How to Perform a Self-Exam for Skin Cancer


Have you noticed any new or changing lesions on your skin lately? Maybe you’ve noticed additional moles that are becoming more apparent overtime, or have spotted a sore that won’t seem to heal. These conditions and other changes in the skin can be some of the first signs of the development of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, however it isn’t typically the first thing that comes to mind when the weather makes for a perfect day at the pool. Understanding the general information of skin cancer can help you avoid the serious health risks associated with the sun. Although skin cancer may be the easiest cancer to cure, some cases are considered severe if allowed to progress. Severe results of skin cancer may lead to disfigurement, scarring, and potentially death.

The good news is there is one special person (other than your dermatologist of course!) that can help you prevent or reduce the risk of skin cancer significantly. Who you may ask? It’s you! In this article you will discover just how easy it is for you to perform a monthly self-examination in just 7 simple steps.

How to Perform a Self-Examination

In order for you to spot new or changing lesions in the skin, you have to first become familiar with what is already existent. This calls for a head-to-toe examination! If you haven’t performed an examination before, you might not know where to begin, or you may think some areas on the body are nearly impossible to examine. However with a bright light, blow dyer, full-length mirror, hand mirror, and a stool, you can have the entire body examined in minutes.

Step 1. Scalp

Speaking of head-to-toe, there’s no better place to start than with the scalp. Begin by dividing the top of your scalp into sections. Next, use a blow dryer to part your hair and examine the exposed skin while looking in a mirror. Although your hair works to protect your scalp, it is still the closest body part to the sun making it vulnerable to ultraviolent rays (UV rays). By being the most exposed body part to the sun, it is important that you search this area thoroughly for any changes to the skin. Wearing protective sunscreen of at least a 15 SPF (we recommend 30+), hats that have a bill and utilizing the shade when in the sun for long periods of time can help prevent sun damage and most importantly prevent the development of skin cancer.

If possible, ask a family member or friend for help searching those hard to reach areas of the scalp.

Step 2. Face

The face is the one body area that people tend to examine on a regular basis, whether they mean to or not, so it’s easier to notice changes to this area. Using a full-length and hand mirror, examine your face comprehensively. This includes the nose, lips, and ears, all of which are areas that are commonly overlooked as a sign of skin damage caused by the sun. Believe it or not, your nose, lips, and ears receive more sun exposure than many other parts of the body. Use both mirrors to examine the front and back of your ears. All of these areas can become less vulnerable to the sun’s rays by wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, or covering up completely by wearing a hat whenever you are outside. Today you can find a variety of chap sticks with SPF protection in them, making the task of protecting your lips an easy addition to your everyday routine.

Step 3. Torso

Next it’s time to check your neck, chest, and torso. Starting with the neck, you will use both mirrors to examine the front and back. Although the front of your neck needs a careful examination, the back of the neck is more susceptible to sun exposure, especially if you have short hair or if you wear your hair up most of the time. Continue the self-examination by observing the shoulders, chest, and torso for any new or changing skin lesions. Women should remember to lift their breasts to view the skin underneath.

Step 4. Arms

Proceed to examine the hands, forearms, and upper arms. Examine all of the finer details of the hands, such as the palms, back of the hands, between each finger and underneath fingernails. Then begin working up the arm to your forearm and upper arm. Don’t forget to view both the front and back of the arm. Finish examining this area by lifting each arm in the air to look for any changes in the armpit area.

Step 5. Back

With the use of two mirrors (or the help from a friend or family member) thoroughly search the upper back for any changes in the skin. Standing with your back facing the full-length mirror, raise the hand mirror above your shoulder to inspect the upper back. If it’s easier to go back a step and view the back of the arms while in this position, feel free to do so. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

Step 6. Buttocks

You will now use both mirrors to examine the lower back and buttocks area. Although the full-length mirror may not be necessary, it is a great way to view this area from multiple angles. Use the hand mirror to examine the buttock and lower back more closely.

Step 7. Legs

Last we have arrived at the legs, which includes the feet! Using both mirrors and the stool, examine the front and back of your legs, starting from the thigh and working your way down to the ankle. Once you have reached the feet, examine the top and soles of the feet, in between the toes and underneath the toenails.

Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, but don’t let this worry you! Arizona Dermatology offers skin cancer screenings which includes a scalp to feet examination (or whatever you feel comfortable with the doctors observing) by our health care professionals. Our physicians dedicate much of their time to working with you to provide you with the appropriate care.  They will biopsy any suspicious growths they may find to ensure no stone is left unturned.

What am I Looking for During My Self-Examination?

Get to know your body! Know which marks such as moles or freckles are considered normal and non-cancerous by a skin care professional. As for any new or changing skin growths, there are a few things to pay special attention too. Keep a close eye on any moles, freckles, or other spots of the skin that may grow in size, change in color, develop crust or bleed. These may be the first signs to the development of skin cancer.

Turn your self-examination into a healthy habit that you perform monthly, if not more frequently. Early detection and the proper treatment of skin cancer has a high cure rate of almost 100%. Don’t forget the kids! Teaching them the importance of skin care and the different techniques used to complete a full examination will make it easier for them and yourself to remember to perform this task. If you notice anything suspicious, contact us to speak with one of our board-certified physicians immediately to address any concerns you might have.