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Although the American Cancer Society does not have guidelines for the early detection of skin cancer, knowing your own skin is important to finding skin cancer early. You should know the pattern of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin so that you’ll notice any new growths or changes in existing moles or other spots.
Many doctors recommend checking your own skin, preferably once a month. Skin self-exams are best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand-held mirror to help look at areas that are hard to see, such as the backs of your thighs. Examine all parts of your body, including the palms of your hands and soles of your feet, as well as your scalp, ears, nails, and back (in men, the back is a common place for melanomas to start). A spouse, partner, or close friend or family member can also help you with these exams, especially for those hard-to-see areas, such as your scalp and back.
See Signs and Symptoms of Melanoma Skin Cancer to learn about what to look for when examining your skin. Any spots on the skin that are new or changing in size, shape, or color should be seen by a doctor promptly. Be sure to show your doctor any areas that concern you, and ask them to look at areas that may be hard for you to see.
Some doctors and other health care professionals do skin exams as part of routine health checkups.
If your primary doctor finds any unusual moles or other suspicious areas, they may refer you to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin problems. Dermatologists can also do regular skin exams. Many dermatologists use a technique called dermoscopy (also known as dermatoscopy, epiluminescence microscopy [ELM], or surface microscopy) to look at spots on the skin more clearly. A photo of the spot may be taken as well. (See Tests for Melanoma Skin Cancer for more information.)
Regular skin exams are especially important for people at higher risk of melanoma, such as people with dysplastic nevus syndrome, people with a strong family history of melanoma, and people who have had melanoma before. If you have many moles, your doctor might advise taking full-body photos so your moles can be tracked over time and new ones can be seen more readily. (This is sometimes called total body photography or mole mapping.) Talk to your doctor about how often you should have your skin examined.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Mitchell TC, Karakousis G, Schuchter L. Chapter 66: Melanoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
National Cancer Institute. Skin Cancer Screening (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. 2023. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/hp/skin-screening-pdq on September 20, 2023.
Ribas A, Read P, Slingluff CL. Chapter 92: Cutaneous Melanoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Last Revised: October 27, 2023
American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.
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