How to Self Examine Your Skin

More than 40% of melanomas are found by patients themselves.1 Nearly all adults have harmless moles, freckles, and spots on their skin. Skin self exams help you become familiar with these marks. Self-examinations also help you to spot skin changes, such as a mole that looks suspicious.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends self skin exams for everyone.2 If you are at high risk of skin cancer, your doctor may recommend self-examinations along with regular skin exams by a dermatologist.3

Why should I check my skin?

With skin cancer, early detection leads to better outcomes. This is especially true for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma can usually be cured with surgery when it is caught early.3 About 84% of melanomas are found before the cancer has spread beyond the skin tumor. At this stage, the 5-year survival rate is 98.4%.4 One study of melanoma patients found that the people who had examined their skin routinely had thinner melanomas when diagnosed.5

What do I need in order to check my skin?

In order to check your skin, you will need:

  • Good lighting
  • Full-length mirror
  • Handheld mirror
  • Chair
  • Body map

A body map is way to record the normal marks on your body.2,6 On a simple diagram of the body, note where each mark is. Record freckles, moles, birthmarks, bumps, sores, scabs, and rough patches.2 Note their size and color, and describe other characteristics.6 Write the date on your map and compare it with your previous record. Sample body maps are available from the American Academy of Dermatology (map) and Skin Cancer Foundation map.

Another way to track your skin changes is to take photographs. Tips for photographing your lesions include:7

  • Use a digital camera.
  • Photograph each lesion at least once and record the date.
  • Take close-ups of each lesion and distant shots of a whole area.
  • Be sure to back-up your digital photographs and consider printing them on high quality photo paper.

How do I check my skin?

You should check your skin from head to toe and front to back. A great time to do a skin self exam is after a bath or shower. A family member or friend may be helpful for these exams. That person can check places that are hard to see, such as your scalp and back. Self exams only take about 10 minutes once you have done it a few times.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends these steps for self examination:8

  • Examine your front and back in front of a full-length mirror.
  • Look at your right and left sides with your arms raised.
  • Bend your elbows to look at your forearm, back of upper arm, palms. Check the spaces between the fingers and the fingernails.9
  • Sit down and look at the top of your thighs and shins. Check your feet, including the soles and the spaces between your toes. Use a handheld mirror to see the back of your thighs, calves and the bottom of your feet.3,10 The legs are the most common spot for melanoma in women.11
  • Use a handheld mirror to check your back and buttocks. The back is a common location for melanoma in men.11
  • Use a handheld mirror to check the back of your neck and scalp. Part your hair and consider using a hair dryer for a better look.10

Pay careful attention to the nose, lips, mouth, neck, and ears. It may help to use both mirrors when examining these areas. Women should lift their breasts to check the skin underneath.10 The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends checking your genitals.9

What do I look for?

Skin cancer appears in many different ways. General warning signs include:3,12

  • Sore or cut that bleeds easily and does not heal
  • Lesion that is changing in shape, size, or color
  • Redness, swelling, oozing, crusting on a lesion
  • Change in the look or feel of an area of skin
  • Lesion that starts to feel itchy, tender, or painful
  • Change in the surface or appearance of a mole

The ABCDE memory aid may help you remember typical features of a melanoma:

  • Asymmetry
  • Border irregularity
  • Color variation/unevenness
  • Diameter of 6 mm or more
  • Evolution or changes in the mole

However, ABCDE is not a rule. Atypical melanomas may not meet these criteria. In general, lesions that do not look like your other moles and marks are suspicious and should be checked. These are the so-called “ugly ducklings.”

How often should I do an exam?

The American Cancer Society and the Skin Cancer Foundation suggest checking your skin each month.3,9

Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last reviewed: May 2017.
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