How to Do a Skin Self-Exam

Jory Cross by Jory Cross | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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Learning how to do a skin self-exam could help you detect cancer early and even save your life. If you’ve never done a self-exam before, here’s how.

How a regular skin self-exam may prevent cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer. Fortunately, skin cancer is often curable if detected early, so learning how to do a regular self-exam could be life saving.

If you’ve never done a self-exam before, consistency is key. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends doing a head-to-toe self-exam once a month. Doing a self-exam regularly will help you become familiar with your skin’s moles, freckles, and pigmented spots, so that you can notice changes over time.

How to perform a skin self-exam

If you’re doing a self-exam for the first time, the Skin Cancer Foundation suggests doing so in a well-lit place and having a full-length mirror, hand mirror, and blow dryer at hand. You may find it helpful to ask a close friend or family member for help with the self-exam, since it can be hard to check hard-to-reach spots like your scalp or back.

During each self-exam, check your:

  • Face (lips, mouth, nose, and ears)
  • Scalp (use a blow-dryer or comb to check under your hair)
  • Hands (palms, back of hands, wrists, fingers, and under fingernails)
  • Neck, stomach, and chest (women should inspect breasts)
  • Back and buttocks
  • Legs and feet (ankles, top of feet, soles, between toes)

You may find it hard to keep track of each individual mark or mole during your monthly self-exam; few people can remember where every single mole or spot is located on their body. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has a downloadable body mole map on its website that makes it easier to systematically track specific moles and spots and note changes over time. You can write down the location of each mole and spot on a body map so you remember to check each one during your self-exam.

What to look for during the skin self-exam

Here’s a useful memory device to help you remember what to look for during your skin self-exam. According to the AAD, pay attention to moles or spots that have the “ABCDEs” of melanoma during your self-exam:

  • “A” (Asymmetry): Take note of moles or spots that are unsymmetrical (not the same on both halves).
  • “B” (Border): Check for a bumpy or uneven border during your self-exam.
  • “C” (Color): Look for variation in color across the mole or spot, such as shades of black, brown, red, blue, or white.
  • “D” (Diameter): Melanoma spots are often larger than 6mm (roughly the size of a pencil eraser), though they may also be smaller.
  • “E” (Evolving): During your self-exam, pay attention to moles that are changing over time in color, size, texture, or shape.

Another tip, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, is to remember the “Ugly Duckling” sign during your self-exam: cancerous moles often stand out when compared to normal spots. During your skin self-exam, check for spots that look or feel different from other marks. Talk to a doctor if you notice any warning signs, such as a spot that is changing, bleeds, or itches.

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