Skin Self-Exam

Skin cancer can be treated with more success if it’s found early. The way to find skin cancer early is with regular skin exams. This means having a healthcare provider check your skin. And it also means checking your skin at home regularly.

Getting regular skin exams

Skin exams are important for everyone. Talk with your healthcare provider about how often you need a skin exam. You may need one more often if you have an increased risk of skin cancer. You have an increased risk if you have had skin cancer before, have a family history of skin cancer, have fair skin, have had significant sun exposure, or have a weak immune system.

Your healthcare provider can check you for signs of skin cancer as part of your regular health exams, or you can see a dermatologist. This is a doctor who specializes in diseases of the skin. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) also provides free skin exams at certain times of the year. Healthcare providers who are part of this program don't make a diagnosis, but they can tell you if you should see a dermatologist. Visit the  AAD website or call your local health department to find a provider who will be offering free skin exams.

Checking your skin at home

Skin self-exams are very important if you’re at risk for skin cancer. Get to know the pattern of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin. Any new moles or changes in existing moles should be checked by your healthcare provider right away.

The best time to do a skin self-exam is after a shower or bath. It’s important to look for changes when you do the self-exam. Do the exam the same way each time. This is so you don’t miss any part of your body. If needed, ask someone for help when checking your skin. This can help with hard-to-see areas like your back and scalp.

  1. Check your skin in a room with a lot of light. Use both a full-length mirror and a handheld mirror so that you can see your whole body.

  2. Look at the front and back of your body in the mirror.

  3. Raise your arms and look at your left and right sides. Women should look under their breasts.

  4. Examine the back and front of your legs. Also look between your buttocks and at your genital area.

  5. Check the fronts and backs of your hands and forearms carefully. This includes between the fingers and under the fingernails.

  6. Sit down and closely examine your feet. This includes the soles and the spaces between your toes. Use a mirror to check your soles. Also examine the nail bed of each toe.

  7. Look at your face, neck, and scalp. You may want to use a comb or blow dryer to move your hair as you look so that you can see your scalp more clearly.

What to look for

First, check if any moles fit the ABCDE rules. These rules can help you tell if a mole should be checked by your healthcare provider. The ABCDE rules are:

  • Asymmetry. One half of the mole doesn't match the other half.

  • Border irregularity. The edges of the mole are not well-defined. Instead, they are ragged, or irregular.

  • Color. The mole has different colors in it. It may be tan, brown, black, red, or other colors. Or it may have areas that seem to have lost color.

  • Diameter. The mole is bigger than 6 millimeters across, about the size of a pencil eraser. But some melanomas can be smaller.

  • Evolving. A mole changes in size, shape, or color.

Other signs and symptoms that may be skin cancer include:

  • A mole or skin mark that itches, or is tender or painful

  • A mole or skin mark that oozes, bleeds, or becomes crusty

  • A mole or skin mark that looks different from your other moles or skin marks

  • A sore that doesn't heal

  • A mole or sore that becomes red or swells at its edges or beyond

When to call your healthcare provider

Watch for any changes in any moles or skin marks on your body. And pay attention to new moles or skin marks that appear. If any of them fit the ABCDEs or other signs of skin cancer, see your healthcare provider right away.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Michael Lehrer MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2023
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