How to Perform a Skin Cancer Self-Exam

How to Perform a Skin Cancer Self-Exam

Written By: SERO Board-Certified Physicians

Protecting yourself against harmful UV radiation from the sun and tanning beds is the most important step to preventing skin cancer.

The second most important step is monitoring your body to detect signs and symptoms of skin cancer early—when it is least dangerous and easiest to treat and cure.

There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The two most common types of skin cancer—basal and squamous cell carcinoma—are nearly always curable and almost never spread to other areas of the body. They can, however, cause disfiguration and long-term damage if not treated quickly.

Melanoma, on the other hand, can spread to other organs. When melanoma spreads, it can be deadly— tens of thousands of new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, leading to more than 8,000 deaths annually.

Perform a shelf-exam once a month after bathing. (Photo credit: creative commons)

Perform a shelf-exam once a month after bathing. (Photo credit: creative commons)

Performing a Skin Cancer Self-Exam


You’ll need a few things to perform a thorough self exam:

  • Hand mirror
  • Full length mirror
  • Camera or notepad
  • A room with plenty of light

Step 1: Choose a day of the month.

It’s easiest to keep up with your self exams if you maintain a routine. Pick one day out of the month, mark it on your calendar, and do it every month.

Step 2: Scan from head to toe.

Check for atypical moles or other irregularities on your skin. The best time to perform a self-exam is right after bathing. Bathrooms are typically well lit, and you can use the bathroom mirror.

Start with your face. Use the bathroom mirror for the areas you can easily, and the handheld mirror for areas that are harder to glimpse. For the back of the ears, for example, stand with your back to the bathroom mirror, and use the handheld mirror to look at your reflection over your shoulder.

A hand mirror helps you examine hard-to-see places such as the back or your ears and genital areas. (Source:

A hand mirror helps you examine hard-to-see places such as the back or your ears and genital areas. (Source: /desiitaly/2062338340)

Don’t forget to check your neck and ears. Skin cancer can form anywhere, so it’s important to check all your nooks and crannies.

Once you done the head, move down. Look at the front and back of your torso. Raise your arms and carefully check your armpits and sides, both left and right.

Check your forearms, fingernails, palms, elbows and upper arms.

Check the fronts, backs, and sides of your legs. Use the hand mirror to exam your buttocks and genital area carefully. Remember, skin cancer can form anywhere, even hard to reach places.

Check your feet, toenails, soles, and the space between your toes. It may help to sit down.

For your scalp, it might help to wet your hair and use a comb. For a thorough check, ask for help from a family member, spouse, or friend.

Step 3: Keep a record.

Record where your moles, birthmarks, and large freckles are. Note how they look and feel, and whether they show any atypical signs. Note any new growths or changes to existing moles. A camera can be especially helpful in comparing your moles from one month to the next.

Step 4: Recognize the signs.

Changes in moles or the appearance of new marks, patches, or growths on your skin may indicate that something is wrong. Know the signs of melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma.

Things to look for may include:

  • new moles or marks
  • moles that look different from your existing moles
  • new patches that are flaky, scaly, pebbly, or rough feeling
  • new areas that are red or brownish
  • changes in the size, shape, color, or texture of a mole
  • firm, flesh-colored bumps
  • a sore that doesn’t heal or one that itches or burns

If you notice any of these changes, make a record. If they don’t clear up over the course of a month, consult you doctor.