Skin self-exam

Skin self-exam means checking your own skin regularly for any abnormal growths or unusual changes. This helps you detect and treat skin cancer (or other skin abnormalities) as early as possible.

How the test is performed

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommend that people should perform a skin self-exam once a month.

The easiest time to do the exam may be after you take a bath or shower. Women may wish to perform their skin self-exam at the same time that they perform their monthly breast self-exam.

Ideally, the room should have a full-length mirror and bright lights so that you can see your entire body well. It is important to examine all areas of your skin, including hard-to-see areas, such as the genitals, buttocks, scalp, and back.

When you are performing the skin self-exam, look for:

  • NEW skin markings (e.g., moles, blemishes, colorations, bumps)  
  • Moles that have CHANGED their size, texture, color, or shape  
  • Moles or lesions that won’t heal or that continue to bleed  
  • Moles with ragged edges, differences in coloration, or lack of symmetry

For further information, see Malignant melanoma, basal cell cancer, and Squamous cell cancer.

How to examine your skin:
The following recommendations are from the NIC and ADD:

  • Observe and examine your entire body, both front and back, in the mirror.  
  • Check under your arms and both sides of each arm.  
  • Examine your forearms after bending your arms at the elbows, and then look at the palms of your hands and underneath your upper arms.  
  • Look at the front and back of both legs.  
  • Look at your buttocks and between your buttocks.  
  • Examine your genital area.  
  • Observe your face, neck, back of neck, and scalp. It is best to use both a hand mirror and full-length mirror, along with a comb, to see areas of your scalp.  
  • Look at your feet, including the soles and the space between your toes.  
  • Have a partner, friend, or relative help by examining hard-to-see areas.

Why the test is performed
A skin self-exam is important to give you the best chance to detect abnormalities of your skin early. The earlier skin cancer is diagnosed, the better chance for a cure.

Special considerations

You should contact your health care provider if you find any new abnormalities on your skin, or if you see changes in size, color, or texture of old moles or skin lesions. You should also call if you have a skin lesion that won’t heal.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 4, 2012
by Janet G. Derge, M.D.

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