Skin Exams

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How does my healthcare provider do a skin exam?

Your primary care provider may do a skin exam at your yearly wellness exam. If you are at a higher risk of skin cancer, you may want to consider getting a yearly skin check from a dermatologist.

  • Because this is a full skin check, you will remove all of your clothes and wear a gown. Your healthcare provider will check all the areas of your skin.
  • Your healthcare provider will ask about your history of skin cancer and if anyone in your family has had skin cancer. They may ask you questions about how long you have had certain marks or moles and if you have noticed any changes.
  • The healthcare provider may use a magnifier to look at your skin to find any marks or moles more easily.
  • If a dermatologist is doing the exam and finds any growths that may be a problem, they may remove them right in the office.

What are the risks and/or side effects?

A skin exam doesn’t have any risks or side effects. It is just a visual check of the skin.

What are the benefits?

Regular skin exams—by yourself and by a healthcare provider—can help find skin cancer early. When it’s found early, skin cancer is often curable. This is especially important for melanoma, a serious skin cancer that can eventually spread to other parts of the body.

How do I prepare?

You can prepare for your skin exam with your healthcare provider by having clean skin and nails. Remove nail polish and don’t cover marks or moles with makeup.

Do a skin self-exam before you go so you can tell your healthcare provider about any concerning moles, marks, or growths.

When will I know the results?

Your healthcare provider will tell you right after the exam if there are any concerns that should be checked further.

What are follow-up requirements and options?

Your healthcare provider will tell you what to do to follow up. If you exam is clear, you won’t need to follow up until it’s time for your next skin exam.

If your skin exam was with your primary care provider and they find anything of concern, they may refer you to a dermatologist. If a dermatologist does the exam, the they may remove some growths or skin that looks cancerous so a biopsy can be done to check for cancer. The dermatologist will tell you if you need to come back for further skin treatment.

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How do I do a skin self-exam?

You are often the best person to notice skin cancer because you know your skin well enough to see a change that might be a sign of a problem. That’s why it’s a good idea to do a monthly skin check and pay attention to your skin every day. Get to know the moles and marks on your skin so you will be able to notice a change.

Here’s how to do a monthly skin check:

  • Look in the mirror.
    • Look at your face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, and belly.
    • Be sure to check places that you don’t usually look at, like the tops of your ears, in between your fingers, and your fingernails.
    • You may have to move some skin to look at other skin. For example, women may have to lift the breast to check the skin under it.
    • Lift up your arms to check the underarm area. Look at both sides of your arms. Look at the front and back of your hands.
  • Sit down to look at your legs and feet.
    • Check the front of your thighs and calves, knees, and toes. Be sure to check your toenails and in between your toes.
    • Check the bottoms of your feet, using a hand mirror if you need to.
    • Use a full-length mirror or a hand mirror to check the backs of your legs and buttocks.
    • Use a hand mirror to check your genital area, your back, and the back of your neck and ears. Sometimes it’s easier to see your back by using both a wall mirror and hand mirror. Face away from the wall mirror and move the hand mirror to see the part of the back you are trying to look at.
  • Check your scalp. Checking the scalp is important because the skin there is often unprotected in the sun. But it can be hard to check it depending on how much hair you have. Pay special attention to where your hair parts. Use a comb or hair dryer to move the hair out of the way so you can check the scalp.

Moles and other marks on the skin are usually harmless. Use the “ABCDE” method to see if a mark is a harmless mole or melanoma:

  • Asymmetry. A harmless mole usually looks the same on both sides if you were to split it down the middle. Melanoma will look different on one side.
  • Border. A harmless mole usually has a smooth and clear border all the way around it. Melanoma has fuzzy, uneven, or notched edges.
  • Color. A harmless mole is all one color (usually brown or tan). Melanoma can be made up of different colors. It can have different shades of brown or tan, or have black, blue, white, red, pink, or skin color mixed in.
  • Diameter. This is about the mole’s size. A harmless mole is usually no bigger than a pencil eraser. Melanoma is often larger than this. But if you see a small mole that has asymmetry, a fuzzy border, and multiple colors, you should still get it checked out.
  • Evolving. Harmless moles usually stay the same, but melanomas can change shape, size, or color as time goes on.

If you see anything on your skin that does not look normal, visit your primary care provider or a dermatologist.