How to Spot Skin Cancer

woman closely examines her face in a mirror

Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer. If you know what to look for, you can spot warning signs of skin cancer early. Finding it early, when it’s small and has not spread, makes skin cancer much easier to treat.

Your doctor can check your skin carefully during a routine cancer-related check-up. Many doctors also recommend that you check your own skin about once a month. Look at your skin in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand-held mirror to look at areas that are hard to see.

Use the “ABCDE rule” to look for some of the common signs of melanoma, one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer:

  • Asymmetry: One part of a mole or birthmark doesn’t match the other.
  • Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • Color: The color is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
  • Diameter: The spot is larger than ¼ inch across – about the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape, or color.

Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are not as dangerous as melanoma, but they are much more common.

Basal cell carcinomas, or cancers, usually grow on areas that get the most sun, such as the face, head, and neck. But they can show up anywhere. Look for:

  • Flat, firm, pale or yellow areas, similar to a scar
  • Raised reddish patches that might be itchy
  • Small, pink or red, translucent, shiny, pearly bumps, which might have blue, brown, or black areas
  • Pink growths with raised edges and a lower area in their center, which might contain abnormal blood vessels spreading out like the spokes of a tire
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back

Squamous cell carcinomas, or cancers, also tend to grow on areas that get sun, such as the face, ear, neck, lip, and hands. But they can also show up anywhere. Look for:

  • Rough or scaly red patches, which might crust or bleed
  • Raised growths or lumps, sometimes with a lower area in the center
  • Open sores (which may have oozing or crusted areas) that don’t heal, or that heal and then come back
  • Wart-like growths

Not all skin cancers look like these descriptions, though, so point out anything you’re concerned about to your doctor. That would include:

  • Any new spots
  • Any spot that doesn’t look like others on your body
  • Any sore that doesn’t heal
  • Redness or new swelling beyond the border of a mole
  • Itching, pain, or tenderness
  • Oozing, scaliness, or bleeding

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.


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