Getting a skin check is not many people’s idea of fun. We get it, life is busy. You spend half of your free time running from place to place, trying to fit in your lengthy to-do list, and when you have an evening off you really just want to crash on the couch and watch Netflix. Trying to fit in one more thing? Not really that appealing. But while a visit to the dentist started before you can remember, it’s hard to nail down when you should start seeing a dermatologist for an annual check-in. And even if you did need to get your skin checked out, where would you even begin? So here is your lowdown on what a skin check is, why you probably need one a lot sooner than you imagined, and why it’s worth taking the time to schedule and go — even if the alternative is a date with your couch, a beer and an episode of Billions. It’s that important!
What is a skin check?
A skin check is a full body exam usually conducted at home or by a dermatologist or primary care provider to ensure that you don’t have any concerning or suspicious spots or moles that should be biopsied for skin cancer. It’s essentially a check-up that lets you know that your skin is healthy and there is nothing to be worried about, as long as you continue to use sunscreen and take other skin health measures. If it’s your first time visiting a dermatologist, you’ll likely be asked for a skin health history alongside the appointment.
How old do I have to be to get my first skin check?
Skin cancers are quite rare in children, but do happen. This means that if there is a concerning spot even in a child, it should get checked out. Once puberty hits, a skin check is recommended whether through the primary care provider or a dermatologist. When it comes to age-related cancers in young adults, melanoma is the #1 most diagnosed cancer among 25 to 29 year olds. Skin cancer doesn’t wait until a certain age to pop-up, so don’t think you can wait until later in your life to start checking in on your skin health.
If you are someone who has a family history of melanoma, lots of moles, light colored eyes or hair, were a user of tanning beds, or have a suppressed immune system, you are more at risk for developing skin cancer and should see a dermatologist for a skin check more often than just once a year, which is the recommended number of visits for those who don’t have an elevated risk of skin cancer.
Is there anything I should do before I get a skin check?
To make sure you maximize the time spent with your dermatologist, be sure to do these five simple things before you arrive:
Be aware of any new or changing spots or pimples/scratches that have not healed in a few weeks that your dermatologist should examine. If you have areas on your back that are of concern that someone has noted, ask them to circle them with a ballpoint pen or sharpie to make sure those areas are checked as well.
Wear your hair down and avoid buns or hair clips that could block your dermatologist from examining your scalp, a place where skin cancer can and does develop.
Remove any nail or toe polish that could inhibit your dermatologist from thoroughly checking your hands and finger and toe nails
Remove the makeup from around your eyes and on your face to aid in the detection of any skin spots on this part of your body, a very common place for skin cancer to develop.
Be ready to get your clothes off.
Write down any questions you might want to ask during your appointment. It’s easy in the moment to forget the questions you wanted to bring up, so be sure to write down a list of any important points you want to address or questions you have about a spot, your skin health, or skin cancer in general.
How do I perform a skin check at home?
Performing a skin check at home can be a great way to supplement your annual trip to the dermatologist or help you know if you have any skin spots of concern to bring up to your dermatologist when you go in for an appointment. An at-home skin check can be quick and easy, and involves just a few simple steps!
After getting undressed, use a full-length mirror to examine the front and back of your body as well as underneath your arms.
Examine your forearms, your palms, between your fingers, and your fingernails.
Check your legs, feet, between your toes, and your toenails.
Use a hand-held mirror to examine the back of your neck and your scalp
Use a hand-held mirror to check any spots on your back you weren’t able to see clearly in the full length mirror, like a close look at your upper thighs, groin, butt, and the middle of your back.
What you are looking for is any spot on your skin that is new or unusual or has been changing over time, especially a mole that is growing or changing. If you have a spot, pimple, or sore that is crusty, continues to itch or bleed, or just doesn’t seem to be healing, that could also be a sign of skin cancer. If you see anything out of the ordinary or that seems like it could be a concern, make a note of it or take a picture so that you can bring it up to your dermatologist during your appointment.
If you wait until a spot “bothers you” such as bleeding or hurting, it often means that the cancer has already become more advanced. Getting spots checked out before they truly become symptomatic and bother you is important. Early detection for skin cancers means much less surgery and higher cure rates. Waiting too late can result in serious consequences, even death. If it is a spot you cannot see, but someone in your household has noticed on your back, ask them to circle it with a pen/sharpie before you leave home so that when you are seen by your healthcare provider, they will pay close attention to any spot that is causing concerns.
