How to Do a Skin Care Self-Exam

By Staff 9 Min Read

Skin care self-exams are an easy and effective way to identify skin cancer before it grows and becomes harder to treat. Skin cancers tend to appear on parts of the body that are frequently exposed to the sun. However, they can develop anywhere, so you shouldn’t skip any part of the body when doing a thorough self-exam.

If you find anything suspicious during a self-exam or notice changes to your skin, make an appointment with a dermatologist to get a proper medical evaluation. If you don’t already have a dermatologist, you can also go to a primary care doctor, who can provide guidance on next steps and refer you to a dermatologist.

By paying close attention to your skin health, you may also be able to identify other skin conditions that are treatable, like:

All of these are concerns that you can raise with a dermatologist, who can then provide the right diagnosis and, if needed, a treatment plan.

No special equipment, other than a large mirror and hand mirror, is needed to do an effective job of examining your skin from head to toe.

For best results, stand naked in front of a full-length mirror or bathroom mirror, and make sure the room is well-lit. And be prepared to spend several minutes on your exam. You want to be thorough, so don’t rush.

To do a complete skin care self-exam:

  1. Face a large mirror and check your face, neck, ears, and belly. You may need to lift your breasts to examine the skin underneath. Also look at the front of your arms.
  2. Lift both arms to check your armpits and the other side of your arms.
  3. Look at both sides of your hands and in between your fingers. Check the areas around and underneath each fingernail.
  4. Sit down and look at the front of your thighs, shins, and top of your feet. Also check the areas around and underneath your toenails.
  5. Using a hand mirror, look at the back of your thighs, calves, and the bottom of your feet.
  6. Stand up and use the hand mirror to check your buttocks and genital area. Facing the wall mirror, use the hand mirror to look at your back and the back of your neck.
  7. Use a hand mirror to look at your scalp. If you have hair, you’ll need to gently push strands aside to see the skin underneath your hair.
  8. Using a mirror, look inside your mouth for any white patches or black spots on the gums, top or bottom of tongue, or inside the cheeks.

A skin care self-exam can be extremely helpful in early detection of melanoma or other skin problem. A 2019 study suggests that those who acknowledge the seriousness of skin cancer examinations are less likely to do regular checks, in large part because they don’t feel confident in their ability to identify suspicious skin changes.

While signs of potential skin cancers are perhaps the most serious targets of your exam, you should take notice of any other possible skin disorders, too.

During your exam, look for changes to existing moles, freckles, and birthmarks, as well as new marks that could indicate skin conditions or infections. This is why regular skin checks are important. During your first exam, become familiar with existing marks while also looking for any that could be suspicious. Specifically, be on the lookout for a:

  • mole that changes shape, size, or color
  • mole that has an odd shape or irregular borders
  • mole that has multiple colors
  • mole that is tender, itching, or bleeding
  • new or changing growth or bump
  • scaly red or greyish patch that crusts or bleeds
  • pink scaly patch that is tender to the touch
  • pimple that doesn’t resolve
  • sore that bleeds or won’t heal
  • rash that is unexplained
  • wart-like growth

Skin cancer risks

While people with lighter skin are more likely to develop skin cancer, people with all skin tones are at risk. In fact, 1 in 5 people will develop skin cancer over their lifetime.

A 2016 study found that people of color actually face increased skin cancer-related morbidity and mortality rates, in part due to:

  • a lack of awareness about skin checks
  • barriers to healthcare
  • getting a diagnosis at a more advanced stage

Because skin cancers may be harder to detect with the naked eye on darker skin, performing thorough self-exams and getting regular skin checks from a dermatologist are important steps for early detection and reducing cancer risk.

If you see anything suspicious when conducting a skin care self-exam, make an appointment as soon as possible to see a dermatologist or primary care physician. Even if the mark turns out to be harmless, consulting with a doctor will provide you peace of mind and some education about a type of growth that may appear again.

The American Cancer Society and the American Dermatological Association don’t offer specific guidelines for self-exams, though many health experts recommend monthly skin checks at home.

However, a 2020 study suggests that monthly checks can seem too burdensome for some people, and that they are more consistent with their self-exams if they follow a routine of checks every 2 to 3 months.

Whether you do self-exams every month or every other month, the key is to be consistent. Skin cancer risk is a lifetime concern, and the risk only increases with age. So getting into a good habit now will serve you well down the road.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends regular self checks and annual professional skin exams by a specialist. If you have a history of skin cancer, you may need to have professional exams every 3-6 months.

While you may be able to accurately identify suspicious moles or growths, a self-exam is not a replacement for a full-body skin exam by a dermatologist. In a 2021 study of more than 1,500 skin cancer cases, researchers found that more than 50% of them were identified by a dermatologist and the remainder were identified through a self-exam or by their primary care physician.

The researchers suggest that because skin cancers can easily be missed or diagnosed too late, having an in-office exam with a specialist is critical to lower the risk of skin cancer complications or mortality.

Skin care self-exams are especially important if you get a lot of sun exposure or have a history of skin cancer. But they are also helpful for anyone to monitor their skin health in between appointments with a dermatologist.

A skin care self-exam doesn’t take long, and if you can perform one every month or two, you can lower your risk of complications from skin cancer or other skin problems. If you have trouble checking your back or other parts of your body, consider asking a partner or friend to help you out.

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