How to perform a skin cancer self-exam

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.

One of the best proactive steps you can take to detect skin cancer early is to perform a self-exam. In general, doctors recommend examining your skin once a month and familiarizing yourself with any freckles, moles and other marks. This may help you detect changes.

It’s important to report changes to your doctor and to see a dermatologist for skin checks once a year.

Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the United States. Among the types of skin cancer, the most prevalent are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, followed by melanoma.

Step-by-step skin self-exam

What you'll need: A full-length or large mirror, a handheld mirror, a chair or stool, a blowdryer (optional), and a partner or spouse to help (if possible)

How often to perform the checks: Once a month

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

  • Stand facing your mirror and look at the skin on your face, ears, neck, chest, stomach, your underarms, each side of your arms, your palms, the backs of your hands, under the fingernails and between the fingers. Women should lift their breasts and examine the skin beneath them.
  • While sitting down, examine your shins and thighs, the tops of your feet and your toes, including under the toenails.
  • Use a hand mirror while seated to check the skin on the backs of your thighs, your calves and the bottoms of your 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 your genital area, buttocks, upper back, lower back, the backs of your ears, and the back of your neck.
  • Part your hair to assess the skin on your 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 you keep a record of suspicious spots. It’s a good idea to show it to your doctor during your 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 your 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

Lowering the risk of skin cancer

If you want to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, an important step is to decrease your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light by avoiding direct sunlight and tanning beds.

Other tips include:

  • Limit your exposure to the sun, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when rays are typically strongest.
    • Seek shade if you’re 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 if you plan to be 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.

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