Skin Examinations

Two types of skin examinations are used to detect skin cancer:
1) Skin self-exam and 2) Exam by a dermatologist or other physician.

Dermatologists encourage regular self-skin exams because research shows that this exam can lead to early detection of skin cancer, which can save your life. When detected early, most skin cancers can be successfully treated. The following explains what you should know about a skin self-exam.

Everyone Should Perform a Skin Self-Exam
Everyone, not only those with an increased risk of developing skin cancer, should perform regular skin self-exams. Examining your skin for suspicious moles and other lesions could save your life. No one is immune to skin cancer.

Enlist Your Spouse
If feasible, ask someone close to you for help when checking your skin. A study found that patients benefited when a partner was involved in their skin self-exams. Specifically, the patients who were assisted by a partner in performing skin self-exams were more likely to perform regular exams than those who relied solely on themselves for motivation. Having a partner also led to the patient having a more positive attitude about performing skin self-exams and greater confidence in the ability to perform this exam.

What You Need to Perform a Skin Self-Exam
The following can be helpful when performing a skin self-exam:

  • Full-length mirror

  • Handheld mirror

  • Well-lit room that offers privacy

  • Pen or pencil

  • Body Mole Map
    (This page gives you a place to record where spots appear on your skin. Referring back to your record the next time you perform a skin self-exam can help you detect changes.)

How to Perform a Skin Self-Exam
An illustrated guide that shows how to examine your skin appears on the right. This guide also appears on the Body Mole Map.

It is important for you or your partner to examine your entire body as skin cancer can occur anywhere, not only on areas frequently exposed to the sun. Be sure to check your back, scalp, underarms, genitals, palms, soles, and skin between the toes and fingers. When examining your scalp, it may help to part the hair to check the entire scalp.

What to Look for During a Self-Exam
You should become familiar with your birthmarks, blemishes, and moles so you know what they look like and can spot changes. As you or your partner examines your skin, look for changes  in the size, color, shape, or texture of a mark on your skin. Signs of skin cancer include:

  • Mole that is different from the rest, itches, bleeds, or is changing in any way even if the mole is smaller than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser)

  • Sore that never fully heals

  • Translucent growth with rolled edges

  • Brown or black streak underneath a nail

  • Cluster of slow-growing, shiny pink or red lesions

  • Waxy-feeling scar

  • Flat or slightly depressed lesion that feels hard to the touch

If You Find a Suspicious Lesion
If you or your partner finds a suspicious lesion, see a dermatologist. When making the appointment, be sure that the person making the appointment knows why you want to see the doctor. Skin cancer has a high cure rate when detected early.

Related Links
To help you spot a suspicious lesion, the American Academy of Dermatology created the following visual guides:

American Academy of Dermatology, New Studies Support Dermatologists Recommendation: Self-Exams, Screenings Vital for Detecting Skin Cancer, News release issued May 5, 2008. Last accessed November 25, 2008.

Robinson JK, Turrisi R, Stapleton J. "Examination of mediating variables in a partner assistance intervention designed to increase performance of skin self-examination." J Am Acad Dermatol 2007; 56: 391-7

All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology

The following illustrates how to examine your skin for signs of skin cancer. Information about what to look for and details on how to examine your skin are described on the left.

Examine your body front and back in the mirror, then right and left sides with arms raised. Women should look under their breasts.

Bend elbows and look carefully at forearms, upper underarms, and palms.

Look at the backs of your legs and feet, the spaces between your toes, and on the soles. If you cannot see all parts of your feet, use a handheld mirror.

Examine the backs of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror. Part your hair to examine the entire scalp.

Finally, check your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.



     American Academy of Dermatology, 2010  All rights reserved.
Page last updated 12/12/08

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