Skin cancer prevention and early detection

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on June 1, 2022.

Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the United States. Among the types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most prevalent, followed by melanoma. It's important to practice skin cancer prevention strategies, which may reduce the risk for developing skin cancer, as well as looking for signs of skin cancer. Early detection is an essential step that may help patients get treatment sooner.

How to prevent skin cancer and lower risk

To reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, decrease exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light by avoiding direct sunlight and tanning beds.

Other tips include:

Limit exposure to the sun, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when rays are typically strongest.

  • Seek shade while outside.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves and pants.

Use sunglasses that protect the eyes from UVA and UVB rays.

Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher when outside longer than 20 minutes.

  • The sunscreen should be water-resistant and protect against UVA and UVB rays.
  • Reapply regularly, especially after sweating or getting out of the water.

Check other products for SPF numbers, too, not just sunscreen.

  • The labels on some makeup, clothing (especially hats) and beach accessories (such as tents and umbrellas) include SPF numbers as part of their product information.

Avoid sunburns, which have been linked to an increased risk of developing melanoma later in life. This is especially important for children.

Avoid tanning booths and beds that use concentrated UV light.

  • The risks are so great that several states prohibit and some countries limit and prohibit the use of tanning beds, especially for teenagers.

Ask us about detecting skin cancer

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How to detect skin cancer early

One of the best proactive steps people can take to detect skin cancer early is to perform a self-exam. In general, doctors recommend examining the skin once a month and getting familiar with any freckles, moles and other marks. This may help make it easier to detect changes.

It's important to report any changes to the care team and to see a dermatologist for skin checks once a year.

Step-by-step skin self-exam

Supplies needed: A full-length or large mirror, a handheld mirror, a chair or stool, a blow dryer (optional), and a partner or spouse to help (if possible).

How often to perform the checks: Once a month.

In a private room, such as a bathroom or bedroom, with plenty of light:

Stand facing a mirror and look at the skin on the face, ears, neck, chest, stomach, the underarms, each side of the arms, the palms, the backs of the hands, under the fingernails and between the fingers. Women should lift their breasts and examine the skin beneath them.

While sitting down, examine both shins and thighs, the tops of the feet and all toes, including under the toenails.

Use a hand mirror while seated to check the skin on the backs of both thighs, calves and the bottoms of the feet. Do this for each leg separately. Ask a partner or spouse, if available, to help with hard-to-see areas.

Next, use the hand mirror to check the skin on the genital area, buttocks, upper back, lower back, the backs of the ears, and the back of the neck.

Make parts in the hair to assess the skin on the scalp. Use a blow-dryer to clear away hair for a better look at the scalp.

The American Academy of Dermatology provides a body map to help people keep a record of suspicious spots. It’s a good idea to show it to a doctor during an annual physical.

What to look for

It’s important to remember the ABCDE rule for skin cancer when doing a self-exam. Consider the following signs of skin cancer:

  • Asymmetry—A spot or mole on the skin with an unusual shape, or two parts that don’t look the same
  • Border—A jagged or uneven border
  • Color—An uneven color
  • Diameter—A mole or spot that is larger than a pea
  • Evolving—A mole or spot that has changed within the past couple of weeks or months

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