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Categories > Skin and Scalp Care > Skin cancer

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Skin check: A step-by-step guide to skin self-exam

» What you’ll need

» What to look for

» The head-to-toe exam

Help prevent skin cancer

In the good old days, women carried parasols and men never left home without a hat. It’s too bad those good ol’ fashions have gone out of style: These days, ozone depletion means the sun’s UV rays can do more damage than ever. Yet taking these simple protective measures can prevent up to 80 percent of skin cancers.

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s damaging rays are strongest.
  • Rain or shine, always wear sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. Apply 20 minutes before going outside to allow your skin to absorb the cream.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothes that completely cover you, including a long-sleeved shirt and a long skirt or pants.
  • Sport sunglasses that offer UV protection.

You may picture a skin-cancer candidate as blond, blue-eyed and deeply tanned. But the truth is, everyone is at risk for the disease. The most common form of cancer, it strikes an estimated 1 million Americans each year and probably accounts for half of all newly diagnosed cancers.

However, by performing a monthly skin self-exam, you can catch potentially cancerous skin conditions when they are still highly curable.

What you’ll need

  • a bright light
  • a full-length mirror
  • a hand mirror
  • a chair
  • a blow-dryer

What to look for

If you notice any of these skin changes, see your physician immediately. He or she can determine if the condition needs further medical attention:

  • any new growths, including sores, lesions, nodules and pearly, waxy, colored or suspicious bumps that may or may not cause pain
  • a change in a spot or in skin color, itching, scaling, bleeding, pain or tenderness

To identify potential malignancies in moles, follow this “ABCDE” checklist:

  • Asymmetry. One half doesn’t match the other in shape.
  • Border. The mole isn’t round, but irregular—with ragged, notched or blurred edges.
  • Color. The mole is not a normal, uniform brown but is instead a varying shade (or shades) of tan, brown, black, red, blue, blue-black or white.
  • Diameter. The mole is about the size of a pencil eraser—a quarter inch in diameter.
  • Evolving. The mole has changed in nature or appearance.

The head-to-toe exam

Use a bright light and check your entire body thoroughly.

  • First inspect your face, ears, head and the inside of your mouth using the hand mirror. The blow-dryer will help part your hair for a closer look at your scalp.
  • Next, examine your hands (including your fingernails and palms), elbows, arms and underarms. Raise your arms and check your right and left sides.
  • Examine your neck, chest and torso. If you’re a woman, check beneath your breasts.
  • Use the hand mirror to carefully look at your back, shoulders and the back of your neck.
  • In the full-length mirror, focus on your buttocks and the backs of your legs.
  • Sit down and examine your genitals.
  • Inspect your legs and feet, including your heels, soles, toenails and the area between your toes.


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