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A woman examines a mole on her shoulder.

How to Perform a Skin Self-Exam

October 22, 2022

By Angela Davis, MD

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70. But, when detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma – the most serious type of skin cancer – is 99%. And the best way to detect skin cancer early is by regularly performing a skin self-exam, ideally once a month. This is especially important for people who are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer, such as those who are immunocompromised and those who have a family history of skin cancer.

Preparing for Your Self-Exam

If possible, perform your skin self-exam in front of a full-length mirror in a room with ample lighting. You can also use a handheld mirror to check difficult-to-see areas. It’s best to perform the exam without clothing. Remove any nail polish prior to the exam so you can check your fingernails and toenails.

What You Should Look For

During your self-exam, you can follow the ABCDEs of melanoma to identify any potentially concerning spots.

  • Asymmetry – One side of the spot appears different than the other.
  • Border – The spot has an irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined border around it.
  • Color – The spot is multicolored, with different shades of tan, brown, black, white, red, or blue.
  • Diameter – A spot larger than 6 mm (about the size of a standard pencil’s eraser) may indicate a melanoma, although cancerous spots can be smaller.
  • Evolving – The spot changes in size, shape, or color over time.

The first time you examine your skin, try to get familiar with your spots, including any moles, blemishes, and freckles. This way you’ll be able to check for any changes in these spots during your next self-exam.

How to Perform a Skin Self-Exam

Performing Your Self-Exam

  1. If you have a full-length mirror, do a cursory examination of the front and back of your body while standing. Then turn to the right and left with your arms raised to examine the sides of your body. Women should lift their breasts as needed to check the skin underneath. Use a hand mirror to examine your back, buttocks, and back of legs.
  2. Stepping closer to the mirror, check your face, ears, and neck. Use a hand mirror to see the back of your neck. Also, adjust your hair as needed and use a hand mirror to check your scalp.
  3. Check your underarms, both sides of your arms, the tops and palms of your hands, in between your fingers, and your fingernails.
  4. While seated, take a closer look at the front of your thighs, shins, tops of your feet, soles of your feet, in between your toes, and your toenails.

How to Perform a Skin Self-Exam

If you find any concerning spots during your skin self-exams, consult your primary care physician or a dermatologist as soon as possible. Remember, when detected early, skin cancer is highly treatable. And the best way to detect cancerous spots is to perform regular self-exams.

Headshot of Angela Davis, MD

About the Author

Dr. Angela Davis is board certified in Dermatology by the American Board of Dermatology. Her clinical interests include General Dermatology, complex medical Dermatology, and surgical procedures.

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