the dermis, it is classified as a lentigo maligna melanoma. Lentigo maligna melanoma is responsible for 90% of all head and neck tumors.


Melanocytes produce melanin and are derived from neural crest cells. Pigmented lesions of the eyelids arise from 1 of 3 types of melanocytes, as follows: (1) epidermal or dendritic melanocytes, (2) nevus cells or nevocytes, and (3) dermal or fusiform melanocytes.


A careful history is important when a patient presents with a pigmented lesion of the eyelid. A patient should be asked when the lesion was first noticed; whether it was present at birth; if it has changed in size, shape, or color; and whether there are any associated symptoms, such as discharge, irritation, or bleeding. Benign lesions tend to maintain a uniform appearance, while malignant melanomas tend to be asymmetric, have irregular borders, and often are associated with changes in color. This has been taught to medical students as the ABCs of melanoma.[2]

Benign lesions

Freckles: These lesions are small (1-3 mm in diameter) tan-to-brown macules originating from epidermal melanocytes. They occur more commonly in light-skinned individuals and darken with sun exposure. These lesions reflect melanocyte overactivity, not proliferation.

Lentigo simplex: These lesions arise from epidermal melanocytes and may appear on skin and mucous membranes as brown macules. They usually appear in childhood, are unaffected by sun exposure, and are associated with Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.

Solar lentigo: These tan-to-brown macules are found commonly in sun-exposed areas of older individuals and in patients with xeroderma pigmentosum. Lesions usually have irregular borders and slowly increase in size.

Melasma: Melasma is a skin condition that is characterized by the development of irregularly shaped skin areas containing varying shades of brown pigmentation. It most commonly occurs on the sides of the face, the forehead, the upper lip, the chin, and the sides of the neck. Frequently, melasma is associated with pregnancy or the use of oral contraceptives, but melasma can occur in men. Most pregnancy-associated cases fade away following delivery, eventually clearing within a few months.

Melanocytic nevus: They frequently occur on the eyelid skin and on the eyelid margins. The clinical appearance often is predictive of histologic type (see Histologic Findings). Lesions typically present in childhood as small, flat tan macules that increase in size. As the lesion increases in diameter, a nest of cells drops of into the dermis; then, a compound nevus is formed. They are elevated slightly and pigmented. Intradermal nevus are dome-shaped, pedunculated, or papillomatous and usually are less pigmented or amelanotic.

Congenital melanocytic nevus: These lesions occur in 1% of newborns and may be single or multiple and usually are deeply pigmented. Their border is irregular, and the surface may be covered with hair. The challenges of management of facial congenital melanocytic nevi (CMN) are the balance of the risk of malignant transformation, surgical management, and long-term evaluation of functional and cosmetic outcomes.[3]

Spindle-epithelioid cell nevus: Also termed juvenile melanoma or Spitz nevus, spindle-epithelioid cell nevus is a pink-to-orange dome-shaped nodule occurring in children and young adults.

Balloon cell nevus: They are lightly pigmented, elevated lesions that are usually less than 5 mm in diameter. No clinical features are used to make the differential diagnosis with the other nevocellular nevi.

Nevus of Ota: These nevi are blue-to-purple lesions with mottled discoloration of the skin in the distribution of the ophthalmic and maxillary divisions of the trigeminal nerve. Nevus of Ota frequently is associated with ipsilateral ocular melanocytosis involving the conjunctiva, sclera, and uveal tract.

Blue nevus: These nevi are solitary, blue nodules that are less than 1 cm in diameter.

Malignant lesions

Cutaneous malignant melanoma: Lentigo maligna is a tan or brown macular lesion with irregular borders and is the premalignant stage of lentigo maligna melanoma.[4]  Superficial spreading melanomas present as a brown, irregularly shaped macule. Nodular melanomas typically are dark brown or black nodules or plaques (rare on eyelids). See the image below.

Lentigo maligna or superficial spreading melanoma Lentigo maligna or superficial spreading melanoma of the eyelid. Courtesy of Joel Sugar, MD.

Basal cell carcinoma are pigmented about 5% of the time; 13 (5.06%) of 257 cases were found to have pigment in a recent study by Kirzhner and Jakobiec.[5]


Any pigmented lesion that shows growth is suggestive of malignancy, and a biopsy should be performed. Particular characteristics that are suggestive of malignant transformation are irregular borders, changes in color, asymmetry, ulceration, or bleeding.

