Skin cancer can happen to anyone at any age and is the most common cancer in the United States, according to the American College of Dermatology Association. But some skin cancers, like melanoma, are more common in men than in women. While melanoma is the most deadly of skin cancers, when detected early it can be cured.
Seeing a dermatologist for regular skin cancer screenings can help you detect the early signs of skin cancer. Finding and treating skin cancer early helps give you a better chance to reduce or avoid the complications of untreated skin cancer.
There are many other reasons to see a dermatologist including:
- addressing physical signs of aging that you may want to address, such as wrinkles or skin discoloration
- diagnosing the underlying causes of hair loss and exploring treatments that may help preserve or restore hair
- treating other skin conditions like acne, rosacea, or varicose veins
- diagnosing and treating rashes itching, or other skin-related symptoms, including symptoms caused by contact allergies
Let’s look at:
- what you can expect from a skin cancer screening or a total body skin exam with a dermatologist
- how often you should see your dermatologist
- what else you can do reduce your risk for skin cancer
It’s a good idea to do an entire body self-check monthly. When doing a self-check, look at all areas of your skin, including your scalp, groin, hands, and feet. That way, you can more easily notice:
- any new or changing moles
- any pink scaly spots that don’t go away
- new growths
- itching lesions
- growths that bleed on their own
- any non-healing ulcerations
- any other growths or lesions of concern
You should also do a self-check before you go to your skin cancer screening appointment and take note of any changes you want to ask your dermatologist, which may include:
- moles of concern or ones that are changing
It’s also a good idea before your appointment to check in with immediate family members (parents, siblings, or children) and to ask if they have had skin cancer, especially melanoma as melanoma can be genetic.
If you’re concerned about any spots or changes to your skin, your dermatologist may ask some of the following questions, so it may help to prepare answers ahead of time:
- How long has it been there?
- Are you experiencing any symptoms or has the lesion changed? If it has changed, how so (shape, color, painful, bleeding, etc.)?
- Do you have any personal or family history of skin cancer or precancerous lesions?
- Do you wear sunscreen daily?
- Do you have any history of sunburns or tanning bed use?
A skin cancer screening usually takes between 10 and 15 minutes depending on how extensive the examination is and how many questions you may have for the dermatologist.
Here’s a general idea of what will happen at your appointment:
- You’ll likely be asked to fully undress and put on a light gown that ties together in the back. You may be able to keep your underwear on. In some cases, you may only need to undress so that the areas that you’re concerned about are visible for the dermatologist to see. A medical assistant, nurse, or the dermatologist will let you know how much clothing you need to remove.
- For a total body skin exam or skin cancer screening, a dermatologist should look at all areas of your skin from your scalp down to your toes.
- If the dermatologist notices any precancerous (actinic keratoses) spots, they will usually treat them with liquid nitrogen, or if there are any lesions of concern, they will typically do a biopsy of the lesion and send it to a dermatopathologist. A dermatopathologist is a doctor trained in looking at skin biopsies.
- If the dermatologist doesn’t see any concerning signs of skin cancer, the screening will be finished.
Why do a biopsy?
A biopsy is a tissue sample that’s taken from a lesion that a dermatologist may believe contains cancerous cells and needs further evaluation. It’s important to remember that having a biopsy done does not mean you necessarily have skin cancer.
The sample will be sent to a dermatopathologist to look at the skin cells more closely for the possible presence of cancerous cells.
Here’s how a biopsy is usually done:
- The dermatologist will numb the area with a localized injection of a numbing agent. They will use a very small needle to inject the numbing agent.
- They’ll typically use a sharp blade or a tool to do a punch biopsy to cut or shave the lesion that needs further evaluation.
Biopsy results will usually come back within 2 weeks with a definitive answer as to whether the area is affected by skin cancer. If it’s been more than 2 weeks and you have not heard from the dermatologist, you can (and should) call their office to ask about your results.
Remember that it’s your right to receive your results, regardless of whether they are negative or positive for cancer cells.
It’s recommended that you get skin cancer screenings at least once a year, especially if you know that you’re at an increased risk of skin cancer.
You may want to do a skin cancer screening during a yearly physical exam so that you can maintain a strong awareness of your overall health.
If you’re concerned about anything new prior to a yearly skin exam, make an appointment. If you’ve been diagnosed with a skin cancer such as basal or squamous cell, you should be seen every
If you have been diagnosed with melanoma, you’ll need a total body skin exam every 3 months for several years.
