Performing regular skin care self-exams is a simple and effective way to detect skin cancer early when it is easier to treat. Although skin cancers often appear in sun-exposed areas, they can develop anywhere on the body. Therefore, it’s important not to overlook any part of your body during a thorough self-exam.
If you come across anything suspicious or notice changes in your skin during the self-exam, it’s crucial to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist for a proper medical evaluation. If you don’t already have a dermatologist, you can consult a primary care doctor who can provide guidance and refer you to a dermatologist if necessary.
By paying close attention to your skin health, you may also identify other treatable skin conditions such as eczema, contact allergies, rosacea, certain rashes, or other skin-related diseases. Discussing these concerns with a dermatologist will ensure an accurate diagnosis and, if needed, an appropriate treatment plan.
Performing a skin exam at home doesn’t require any special equipment apart from a large mirror and a hand mirror. To conduct a comprehensive self-exam, stand in front of a well-lit full-length mirror or bathroom mirror and allocate sufficient time. Avoid rushing and aim for thoroughness.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for a complete skin care self-exam:
- Face the mirror and examine your face, neck, ears, and abdomen. Lift your breasts to inspect the skin beneath and also examine the front of your arms.
- Raise both arms to check your armpits and the opposite side of your arms.
- Look at both sides of your hands, including the spaces between your fingers. Examine the areas around and underneath each fingernail.
- Sit down and examine the front of your thighs, shins, and the tops of your feet. Also, inspect the areas around and underneath your toenails.
- Use a hand mirror to view the back of your thighs, calves, and the soles of your feet.
- Stand up and use the hand mirror to inspect your buttocks and genital area. Face the wall mirror and use the hand mirror to examine your back and the back of your neck.
- Utilize a hand mirror to check your scalp. If you have hair, gently move strands aside to see the skin underneath.
- Use a mirror to look inside your mouth for any white patches or black spots on the gums, tongue (top or bottom), or inside the cheeks.
During the self-exam, be on the lookout for changes in existing moles, freckles, or birthmarks, as well as new marks that could indicate skin conditions or infections. This emphasizes the importance of regular skin checks. Familiarize yourself with existing marks during the initial exam while remaining vigilant for any suspicious ones.
Specifically, watch out for:
- Moles that change shape, size, or color
- Moles with irregular borders or unusual shapes
- Moles with multiple colors
- Tender, itching, or bleeding moles
- New or changing growths or bumps
- Scaly red or grayish patches that crust or bleed
- Pink scaly patches that are sensitive to touch
- Persistent pimples
- Sores that bleed or don’t heal
- Unexplained rashes
- Wart-like growths
Skin cancer can affect people of all skin tones, although those with lighter skin are at higher risk. In fact, approximately 1 in 5 people will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. A lack of awareness about skin checks, barriers to healthcare, and delayed diagnosis contribute to increased skin cancer-related morbidity and mortality rates among people of color. Therefore, thorough self-exams and regular skin checks by a dermatologist are crucial for early detection and reducing the risk of complications.
If you notice anything suspicious during a self-exam, it’s important to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist or primary care physician as soon as possible. Even if the mark turns out to be benign, consulting with a healthcare professional will provide peace of mind and valuable education about potential future growth.
While the American Cancer Society and the American Dermatological Association don’t provide specific guidelines for self-exams, many experts recommend monthly skin checks at home. However, a 2020 study suggests that some individuals find monthly checks burdensome and may be more consistent with self-exams if conducted every 2 to 3 months. The key is to establish a routine and remain consistent since skin cancer risk persists throughout life, with an increased risk as one age.
In addition to self-exams, it is recommended to have annual professional skin exams by a specialist, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Individuals with a history of skin cancer may require more frequent professional exams every 3 to 6 months.
While a self-exam can help identify suspicious moles or growths, it is not a substitute for a comprehensive full-body skin exam performed by a dermatologist. In a 2021 study of over 1,500 skin cancer cases, researchers found that dermatologists identified more than 50% of the cases, while the rest were identified through self-exams or by primary care physicians. Given that skin cancers can be easily missed or diagnosed late, an in-office exam with a specialist plays a critical role in reducing the risk of complications or mortality.
To summarize, skin care self-exams are particularly important for individuals with significant sun exposure or a history of skin cancer. However, they are beneficial for everyone to monitor their skin health between dermatologist appointments. Self-exams are quick and simple, and conducting them monthly or every other month can significantly reduce the risk of complications from skin cancer or other skin problems. If you find it challenging to check certain areas like your back, consider asking a partner or friend for assistance.