How do I know if a spot is skin cancer?
Without a piece of the spot being sent off to a lab for testing (biopsy), there is no way for you to be certain that a spot is cancer. However, like we mentioned above, anything on your skin that is changing sizes, growing darker or changing colors (even pink moles can be cancerous), will not heal after a few weeks, or is unusual and oddly shaped should be on your radar and prompt a call or visit to your dermatologist. It’s also a good idea to get familiar with the ABCDE’s of melanoma and know what warning signs to watch out for. If a mole, birthmark, or spot on your skin feels out of the ordinary or shows any of the common precursors to skin cancer, don’t ignore your gut! When in doubt, check it out.
How long does a mole need to appear to know if it’s skin cancer?
There is no precise timeline for when a mole could become a concern. However, there are some good things to keep in mind that may help you determine when a mole has become a concern. Some melanoma skin cancers (the type that comes from moles) can arise from a longstanding mole (flat or raised, pink, brown or really any color) or a new one.
It is important to know what your moles look like so you can be aware of any changes. If a new mole appears on your skin and proceeds to grow beyond the border, or if it changes color or spreads color to the surrounding area, you don’t want to wait until it begins bleeding or oozing, all of this can be a sign that the mole is cancerous and should be examined by a professional.
As noted above, it is far better to get moles checked out way before they start bleeding or oozing, but this is a sure sign you need an appointment with your dermatologist or doctor ASAP. If the mole or spot does not look like other moles or spots on your body that you have had for years, don’t wait to see if it’s going to develop into anything worse!
What should I expect when getting a skin check?
Your exam will likely be quick and efficient, with your dermatologist or doctor having you put on a medical exam gown and then thoroughly checking the skin all over your body, making sure to check the areas, like your back, scalp, and behind your ears, that would be difficult for you to see an unusual skin spot on without assistant. If you notice your doctor using a small magnifying device, don’t be alarmed, as this is just a dermatoscope that allows them to see both the epidermis and the layers right underneath it.
If your doctor is concerned by any spots they find unusual or suspicious, they will numb the area with a local anesthetic, biopsy the spot by removing a piece of or all of the affected skin and send it off for analysis at a lab. If the spot does end up being precancer or cancer, your doctor will contact you about the next steps and treatment options. It is important that if you have not heard from your provider’s office about your results, you should make sure you reach out. No news is not always good news! Sometimes it really is just no news. It is always important to advocate for yourself and double check that you know your results.
Overall, a skin check might be as quick as just 10 minutes, but the benefits of it may be something that lasts a lifetime. Early detection is absolutely essential when it comes to skin cancer, and a thorough skin check by a professional will help to ensure that you are keeping yourself as healthy and safe as possible when it comes to preventing skin cancer.
How and where do I schedule an appointment for a skin check?
If you don’t already have a dermatologist that you see or have seen before in your area, then find a board certified dermatologist near you that you are comfortable scheduling an appointment with, or see if your primary case physician will conduct a skin check. Call the office and ask for an appointment for a skin screening, also known as a skin check, and then put it on the calendar and show up!
Is getting a skin check really that important?
Yes! Getting a skin check can save your life — that’s something that sounds pretty important to us! And hopefully, it does to you too. Skin cancer that is detected early has a far higher rate of being treated effectively and less invasively, and if you do have a skin cancer spot, it can help you understand how to protect yourself in the future, like knowing how multiple spots may increase your risk of future skin cancer spots or even other cancers.
In the same way that you prioritize your health in other parts of your body, or see your doctor for a check-up or to address a concern you might have, you should have that same attitude towards your skin health. A skin check where no spots are found can give you peace of mind, and a skin check that did end up finding a concerning skin spot will help you to treat it, if necessary, through more effective and less expensive means. It’s a win win!
By knowing what to look for, you can also save someone else from having a serious health problem from skin cancer. This dermatologist has had many patients told by their hairdresser, friend, or family member about a spot that ended up being melanoma. They literally saved their lives! Educate yourself, educate others, and be on the lookout!
Photo courtesy of NeONBRAND through Upsplash