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How to Do a Skin Self-Exam, Because Everyone Should Know

The number one step of any skincare routine is not washing your face, applying retinol, or even removing your makeup before bed. It’s a step frequently skipped, despite its importance: checking your skin for moles, abnormalities, and other signs of skin cancer.  

In the US, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. That’s over 9,500 diagnoses every single day. 

The good news is that 99% of early-detected skin cancer cases are curable. Besides wearing sunscreen daily and staying out of the sun, a self-examination is one of the best ways to protect yourself. With tips from dermatologist Dr. Charu Sharma and The American Cancer Society, here is how to do a skin self-exam, how often, and what to look out for.

How to Do a Skin Self-Exam

All you need is a well-lit room and a full-length mirror. Have a handheld mirror nearby to examine hard-to-reach areas, like your back, or ask a family member, partner, or friend for a second pair of eyes.

Step 1: Stand in front of the mirror and begin examining your skin from head to toe. Check your face, neck, chest, ears, arms, underarms, hands, and fingers.

Step 2: Sit down to check your legs, feet, and toes. 

Step 3: Use the handheld mirror to inspect your back, bum, back of the neck and ears, and anywhere else you missed.

Step 4: Don’t forget your scalp—it’s skin, too. Use a comb or hair dryer to part your hair if needed. 

Step 5: Everything look similar to your last skin check? Then you’re good to go. If you spot anything unusual, take note and reach out to your dermatologist. Read what changes to look out for below.

What to Check Your Skin For

The purpose of a self-exam is to check your skin for signs of cancer, but what are the signs?  You’re essentially looking for any major changes in your skin. Look for new moles, rashes, or changes in existing bumps, spots, and freckles. “If there's anything unusual or suspicious, consult a doctor immediately.”

Dr. Sharma recommends following the ABCDE rule when examining your skin:

Asymmetry If one half of your mole or birthmark does not match the other half
Border If the edges of the mole are irregular or ragged
Color If you notice moles in varied colors like brown, red, white, and black
Diameter If the diameter of the mole appears to be larger than the eraser of a pencil
Evolving If your moles keep changing shape, color, or size

How to Help Protect Yourself from Skin Cancer

On top of examining your skin regularly, it’s critical to take care of your skin by protecting it from UV radiation. How? Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every single day (cloudy or sunny, whether you’re staying indoors or out) as the final step in your skincare routine, at least 15 minutes before heading into the sun. Reapply every two hours or more frequently if you’re sweating or swimming. Our Guards Up Daily Mineral Sunscreen is broad-spectrum, has SPF 35, and uses non-nano zinc oxide, the safest SPF active available for our bodies and our oceans.

Stay in the shade whenever possible and wear a wide-brimmed hat for extra protection. Be extra, extra careful if you’re taking any medications (or using ingredients like retinol during the AM) that can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. And please stop using tanning beds—it’s simply not worth it. 

When and How Often to Check Your Skin for Moles

It’s never too soon to start self-examining your skin. Melanoma is a greater risk after the age of 50, especially if you’re female, but that doesn’t mean young adults are immune. Melanoma is actually one of the most common cancer diagnoses for those in their 20s and 30s. “There is no specific age to start scanning your moles,” says Dr. Sharma. “Regardless of your age, always pay attention to any new development in your body.”

You should check your skin every 1-3 months, she adds. If you have a compromised immune system or a family history of cancer, you may need to check your skin more frequently. Consult with your dermatologist or doctor for personalized guidance. In general, you should see a dermatologist annually for a check-up. Ask for a full-body skin exam during your appointment so you can easily recognize any changes. 

Next, read how Skin Team member Angela changed her skincare routine after surviving cancer.