Skin Self-Exam

Getting color from being in the sun or using tanning beds can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Following these skin self-exam tips can help you catch any potential abnormalities early, which is the best time to catch them.


Why should I examine my skin?

Skin cancer happens as a result of damage from the sun or tanning beds. About one in five people in the United States will get skin cancer. It is important to check your skin to be able to tell if there are any changes. In order to do a skin self-exam, you will need to have a long mirror and a hand-held mirror. Additionally, you should examine yourself in a well-lit location.

You should check your skin—all over your body—about once a month. This means the front side of your body, your face, your scalp, the back side of your body, the tops and bottoms of your feet, and your hands. If you are a woman, you should lift your breasts to be able to see under them. You will need to use the mirrors to check the back side of your body and your genital area.

It is helpful to keep track of whatever kinds of spots you find and where they are located. Some people might use outlines of a body, front and back, to keep track of where the spots are. Others might prefer to take pictures of spots with their phones or cameras. This way you will be able to tell if something has changed over time.


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Test Details

How should I examine my skin?

You should perform a skin self-exam every month after you have taken a bath or shower. If you are able to do so, ask a close family member or spouse for help looking at places you might have problems seeing, such as your back. Follow these steps:

  1. Use a full-length mirror as well as a hand mirror.
  2. Examine your body front and back in the mirror; then examine both sides with your arms raised.
  3. Examine the inside of your mouth by looking at your tongue, lips, and inner cheeks.
  4. With your elbows bent, check your forearms, upper arms, between your fingers and palms carefully.
  5. Examine the back of your legs and feet (sit if it's more comfortable); check the soles of your feet and the spaces between your toes.
  6. Check the back of your scalp and neck using both mirrors; part your hair or use a blow dryer to give you a closer look. You can always ask your hairdresser or barber to point out any spots on your scalp.

During this examination, note any moles, blemishes, or birthmarks from the top of your head to your toes. Use a small ruler to measure how big these marks are. Also note changes in color, size, or shape of these markings or any sore that does not heal. Use paper or pictures to document these changes.

If you find any changes in size, color, or shape of any previously noted mole or other skin markings, or if you develop a sore that does not heal, see your physician. This is especially true of itching or bleeding spots. Remember the ABCDEs for moles:

A is for asymmetry, which means that the mole is different on one side than it is on the other; the sides do not match. Call the doctor.

B is for border; an uneven border at the edges of a mole could mean trouble. Call the doctor.

C is for color; more than one color or varying shades of color in one mole could be a problem. Call the doctor.

D is for diameter; a large-size mole (bigger than an eraser on a pencil) could be an issue. You should call your doctor.

E is for evolving, or changing. Any change in any part of the mole needs to be reported to your doctor. E could also stand for elevation; if your once-flat mole gets higher off of your skin, call your doctor.

What are the risks or benefits to a skin self-examination?

The benefits are clear. Finding any kind of health issue early is best in terms of treatment and outlook. This is true of skin cancer. Almost all types of skin cancer (which includes basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma) can be cured if they are found early.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 10/10/2019.

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