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Skin self-exam

Doing a skin self-exam involves checking your skin for any unusual growths or skin changes. A skin self-exam helps find many skin problems early. Finding skin cancer early may give you a better chance for being cured.

How to do a skin self-exam

Experts do not agree on whether or not skin self-exams should be performed. So there is no standard recommendation for how often to perform them.

Checking your skin regularly can help you notice any unusual changes.

  • The easiest time to do the exam may be after you bathe or shower.
  • If you are a woman and do regular breast self-exams, this is also a good time to check your skin.
  • If possible, use a full-length mirror in a room with bright lights so you can see your entire body.

Look for several things when doing a skin self-exam.

New skin markings:

  • Bumps
  • Moles
  • Blemishes
  • Changes in color

Moles that have changed in:

  • Size
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Shape

Moles with:

  • Uneven edges
  • Differences in color
  • Lack of even sides (look different from one side to the other)

Also look for:

  • Moles or sores that continue to bleed or won't heal
  • Any mole or growth that looks very different from other skin growths around them

To do a skin self-exam:

  • Look closely at your entire body, both front and back, in the mirror.
  • Check under your arms and on both sides of each arm. Be sure to look at the backs of your upper arms, which can be hard to see.
  • Bend your arms at the elbow, and look at both sides of your forearm.
  • Look at the tops and palms of your hands.
  • Look at the front and back of both legs.
  • Look at your buttocks and between your buttocks.
  • Examine your genital area.
  • Look at your face, neck, back of your neck, and scalp. Use both a hand mirror and full-length mirror, along with a comb, to see areas of your scalp.
  • Look at your feet, including the soles and the spaces between your toes.
  • Have a person you trust help examine hard-to-see areas.

When to call the doctor

Tell your health doctor right away if:

  • You have any new or unusual sores or spots on your skin
  • A mole or skin sore changes in shape, size, color, or texture
  • You have a sore that does not heal

References

Robinson JK. The Importance of Primary and Secondary Prevention Programs for Skin Cancer. In: Rigel DS, Robinson JK, Ross M, Friedman RJ, Cockerell CJ, Lim HW, Stockfleth E, Kirkwood JM, eds. Cancer of the Skin. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 7.

Screening for Skin Cancer Recommendation Statement Date: February 2009. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf09/skincancer/skincanrs.htm. Accessed April 14, 2014.

Titus LJ, Clough-Gorr K, Mackenzie TA, Perry A, Spencer SK, Weiss J, Abrahams-Gessel S, Ernstoff MS. Recent skin self-examination and doctor visits in relation to melanoma risk and tumour depth. Br J Dermatol. 2013; 168(3): 571-576.

What You Need To Know About Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers: How To Check Your Skin. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/skin/page15. (NIH Publication No. 10-7625). Accessed April 27, 2014.

Update Date: 11/15/2013

Updated by: Richard J. Moskowitz, MD, Dermatologist in Private Practice, Mineola, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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