How to Check for Skin Cancer at Home
It’s scary, but it’s true: according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they’re 70. Not to mention that having just five or more sunburns in your life doubles your risk of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to perform regular self-checks for skin cancer, in addition to visiting a dermatologist at least once a year for a thorough look. We asked Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist and founder and medical director of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, how to check your skin for cancerous moles at home.
How do I check for skin cancer?
“A skin exam is best done monthly in a well-lit room, in front of a mirror that allows you to see as much of your skin as you can,” says Dr. Hartman. For areas that are hard to see, such as the back or inner thighs, he recommends using a handheld mirror and angling it towards the larger mirror so you can get a double vantage point of the area. “Make sure you’re in a space where you can move about freely — where you can sit down, bend over and stand up and still have access to the light and mirrors from as many angles as possible,” he says. You can ask a partner or family member if you need an extra set of eyes on hard-to-reach areas. Then spend time looking at and touching each mole and freckle on your body. Dr. Hartman says it can be helpful to take pictures of moles so that if you notice any changes, you have a time-stamped image to reference when you go to the dermatologist.
How often should I perform self-checks?
You should perform a monthly self-check and visit the derm once a year if you’ve never had skin cancer, or more if you have. “We want people to be in tune with their own skin and to look for changes, because if you don’t have somebody regularly checking it out, things can fall to the wayside,” Dr. Hartman says.
What am I checking for exactly?
The reason Dr. Hartman stresses doing monthly self-checks rather than waiting for a yearly derm exam is because the marks on your body can change a lot over the course of a year. The most important features to look for in moles are the ABCDEs, outlined here:
A: Asymmetry. “If a mole looks grossly different on one side than the other, that could be a sign of concern,” Dr. Hartman says.
B: Borders. The border of your mole should be smooth — if it’s not, or if it seems more raised than the last time you checked, it’s time to consult a derm.
C: Color. Note any moles that are a different color than the rest, or a mole with multiple colors. This is another sign you need to get professionally checked.
D: Diameter. “Anything bigger than a pencil eraser, or about six millimeters, is something that should be monitored closely and observed for changes,” Dr. Hartman says.
E: Evolution. Again, taking photos during self-checks will help you chart the way your moles and freckles evolve, which offers your dermatologist a helpful baseline.
What areas of the body should I pay close attention to?
For men, Dr. Hartman says, the most neglected area is the back, while women should be more diligent about checking their legs. In general, though, most people forget to check their palms and soles, which Dr. Hartman says are “notorious locations” for melanoma. “Moles there often go undetected, they’re diagnosed at a later stage and they spread before biopsies and evaluations can take place to stop them,” Dr. Hartman says. “Check between your toes, your fingers, on your palms and soles, and on the back and backs of your legs where skin cancers like basal cells and squamous cells happen more commonly.”
How do I take care of the moles I already have?
Regular sunscreen application is important all over the body, including on existing moles and freckles. “Broad-spectrum physical sunscreens are best because they form a barrier that light reflects off of without the risk of any allergies,” Dr. Hartman says. For the face, we recommend the CeraVe Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 Face Sheer Tint, a lightly tinted physical sunscreen. The La-Roche Posay Anthelios SPF 50 Gentle Lotion Mineral Sunscreen is a great choice for both the face and the body. In addition to physical SPF, Hartman recommends wearing UV-protective clothing, hats and sunglasses. “There’s also some wisdom in avoiding the sun in its peak hours, between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., as well as applying enough sunscreen in each area and reapplying that sunscreen if you’re going to be out in the sun, especially during those times for more than two hours.”
Photo: Chaunte Vaughn