Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. More than 9,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer every day.

The warning signs of skin cancer can vary. Some symptoms are easy to spot, while others are more subtle and difficult to detect.

If you notice any unusual moles, spots, or marks on your skin, it’s important to visit a doctor. If your doctor suspects skin cancer, they’ll refer you to a dermatologist for testing and diagnosis.

Like other types of cancer, skin cancer is easiest to treat if caught early.

In this article, we take a closer look at the signs and symptoms of the most common types of skin cancer and how they’re diagnosed. We’ll also look at potential warning signs that skin cancer has spread beyond your skin.

Skin cancer signs to watch for

  • a new or unusual spot or mark on your skin that doesn’t go away
  • a spot that oozes, bleeds, gets scaly or crusty, or doesn’t heal
  • a lesion that spontaneously bleeds without being picked at
  • a mole with redness or swelling beyond its borders
  • a mole with poorly defined borders
  • a mole that grows or changes shape or color
  • a hard lesion that doubles in size in a matter of weeks
  • itchiness or pain in a certain area of your skin that persists or keeps returning

The main symptom of skin cancer is a mole or other growth on your skin. To find these growths, you need to look for them. Some doctors recommend you do a full-body self-exam in front of a mirror once a month.

Most skin cancers develop in sun-exposed areas like your face, scalp, chest, arms, and legs, so it’s important to check these areas.

It’s also a good idea to check places that are rarely exposed, such as:

  • your palms
  • your genitals
  • your fingernails and toenails
  • the web spaces in between your fingers and toes
  • the soles of your feet

Learn more about skin cancer screening.

Skin cancer on skin of color

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), people of all skin colors can get skin cancer, even those who rarely sunburn.

Look for patches of skin that are a different color than the rest of your skin and feel rough or dry, as well as moles or sores that are growing, bleeding, or changing in any way.

Check your entire body, even places that see little sunlight, like the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands, the skin between your toes or fingers, and your toenails and fingernails.

Always see a doctor if you notice anything new, unusual, or changing on your skin or nail beds.

Be aware that skin cancer in people of color is associated with increased mortality rates, according to 2009 research. This is likely due to:

The following resources are available if you’re looking for dermatologists experienced with skin of color:

  • American Academy of Dermatology. The AAD website search tool can help you find a board certified dermatologist in your area. You can filter your search for dermatologists who are familiar with skin of color.
  • Skin of Color Society. The Skin of Color Society promotes awareness and excellence in dermatology for skin of color. Use its search tool to help you find a doctor near you.
  • Black Derm Directory. The Black Derm Directory is another resource that can help you find a dermatologist who specifically focuses on conditions affecting black skin.

Types of skin cancer and their symptoms

Skin cancer is divided into different categories depending on what type of cells are affected. Each type of skin cancer comes with its own warning signs.

The most common types of skin cancer are:

  • Basal cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer, affecting close to 20 percent of Americans. This cancer forms in basal cells at the bottom of your upper layer of skin called your epidermis.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer. More than 1 million Americans are diagnosed with this type of skin cancer each year. It develops in squamous cells, which are flat cells near the surface of your skin.
  • Melanoma. Melanoma develops in cells called melanocytes that create the pigment that gives your skin its color. Melanoma only makes up about 1 percent of skin cancers but causes most skin cancer deaths.

Basal cell carcinoma warning signs

Basal cell carcinoma typically develops on parts of your body exposed to sunlight but also occasionally occurs in other places.

According to the American Cancer Society, warning signs often include:

  • an open sore that either doesn’t heal or heals and returns (may ooze or crust over)
  • a lesion that spontaneously bleeds without being picked at or manipulated
  • a pink growth with raised edges and a depressed center, sometimes with atypical blood vessels that resemble the spokes of a wheels
  • a small pink or red bump that’s shiny, pearly, or translucent and may have areas that are black, blue, or brown
  • a raised red patch that itches
  • a flat and firm area that resembles a pale or yellow scar

Pictures of basal cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma warning signs

Squamous cell carcinoma can take on many different appearances. According to the AAD, warning signs can include:

  • a rough and red scaly patch
  • an open sore that often has raised borders
  • a firm, dome-shaped growth
  • a growth resembling a wart
  • a sore that developed in an old scar
  • a horn-shaped growth
  • a hard lesion that doubles in size in a matter of weeks
  • growths that spread to other parts of the body

These signs can occur in the genitals, namely in the lining of the vagina, vulva, cervix, and penis, and are usually associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. They can also occur in the vagina in women with a history of lichen sclerosis.

People who have had organ transplants are at higher risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma. This is most likely due to the immunosuppressive medications that are needed to prevent organ rejection.

