The skin is the largest organ in the human body. Being proactive about skin cancer prevention can be very important for your health. This is especially true if you have fair skin, many moles on your body, or if your immediate family members have many moles, atypical moles, or a history of skin cancer. In addition to limiting your exposure to sunlight and using sunscreen daily, examining yourself for moles can allow for early detection and treatment of melanoma.

Current recommendations suggest self-examination of your skin once a month. Most moles are benign (non-cancerous). If you notice changes in a mole's color or appearance, have a dermatologist (doctor who treats disorders of the skin) evaluate it. You also should have moles checked if they bleed, ooze, itch, appear scaly, or become tender or painful.

How should I examine my skin?

  • Perform skin self examinations monthly. It is best if you examine your skin after a bath or shower, while your skin is still wet.
  • Use a full-length mirror if you have one as well as a hand mirror for a closer view and a family member, if available, for the more difficult sites such as your back.
  • Try to examine yourself the same way every month to avoid missing any areas. We recommend starting at your head and working your way down. Look at all the areas of your body (including the front, backs, and sides of each area, and your fingernails and toenails). Also be sure to check the "hidden" areas: between your fingers and toes, the groin, the soles of your feet, and the backs of your knees.
  • Don't forget to thoroughly check your scalp and neck for moles.
  • Keep track of all the moles on your body and what they look like. Take a photo and date it to help you monitor them. This way, you'll notice if the moles change. If they do change in any way (in color, shape, size, border, etc.) or if you develop a sore that does not heal, see your doctor. Also see your doctor if you have any new moles that you think are "suspicious."
  • Pay special attention to moles if you're pregnant, going through menopause, or at other times when your hormones might be surging (including the teen years).

What should I look for when examining my moles?

The following ABCDEs are important signs of moles that could be cancerous. If a mole displays any of the signs listed below, have it checked immediately by a dermatologist:

  • Asymmetry—One half of the mole does not match the other half.
  • Border—The border or edges of the mole are ragged, blurred, or irregular.
  • Color—The mole has different colors, or it has shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red.
  • Diameter—The diameter of the mole is larger than the pencil eraser.
  • Elevation/Evolution—The mole appears elevated (raised from the skin); or the mole has changed.

You should always be suspicious of a new mole that develops after the age of 20. Many of these growths that appear after the age of 20 are harmless age-associated growths rather than moles; however if you do notice a new growth, see your dermatologist as soon as possible. He or she will examine the growth and perform a skin biopsy if needed. If it's a melanoma, a biopsy can often show how deeply it has penetrated the skin. Your dermatologist uses this information to decide how to treat the mole.

The most common location for melanoma in men is the back. In women, it is the lower leg. Melanoma is the most common cancer in women ages 25 to 29.

Moles can develop in other locations, in addition to the skin. If you have a family history of melanoma, in addition to the dermatologist, you should have annual check-ups with a dentist, an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) and a gynecologist to look for moles in these special locations.


© Copyright 1995-2013 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/15/2013...#12015