How to Examine Your Skin for Cancer in 5 Steps, According to Dermatologists

·6 min read
Photo credit: LightFieldStudios - Getty Images
Photo credit: LightFieldStudios - Getty Images

You already know it’s worth giving your skin a regular look-over for anything new or suspicious. But if your scanning process tends to be a quick once-over, there’s no better time than now to get a little more serious.

Regular self-skin exams can play an important role in catching potential skin cancers early, when they’re easier to treat, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). “They’re not a substitute for seeing your dermatologist once a year, but they can help you stay vigilant,” says Sarmela Sunder, M.D., a skin expert and facial plastic surgeon in Los Angeles.

That’s especially true if you aren’t able to get in for an annual skin check, which can happen if you don’t have insurance coverage or don’t live near a dermatologist. “In those cases, doing self-checks is critical, because if you do see something, then you can get in to have it checked out,” Dr. Sunder says.

So, how often should you be checking? Performing a self-exam once a month is a great goal, but if scrutinizing your skin that often isn’t doable, committing to any kind of regular interval is still worth it. “I would say at least on a quarterly basis, but I’d prefer monthly,” says Brianna McDaniel, D.O., a board-certified dermatologist based in New Orleans.

Once you’ve got your frequency figured out (your derm or primary care doctor can offer guidance on the best schedule for you), it’s time to settle in for a thorough investigation. Here’s how to do a self-exam, plus the best way to keep track of what’s happening with your skin and what to do if you spot something new.

1. Set up your exam space.

You don’t need much in the way of equipment, but a full-length mirror is a must. “You really need to get in front of a mirror in order to see everything,” Dr. Sunder says. Have a hand-held mirror nearby too, to view hard-to-see-spots like your shoulder blades or the back of your thighs, the ACS says.

Also, make sure the room has good lighting, so you can really see your skin clearly, Dr. McDaniel recommends. Since you’ll be in your birthday suit, you probably can’t count on standing next to a bright window.

2. Start scanning.

Your goal is to get a look at every patch of skin from head to toe, including those areas that don’t typically see the light of day. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, but sticking with a specific order can help you remember to hit every area. “I like to go from top to bottom,” Dr. Sunders says. Try these steps:

✔️ Start with your head and neck.

Using the hand mirror, get a 360 view of your neck, ears, and shoulders. “Put your hair up so it’s not in the way,” Dr. Sunders suggests. Try to get a close look around your hairline and as much of your scalp as you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do a thorough examination of every single spot, Dr. McDaniel says. Perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good here.

✔️ Look up and down the front and back of your body.

This sounds self-explanatory—and it mostly is! But remember to check those less-visible areas like under your breasts (lift them up and peek under if you have to), Dr. McDaniel says. Use the hand-mirror to look at your butt and the backs of your thighs and calves too. “The back of the thigh is one of the most common locations for melanomas in women,” she notes.

✔️ Look at your left and right sides.

Make sure to raise your arms to get a full view of your torso, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says. Don’t forget to check your armpits and the backs of your forearms.

✔️ Look at your hands and feet.

Be super thorough. Skin cancers can go unnoticed on the palms of your hands or feet, in between fingers and toes, or even under finger or toenails, Dr. Sunder says.

3. Note anything unusual—and get some documentation.

While examining your skin, you ultimately want to watch for anything that’s seems new or different. Red flags include:

  • The ABCDEs. Melanoma in particular is often marked by a mole with an asymmetrical shape, a jagged or irregular border, an uneven color, a diameter larger than a pea, or one that seems to be evolving or changing.

  • Any new growth that doesn’t go away. “Typically, after 40 you rarely get new moles,” says Dr. McDaniel. Keep your eyes peeled for wart- or pimple-like growths that seem like they’re sticking around for more than a month. “One of the biggest things I hear from skin cancer patients is that they thought their growth was a pimple or bug bite that wasn’t going away,” she says.

  • Any irritated growth or sore that isn’t healing. Spots that hurt, bleed, or feel scaly or crusty aren’t normal. “If a lesion bleeds because your clothes rubbed it, for instance, that’s concerning,” says Dr. Sunders.

  • Anything you’re unsure about. Can’t remember if something was there before? Not sure if it’s really that bad? You’re always better off getting it checked out, Dr. McDaniel says.

Lastly, don’t forget to snap a picture of anything questionable while you’re self-checking, Dr. Sunder and Dr. McDaniel recommend. Not only will a photo help you remember exactly where the growth is, it makes it easy for your dermatologist to determine whether the growth is changing once they’re able to examine it.

And speaking of pictures, if you have more moles than you can easily keep track of (or count), it’s worth getting some shots for the record even if everything looks normal. In that case, have your partner or a trusted friend photograph areas like your back, chest, arms, and legs, Dr. McDaniel recommends. That way you’ll have a baseline for future self-checks and dermatologist exams.

4. Call the doc if needed.

Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist as soon as you can for anything new or unusual. For skin exams, it’s worth opting for an in-person visit over a telemedicine appointment whenever possible. “It can be harder for dermatologists to get a clear view from your computer or phone camera. You’re going to get a better look in person,” says Dr. McDaniel.

5. Mark your calendar for next time.

Put your next self-check in your phone or calendar just like you would a real doctor appointment, so you don’t forget, says Dr. McDaniel. And give yourself a pat on your (freshly examined) back for being proactive about your health.

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