Pictures of squamous cell carcinoma

Melanoma warning signs

Melanoma accounts for the majority of skin cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. It often first appears as changes to a preexisting mole. Experts recommend looking for the “ABCDE” signs to identify moles that could be melanoma:

  • Asymmetry. One half of a mole or lesion does not match the other
  • Border. The edges are irregularly shaped or poorly defined
  • Color. The mole contains different colors, such as red, blue, black, pink, or white
  • Diameter. The mole measures more than 1/4 inch across, about the size of a pencil eraser
  • Evolving. The mole changes in size, shape, or color

Another warning sign for melanoma is the “ugly duckling” rule. Most average moles look similar to each other. A mole that stands out from others should raise suspicion and be examined by a medical professional.

Pictures of melanoma

If you have any suspicious spots on your skin that you suspect could be skin cancer, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Diagnosing skin cancer early greatly improves the ability to treat it successfully.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, if melanoma is caught early, your 5-year survival is 99 percent. The 5-year survival rate drops to 66 percent if melanoma spreads to the lymph nodes. The 5-year survival rate is around 27 percent if the cancer reaches distant organs.

Melanoma can be fatal if not detected early

It’s important to know that every sunburn increases your risk of melanoma, and blistering sunburns are even worse. See a doctor if you notice any suspicious spots on your skin.

If you are frequently in the sun, you may want to schedule yearly full-body skin checks with a dermatologist.

Your doctor will examine the area of concern and ask you about your family history, medical history, and sun exposure. If they suspect skin cancer, they’ll refer you to a dermatologist.

A dermatologist can perform a biopsy. During this procedure, they’ll surgically remove part or all of the spot or mole. This tissue sample will then be sent to a lab for analysis.

If your test comes back positive, you may need to receive additional tests, like imaging and blood tests, to help identify the extent of the cancer. A lymph node biopsy may be performed to see if it has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Does skin cancer hurt?

According to the American Cancer Society, most skin cancers don’t cause painful symptoms until they grow quite large. It’s important to see a doctor if you have a suspicious mark on your skin, even if it doesn’t hurt.

Sometimes skin cancer does cause pain. If the cancer spreads along a nerve, it can cause itchiness, pain, tingling, or numbness.

The most common treatment for skin cancer is surgery. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are usually surgically removed at the dermatologist’s office or in an outpatient setting.

Depending on how much needs to be removed, surgery is usually a fairly quick procedure. You’ll be awake during the procedure, but the skin around the carcinoma will be numbed. Because of this, you won’t feel pain or much sensation while the procedure is being done.

For larger skin lesions or those with ill-defined borders, a more extensive type of surgery, called Mohs surgery, may be necessary. It involves microscopic analysis of the tissue cells that have been removed while the surgery is taking place.

More aggressive cancers, like melanoma, usually need more extensive surgery to remove the cancerous tumor and possibly the lymph nodes. Radiation therapy may be needed after the surgery to kill any cancer cells that may still be in the lymph nodes.

If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapies may be included as part of the treatment plan.

Superficial non-melanoma skin cancers (SCC and BCC) can be treated with scraping and burning. This process is called curettage and electrodessication.

Melanoma can spread to other parts of your body, including your lymph nodes, brain, liver, and lungs. Your symptoms can give clues to where the cancer has spread.

Cancer that has spread beyond the original part of your body where it began is called metastatic cancer. General symptoms of metastatic skin cancer can include:

Specific symptoms related to where the cancer has spread are detailed in the table below.

Where skin cancer has spreadSymptoms
lymph nodes• hard bumps under the skin in your neck, armpit, or groin
• trouble swallowing
• swelling of your neck or face
lungsshortness of breath
cough, possibly with blood
• repeated chest infections
liver• pain on the right side of your belly
• yellowing of your eyes or skin (jaundice)
appetite loss
• swelling in your belly
itchy skin
brain• severe or constant headache
seizures
• personality or mood changes
trouble balancing
• vision changes
• speech changes

All of these symptoms can also be warning signs of other conditions. Just because you have one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer or that it has spread.

To get an accurate diagnosis, be sure to follow up with your doctor.

It’s important to regularly monitor your skin for any changes that could be early signs of skin cancer. Skin cancer can have many different appearances, such as lumps, bumps, sores, moles, or other marks.

Warning signs of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, often follow the acronym ABCDE to identify unusual moles.

Despite making up a small percentage of skin cancers, melanoma is responsible for the majority of skin cancer deaths. If not caught early, it can spread quickly to other parts of your body.

It’s important to visit your doctor if you notice a new or unusual spot on your skin, a sore that doesn’t heal, changes to a preexisting mole, or any other changes to your skin that concern you.