- getting older
- light skin tone or skin that burns easily
- eyes that are blue or green in color
- light hair that’s blond or reddish
- having a lot of moles around your body
- family history of melanoma or another skin cancer (especially a first degree relative, such as a parent or sibling)
- having skin cancer previously
- history of tanning bed use
- history of radiation, such as for cancer treatment
- being immunocompromised
A history of past sunburns also
While having a lighter skin tone may increase risk, people with darker skin tones can also develop skin cancer. That’s why it’s important for everyone to have regular skin exams, limit time in direct sunlight, and regularly wear sunscreen.
There are several preventive steps you can take to help
- Limit your time in direct sunlight. Try to limit exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
- Wear protective clothing when you’re outside. This can include a hat, long sleeves, and long pants along with sunglasses. For best results, look for clothing with UPF, which acts as sun protectant.
- Wear a mineral sunscreen (zinc oxide or titanium oxide) that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more. Avoid chemical sunscreens that may contain ingredients that can increase your risk of other health issues. And remember to reapply sunscreen if you’re out in the sun for more than 2 hours.
- Don’t use indoor tanning equipment that exposes you directly to UV light. The more you tan, the more you damage your skin and
increase your riskof skin cancer.
Here’s a how-to guide for doing a thorough self-exam for skin cancer:
- Stand in front of a full-length mirror so that you can see your entire body clearly.
- Check your arms. This includes your hands, palms, between your fingers, and armpits.
- Check your legs. This includes your feet, soles, between your toes, calves, and thighs — front and back.
- Get a smaller mirror to check the back of your neck and the top of your head. Pull aside any hair that may be blocking your view of scalp skin. You can still get cancer on areas that appear to be shielded from sun exposure.
- Use the mirror to look at your back and your buttocks. Be sure to open your buttocks a little to look for symptoms of skin cancer inside your buttocks, too.
Here’s a quick guide to deciding whether a new or changing mole, freckle, or spot on your body may need to be seen by a doctor:
- Asymmetry. Is the spot different shapes on each side? Spots that aren’t perfectly round or symmetrical may be an early sign of skin cancer.
- Border irregularity. Is the border around the area jagged or irregular? Look at where the color of the spot contrasts with the color of your skin. If this line is not clearly defined, the spot may be at a higher risk of becoming cancerous.
- Color. Is the color consistent throughout the spot? Areas that are multiple shades of tan, brown, or black may be a cause for concern.
- Diameter. Is it larger than 1/4 of an inch? Large spots that are bigger than this are more likely to become cancerous, especially if they keep growing.
- Evolving. Does it change each time you look at it? Areas that change may result from irregular cancerous cell growth that a dermatologist needs to examine.
The above are possible signs of melanoma.
You should also see a dermatologist if you notice anything that:
- does not heal
- bleeds on its own
- is pink, scaly, and does not resolve
- is a new, abnormal growth
These can be signs of non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell or squamous cell.
You can also talk with a doctor about anything your find concerning, even if the mole or freckle does not meet any of the above requirements. If you’re ever nervous or uncertain about your health, talking with a doctor can help you get answers.
Here are some resources to help you find a dermatologist near you:
- If you have health insurance, contact your insurance provider and ask for a list of in-network dermatologists. You can also ask a primary care doctor for a referral.
- Use a telemedicine app or service to see a dermatologist quickly over a video appointment. Many dermatologists can virtually examine areas that you’re concerned about and provide a diagnosis or next steps.
- Search for dermatologists on sites like Google Maps, Apple Maps, or similar sites to see what’s near you, and read reviews to see what other people have experienced
You can also find a dermatologist by visiting the ADA’s “Find a dermatologist” directory.
Some questions you may want to prepare as you choose a dermatologist and get ready for your appointment include:
- Do they specialize in skin cancer treatments, including surgery?
- Does this dermatologist treat people with your skin tone or color? Are they familiar with conditions that are more common in people with your skin tone or color?
- Do they accept your insurance or payment in other forms? Are their services covered as medical procedures, or will they be considered elective procedures that may cost more?
- Do they specialize in the type of care you’re looking for? Are they focused on medical treatments or on cosmetic procedures?
Men are at a higher risk of skin cancers like melanoma. Early detection and regular skin cancer screenings are critical to diagnosing and treating skin cancer successfully. Skin cancer can often be successfully treated when found early.
Consider seeing a dermatologist for a skin cancer screening and learn what else they may be able to do for you. Taking care of your skin and hair can help you create a healthy lifestyle around treatment and prevention that can reduce your risk of cancer and other skin conditions as you age.