Pigmented lesions in childhood that cause disruption of images to the retina and are amblyogenic should be treated surgically.

Relevant Anatomy

Eyelid skin, although thinner, is continuous with and, therefore, histologically identical to skin in other parts of the body. The dermis contains a collagen matrix with vascular channels and dermal appendages. The epidermis contains a basal cell layer where melanocytes reside. The eyelid margin is continuous with the palpebral conjunctiva.

Pigmented lesions can arise on the eyelid or eyelid margin. Margin tumors should arouse the suspicion of a conjunctival neoplasm. The propensity of pigmented lesions to arise on the eyelid is related to the actinic exposure of the area.


No contraindications to surgery are known.



Imaging Studies

Because of the metastatic potential of melanoma, any suspicious lesions, warranting a metastatic workup, encompass the use of imaging studies.

Diagnostic Procedures

Most lesions can be diagnosed by clinical appearance, and biopsies should be performed whenever a suspicion of malignancy exists.

Histologic Findings

Freckles: These demonstrate hyperpigmentation on the basal layer of the epidermis.

Lentigo simplex: These lesions show hyperpigmentation on the basal layer of the epidermis with an increased number of melanocytes.

Solar lentigo: See lentigo simplex.

Melanocytic nevi: These lesions can be classified histologically as junctional, compound, or intradermal. Junctional lesions show nests of nevus cells in the epidermis at the dermal-epidermal junction. Compound nevus is when the nests of nevus cells are dropping off into the dermis, and, on intradermal lesions, the remaining epithelial nests migrate into the dermis.

Congenital melanotic nevi: Many lesions contain features of compound nevi with nevus cells in the dermis and the dermal-epidermal junction.

Spindle-epithelioid cell nevus: Compound nevi with spindle or epithelioid cells are present throughout the epidermis and dermis. Mitotic figures and nuclear atypia are present. Histologic differentiation from malignant melanoma may be difficult to make.

Balloon cell nevus: Lesions contain balloon cells, with small pyknotic nuclei and granular or vacuolated cytoplasm.

Nevus of Ota: Pigmented dendritic melanocytes are present throughout the dermis.

Blue nevus: Pigmented dendritic melanocytes and macrophages are scattered throughout the dermis with fibrous tissue adjacent.

Malignant melanoma: Lentigo melanoma is characterized by hyperplasia of atypical melanocytes throughout the basal cell layer. Superficial spread melanoma is typified by atypical melanocytes that occur in nests throughout all levels of epidermis. In nodular melanoma, dermal invasion is always present, and it exhibits large anaplastic epithelioid cells.


Tumor depth has been the hallmark of staging in cutaneous malignant melanoma. As described by Breslow,[6] melanomas measuring 0.76 mm or less carry a 5-year survival rate of 100%, while those invading greater than 1.5 mm are associated with a 5-year survival rate of 50-60%.



Medical Therapy

The benign pigmented lesions of the eyelids do not require any medical therapy. However, any benign lesion that affects vision should be excised with primary reconstruction. Vision can be affected in various ways, most commonly by a mechanical blepharoptosis (with occlusion of the visual axis) or by induction of astigmatism. In the first 10 years of life, this can lead to amblyopia and permanent reduction of vision if not treated in a timely fashion. Malignant lesions require surgical excision.

For patients with primary periocular basal cell carcinoma, Moesen et al found that cryotherapy using a nitrous oxide probe has certain advantages over surgical removal of tumors in the periocular region, but careful follow-up is advisable.[7]

Surgical Therapy

Surgical therapy may be performed for cosmetic reasons or suspicion of malignancy in benign pigmented lesions.

The procedure of choice for treatment of cutaneous malignant melanoma of the eyelid is wide surgical excision with 1 cm of skin margins confirmed by histology. Regional lymph node dissection should be performed for tumors greater than 1.5 mm in depth and/or for tumors that show evidence of vascular or lymphatic spread.

Surgical excision always should be performed with attention placed toward obtaining clean surgical margins. At the present time, 2 forms of analysis currently are performed to obtain this goal, as follows: frozen sectioning and Mohs micrographic surgery. Mohs surgery is a specialized technique and is not offered in many rural areas. Although both modalities achieve the same endpoint, it has been postulated that Mohs surgery provides a more definitive result. This does not mean that frozen section analysis is in any way inadequate or inferior, as frozen section analysis does yield excellent results. At the current time, surgeon preference dictates pathological processing. If possible, frozen sections of pigmented malignant lesions should be confirmed with permanent sections of margins. Any suspicion of a positive margin with a pigmented malignancy should prompt reoperation with a new biopsy or a wider excision.

A retrospective survey of the members of the American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and the European Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery by Esmaeli and colleagues yielded 44 cases.[8] The patients' age, sex, date of diagnosis, histologic classification of melanoma, Breslow thickness, Clark level, location of melanoma, size of margins of excision, and findings of local or regional recurrence or distant metastasis were recorded in each case.

According to this study, patients were stratified on the basis of margins of excision: less than or equal to 5 mm; greater than 5 mm but less than 10 mm; and greater than or equal to 10 mm. Patients were also stratified by Breslow thickness. The main outcome measures were the incidences of local and regional recurrence and distant metastasis as a function of margins of excision and Breslow thickness.

Most patients in this study for whom reliable information was available had excision margins of less than or equal to 5 mm. The Breslow thickness of most of the tumors was less than or equal to 1 mm.

Eleven patients (25%) had local recurrence. Five patients (11%) had regional lymph node metastasis. All patients with regional nodal metastasis were men. Distant metastasis developed in 3 patients (7%), that is, 2 men and 1 woman. The follow-up times ranged from 10-108 months (mean, 34 months; median, 21 months). The incidence of local recurrence was higher among patients with melanomas at least 2-mm thick and margins of excision less than or equal to 5 mm than among those patients with melanomas at least 2-mm thick but with margins of excision greater than or equal to 10 mm; however, this difference was not statistically significant because very few patients had melanomas at least 2-mm thick.

Breslow thickness was the only statistically significant predictor of local, regional, and distant metastasis. Margins of excision did not have a statistically significant effect on local, regional, or distant recurrence.[8]

Laser can be used for certain eyelid pigmented lesions; a recent study has shown a case of bilateral uveitis after intense pulsed light therapy for eyelid pigmented lesions.[9]

Preoperative Details

In general, biopsy should precede all extensive tumor resections, even if the clinical diagnosis seems apparent. There is debate as to the danger of incising into a melanoma for biopsy. Biopsies of pigmented lesions that are highly suggestive of malignancy probably should be a complete excision (excisional vs incisional) and clear margins confirmed on permanent section from the primary excision.

Intraoperative Details

On malignant melanoma, excisional surgery with regional lymph node dissection should be performed, if warranted.


A metastatic evaluation is recommended for patients who have malignant lesions.

Benign lesions should be observed. Epithelial lesions that display painless growth, irregular borders, ulceration, induration, or telangiectasia should raise suspicion of malignancy. Signs that show malignant change in pigmented lesions include irregular borders, asymmetric shape, color change or presence of multiple colors, recent changes, or diameter greater than 5 mm. As with all malignant lesions of the eyelid, madarosis (loss of eyelash cilia) and meibomian gland destruction also should increase suspicion significantly.

From the study by Esmaeli and colleagues, Breslow thickness appears to be the most important prognostic indicator for eyelid skin melanomas.[8] A 5-mm margin of excision may be adequate for thin melanomas of the periocular skin; however, because of the small number of patients in this series who had margins of excision greater than 5 mm, a definitive comparison of outcome with larger margins of excision cannot be made. For melanomas greater than or equal to 2 mm, wider margins of excision may be prudent, and careful surveillance for local and regional recurrence is indicated.[8]


Benign lesions rarely have malignant transformation; therefore, a biopsy or excision should be performed on lesions suggestive of malignancy that demonstrate irregular growth or appearance.[10]

Nevus of Ota can present with malignant degeneration with the choroid at the site of involvement. Periodic fundus examination and follow-up care for glaucoma are recommended.

Metastasis is linked to the depth of invasion from malignant melanoma.

Outcome and Prognosis

Most benign lesions have an excellent prognosis. The treatment varies according to site, diagnosis, and systemic evolution. The prognosis and metastatic potential from melanoma are related to the depth of invasion, as described by Breslow.[6]

Future and Controversies

The current literature is not extensive enough to draw any conclusions regarding definitive treatment of malignant melanoma of the eyelid. At the current time, treatment of eyelid melanoma is extrapolated from data reported on melanoma treatment in other areas of the body. Further studies are warranted.