Skin cancer screening involves checking the skin for signs of skin cancer, such as moles and areas of skin with atypical color, shape, and texture. Routine screening may help detect skin cancer early, especially in high risk people.

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Skin cancer occurs when cells in the outer layer of the skin divide and grow abnormally.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis in the United States, with about 9,500 people receiving a diagnosis of skin cancer every day.

As skin cancer is so common, some health experts recommend that people examine their bodies regularly for signs of the disease. Screening for skin cancer is not the standard way to detect skin cancer, but it does make early detection more likely.

When doctors diagnose cancer early, people can start treatment immediately — before the cancer spreads to other parts of their bodies.

This article outlines a step-by-step guide on how to do a skin cancer self-screening, including what to look for. We also explain how healthcare professionals perform the screening, including how long it may take and what the results mean.

Generally, those who may be at high risk of developing skin cancer include:

  • people with naturally lighter skin color, blue or green eyes, and blond or red hair
  • people with multiple moles on their skin
  • older adults
  • people who are often out in the sun or frequently use tanning beds
  • people who have experienced blistering sunburns or those who develop burns and freckles easily
  • people with weakened immune systems

Some experts recommend that people perform regular self-checks of their skin when they reach 18 years of age.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force concluded that current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of visual skin examination by a clinician to screen for skin cancer in adults.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) does not have set guidelines on detecting skin cancer early but recommends self-screening about once per month.

The ACS also recommends performing self-examinations during the daytime or in a well-lit room for better visibility.

A full-length mirror and hand mirror may help a person better visualize certain parts of their body. People should take their time to look at each skin area and note any new changes. It may be helpful to ask a family member, friend, or spouse to help with a skin check.

Skin cancers such as melanoma are visible to the naked eye, and most early stage skin cancers have a high cure rate. Self-screening can help with early detection.

However, there is not enough evidence to suggest that skin cancer screening reduces skin cancer mortality. More research may help determine whether targeted screening exercises can reduce the mortality rate in people at high risk of skin cancer.

What to check for

A person should check for the following:

  • A for asymmetry: One half of the spot is unlike the other half.
  • B for border: The spot has an irregular, poorly defined border.
  • C for color: The spot has varying colors.
  • D for diameter: Melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters, but when a person receives a diagnosis, they may be smaller.
  • E for evolving: The spot looks different from the rest or changes in size, shape, or color.

What to look for

When doing a skin cancer screening, a person should also look out for the following:

  • unusual or newly formed bumps, moles, or spots on the skin
  • moles or bumps that bleed or are painful to the touch
  • scaly, thickened, or crusty patches of skin
  • sores that do not heal after 2 weeks
  • bumps with irregular shapes and undefined edges
  • changes in the color, size, shape, or texture of an existing bump
  • moles and bumps with uneven color

How to do it

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do a skin cancer self-examination:

  • Remove clothing and stand in front of a full-length mirror.
  • Examine the face, ears, chest, abdominal area, and front of the neck for unusual spots.
  • Lift each breast and look underneath them for any new spots.
  • Examine the upper limbs, including the elbows, forearms, underarms, and palms.
  • Check the nails and in between the fingernails.
  • Move to the lower limbs and examine the legs, soles of the feet, and between toes.
  • Check for any unusual signs on the buttocks and back.
  • Check the pubic area for new bumps or marks.
  • Check the scalp underneath the hair, using a comb to part the hair for a better view.

What to do if there are suspicious spots

If a person discovers a new spot or abnormal area of skin, it does not mean they have skin cancer.

However, it is important to mention any changes in the skin to a doctor. If a doctor suspects skin cancer, they may order further testing, such as a skin biopsy.

A dermatologist can also perform a skin screening to check for signs of skin cancer. They may ask the person to change into a gown during the exam.

How long does it take?

Most skin examinations take about 10–15 minutes.

If a doctor discovers that a person has unusual moles or skin changes during skin cancer screening, they will recommend additional testing. A skin cancer screening alone cannot provide a diagnosis.

Skin cancer screenings carry few risks. One possible risk is increased anxiety. A person could experience anxiety if they find a suspicious spot but need to wait for an appointment to get a definitive diagnosis via skin biopsy.

Skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of skin tone. However, its exact appearance may differ based on whether a person has light or dark skin.

Melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, is less prevalent in those with darker skin tones. However, it is harder to detect in People of Color, so doctors typically diagnose it at much later stages. This could be due to the location of the skin cancer or the misdiagnosis of a cancerous lesion.

A skin cancer screening is a form of skin examination that can help detect potential signs of skin cancer.

Some medical professionals recommend monthly self-screenings to check for skin cancer to help with early detection.