How to Do a Life-Saving Skin Cancer Check at Home
Being able to identify suspicious skin spots can help ensure you keep yourself, and your skin, safe.
Even if you apply sunscreen religiously, getting to know your skin and checking once a month for irregularities is key to helping your doctor catch skin cancer in the early, most treatable stages. Here’s how to give yourself a thorough once-over.
Can I Do a Skin Cancer Self-Exam at Home?
Yes, absolutely. With a hand mirror, stand in front of a full-length mirror and inspect your entire front, back, and sides. Raise your arms to get the best view. Check behind your elbows and look at all parts of your arms, hands (palms, fingernails), and underarms in the mirrors you have.
It’s easiest to sit down in a chair to examine your legs and feet, and don’t forget your soles and between your toes. To check your scalp and neck, part your hair in sections, and use your hand mirror to inspect those areas.
What Are the Skin Cancer Signs to Look For?
There are certain characteristics (called the ABCDEs) to pay attention to when you’re doing a skin check. If anything looks suspicious, see a dermatologist sooner rather than later.
Most harmless moles are symmetrical, so if you draw an imaginary line through the middle of one mole to the other and the sides match it can be regarded as harmless.
Smooth even borders are normal for moles and spots. Ragged or notched ones may not be and if you find them you should consider calling your dermatologist.
Related: Stay Safe in Summer Sun
Benign spots tend to be one color throughout, so if you find something with multiple you shouldn’t ignore it.
The size of a mole or spot may indicate whether it’s cancerous or not. Cancerous moles tend to be larger than the eraser on a pencil, or ¼ inch.
If a spot you’ve always had changes shape, color, size, or starts to bleed, you should see a dermatologist as soon as possible.
“It’s normal to get new moles up to age 40, but if you see a new one after that, it could be melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer,” says Albert M. Lefkovits, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
How to Check Your Face for Skin Cancer
Your face is likely to have various spots: moles, freckles, pimples (even in your 30s and 40s), and sunspots, which are especially common after 50. These aren’t cause for worry unless they’re irregular or have changed.
“If a sunspot becomes larger, darker, or more irregular, it can be a sign of melanoma,” says Ploch, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. If you have a pimple that sticks around a few weeks or bleeds then heals and reappears, show it to your dermatologist.
Pink dry spots called actinic keratoses (AKs) should also be examined by a dermatologist because they can be precancerous, Ploch says. (They can be on other parts of the body, too.)
How to Check Your Neck, Arms & Hands for Skin Cancer
Your arms and neck are common areas for skin tags; soft, skin-tone benign spots. Also look for actinic keratoses on your arms and hands in addition to your face.
Make sure to also check your nails for anything irregular; a brown, often vertical band on a finger or toenail can be a sin of melanoma, says Steven Wang, M.D., dermatologist and cofounder of Dr. Wang Herbal Skincare.
Checking for these skin irregularities is crucial to identify cancerous spots or moles in their earliest stages. Remember, if something seems abnormal, let your dermatologist know so you can treat any areas of concern quickly and effectively.