How to Perform Your Own Skin Exam

Skin cancer is very treatable if caught early on, and all you need to perform your own skin exam is yourself and a mirror! This article covers how to perform a self-skin exam, what to look for when you are checking your moles, and why it is important to see your dermatologist with any concerns. Nurses Education Knowledge


How to Perform Your Own Skin Exam

Skin cancer is very common- it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will be diagnosed in their lifetime. The good news is, skin cancer is very treatable if caught early on, and all you need to perform your own skin exam is yourself and a mirror!

What are Moles?

Moles are extremely common growths on the skin that can vary in size, color, and shape. Most of a person's moles will appear by age 20. Adults should keep an eye on their moles over time, especially if they notice changes. Dermatologists recommend checking your skin at least monthly. Moles can change during puberty, pregnancy, and exposure to sunlight. It is recommended to see your healthcare provider if you notice any unexpected changes or new moles after age 30. Small changes over time are not uncommon, but more drastic evolutions can be a red flag.

Self-Skin Exam

All you need to perform a self-skin exam is yourself, a full-length mirror, and a handheld mirror. First, examine the front of your body in the full-length mirror. Be sure to check all areas of the skin, including under your arms. Turn to check each of your sides, then your back in the same mirror. Next, check your palms, underarms, and forearms. After this, move on to your legs, remembering to check between your toes and the soles of your feet. Now it's time to grab your handheld mirror. Use it to check around your scalp and the back of your neck. Finally, use the handheld mirror to check your backside.

During your skin exam, you will likely find moles scattered throughout your body. If any of these concern you, consult your dermatologist. Keep reading to learn about warning signs you may see in your moles.

Signs Your Mole is Benign

Most moles are benign.  Healthy, benign moles are round in shape, less than 6 mm in diameter, symmetrical, and have an even border. They can match your skin tone or become darker with sunlight.

ABCDE- What to Look For During Your Exam

You may have heard of the ABCDE's of melanoma. Melanoma is a very serious form of skin cancer. ABCDE is a useful acronym to use when checking on your moles, as it tells you what to look out for. The letters stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Evolving. If any of the below signs apply to you, you should have your mole checked by a dermatologist.


The A stands for asymmetry. This means that your mole is uneven- one half does not match the other. Healthy moles are symmetrical and even on all sides. One half of the mole should not look drastically different from the other.


The next letter stands for Border. Most moles are round in shape with an even border. An irregular border is cause for concern. When checking your skin, make sure your moles have a nice round, even border.


C stands for color. It is common for moles to become darker over time and with sun exposure. However, uneven color or colors that are not common on your skin can be signs of trouble. Multiple colors in one mole, drastic color changes, and uneven color in a mole are causes for concern.


D, Diameter, refers to the size of your mole. Healthy moles should be less than 6 mm in diameter. If you don't want to break out your ruler, this is about the size of a pencil eraser. Larger moles should be checked out by your dermatologist.


The final letter, E, stands for evolving. If your mole is unexpectedly changing in size, shape, or color, you should make an appointment with your dermatologist. This is why it is important to check your skin monthly. It is important to notice and report these changes.

The ABCDE signs are not the only reasons to see a dermatologist. If your mole is exhibiting any sign that is concerning, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your dermatologist. If your mole is painful, itchy, or bleeding, these are all reasons to consult your dermatologist.

Visiting Your Dermatologist

You may be wondering what will happen when you see a dermatologist with your concerns. Your provider will examine your skin and look for abnormalities. If they see signs of skin cancer, they will take a biopsy of the area. A biopsy is a tissue sample removed and sent to a lab for testing. The results can tell you if the mole is benign or cancerous. Cancerous moles will need to be completely removed.


By performing a monthly skin exam, you can detect skin cancer early and give yourself the best chance to have optimal outcomes. Be sure to check all areas of your skin, especially the easily forgotten places such as your palms and the soles of your feet. Use the ABCDE acronym to monitor your moles, but see your dermatologist for any concerns you have. When you make an appointment with a dermatologist, they will perform a skin exam and take a biopsy of any concerning areas they find.


Moles: Cleveland Clinic

What is Melanoma? Learn the ABCDE of Moles: Family Caregivers Online

What to look for: ABCDEs of melanoma: American Academy of Dermatology Association

Melanoma-Diagnosis & Treatment: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFME)

Detect skin cancer: How to perform a skin self-exam: American Academy of Dermatology Association

Amanda Shamp BSN, RN is a CVICU nurse with a passion for writing and patient education. She graduated with her BSN in May of 2022.

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Specializes in Health Writer, Registered Nurse.

What a great reminder how we can be our own advocates.  Many patients have to wait months to get into specialists such as dermatology and knowing your own body and concerning skin changes can make such a difference in your health.