Early detection of skin cancer is key to treating it. You can take an active role in your skin health by performing a regular self-exam. In fact, you’re the best person to monitor your body for early signs and symptoms of skin cancer—when it is least dangerous and easiest to treat and cure.

Performing a skin cancer self-exam can save your life and it only takes ten minutes to do at home. Let’s go over the early signs of skin cancer and the steps for completing a successful self-exam.

Why Perform a Skin Care Self-Exam

In early stages of skin cancer, you may be the first to spot it. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about half of melanomas are self-detected by patients. By performing a monthly skin check, you can advocate for your skin health and potentially save your own life.

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—affect more than 3 million Americans a year. Fortunately, they’re 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.

Remember that early detection of melanoma, before it spreads to the lymph nodes, has a 99% survival rate. For this reason, self-exams should be an essential part of your skin care routine.

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What to Look for During a Skin Cancer Self-Exam

Skin cancers vary in appearance, which is why it’s most important to look for new or unusual changes in your skin.

This includes changes in moles or the appearance of new marks, patches, or growths on your skin. Here are some of the signs of melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma that you should look out for:

  • 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 note and continue to monitor them. If they don’t clear up over the course of a month, consult your doctor.

What You’ll Need

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

  • Hand mirror (A hand mirror helps you examine hard-to-see places such as the back of your ears and genital areas.)
  •  Full length mirror
  • Camera or notepad
  • A room with plenty of light
woman using hand mirror to perform a skin self exam

How to Perform a Skin Cancer Self-Exam

  • 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 stick to it. Ideally, you should perform self-exams all year round. Due to potential sun exposure, you should be especially thorough during the summer months.

  • 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 for the areas you can see easily. For areas harder to glimpse, use a handheld mirror.

    Skin cancer can form anywhere, so it’s important to check all your nooks and crannies. Here are some tips to examine your entire body:

    Face

    Start with your face. Don’t forget your nose, lips, mouth and ears. For the neck and 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.

    Scalp

    For your scalp, it might help to wet your hair and use a comb. You can also try using a blow-dryer to expose the skin and see it better. For a thorough check, ask for help from a family member, spouse, or friend.

    Torso

    Look at the front and back of your torso. Raise your arms and carefully check your armpits and sides, both left and right.

    Upper back 

    Take a good look at your neck, shoulders and upper back. You can use a hand mirror to check your backside in the reflection.

    Hands and arms

    Check your forearms, fingernails, palms, elbows and upper arms – both front and back.

    Lower back

    Use the hand mirror to exam your buttocks and genital area carefully. Remember, skin cancer can form anywhere, even hard-to-reach places.

    Legs and feet

    Check the fronts, backs, and sides of your legs. Next, examine your feet, toenails, soles, and the space between your toes. It may help to sit down.

  • 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: Consult your doctor

    If you notice any of these changes, be sure to record and monitor them. If these changes persist, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.

When to Get a Professional Skin Check

If you spot any of the early signs of skin cancer, you should get examined by your doctor at once. However, even if you don’t notice signs, you might consider getting a skin check done by your doctor on an annual basis.

Professional skin checks can be performed by your primary physician or a dermatologist. This exam involves checking your skin, particularly hard-to-see areas. If your doctor finds a suspicious spot, he/she may biopsy it and send it to the lab for analysis.

Ultimately, preventive screenings such as a professional skin check can increase your chances of early skin cancer detection.