How to Recognize The Early Signs of Skin Cancer
by Laurie Wertich; Medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 9/20/2018
Any changes to your skin should be discussed promptly with your healthcare provider. In particular, the following lists of abnormalities may be signs of non-melanoma skin cancer or melanoma.
Signs of Non-melanoma Skin Cancer
- A sore that does not heal.
- Areas of the skin that are:
- Small, raised, smooth, shiny, and waxy.
- Small, raised, and red or reddish-brown.
- Flat, rough, red or brown, and scaly.
- Scaly, bleeding, or crusty.
- Similar to a scar and firm.
Signs of Melanoma Skin Cancer
- Change in the size, shape, color, or feel of an existing mole.
- A black or blue-black area.
- A new mole that may be black, abnormal, or “ugly looking.”
- In particular, watch closely for these characteristics in new and existing moles:
- Border—edges are often ragged, notched, blurred, or irregular in outline; the pigment may spread into the surrounding skin.
- Color—color is uneven. Shades of black, brown, and tan may be present. Areas of white, grey, red, pink, or blue also may be seen.
- Diameter—is a change in size, usually an increase. Melanomas are usually larger than the eraser of a pencil (1/4 inch or 5 millimeters).
How to Do a Skin Self-Exam
Your doctor or nurse may suggest that you do a regular skin self-exam to check for skin cancer, including melanoma.The best time to do this exam is after a shower or bath. You should check your skin in a room with plenty of light. You should use a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror. It’s best to begin by learning where your birthmarks, moles, and other marks are and their usual look and feel.Check for anything new:
- New mole (that looks different from your other moles)
- New red or darker color flaky patch that may be a little raised
- New flesh-colored firm bump
- Change in the size, shape, color, or feel of a mole
- Sore that does not heal
Check yourself from head to toe. Don’t forget to check your back, scalp, genital area, and between your buttocks.
- Look at your face, neck, ears, and scalp. You may want to use a comb or a blow dryer to move your hair so that you can see better. You also may want to have a relative or friend check through your hair. It may be hard to check your scalp by yourself.
- Look at the front and back of your body in the mirror. Then, raise your arms and look at your left and right sides.
- Bend your elbows. Look carefully at your fingernails, palms, forearms (including the undersides), and upper arms.
- Examine the back, front, and sides of your legs. Also look around your genital area and between your buttocks.
- Sit and closely examine your feet, including your toenails, your soles, and the spaces between your toes.
Bu checking your skin regularly, you will learn what is normal for you. It may be helpful to record the dates of your skin exams and to write notes about the way your skin looks. If your doctor has taken photos of your skin, you can compare your skin to the photos to help check for changes. If you find anything unusual, see your doctor.National Cancer Institute. What You Need to Know About™ Skin Cancer. NIH Publication 05-1564.
National Cancer Institute. Skin Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) Patient Version. Available at:
National Cancer Institute. What You Need to Know About™ Melanoma. Available at: