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Here's What Skin Cancer Looks Like, Say Dermatologists

Don’t ignore these signs of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. and worldwide, with basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma being the most common types of skin cancer. Knowing what skin cancer looks like is crucial for keeping on top of your health—here are some signs and symptoms to be on the alert for. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


An Unexplained Change In Your Skin

skin exam

According to the CDC, a change in your skin is the first and most common sign of skin cancer. A sore that doesn't heal, a new growth, or a mole that changes are all possible symptoms of skin cancer and should be examined by a health professional. "It's important to go to your dermatologist and have an annual exam," says Evelyn Jones, MD, a dermatologist and owner of WellSprings Dermatology and WellSprings SkinCare in Paducah, Kentucky. "But I also like to tell people—the first of every month, get in the habit of looking at their skin and becoming familiar with it."

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Basal Cell Carcinoma

woman looking at red acne spots on chin in mirror, upset young female dissatisfied by unhealthy skin

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of cancer in the world, says the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), with an estimated 2 million Americans being diagnosed every year. What does basal cell carcinoma look like? According to the Mayo Clinic, "Basal cell carcinoma usually occurs in sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your neck or face. Basal cell carcinoma may appear as a pearly or waxy bump, a flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion, a bleeding or scabbing sore that heals and returns." 

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Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)

close-up of doctors hands checking mans moles

Squamous cells are found throughout the human body, and sit near the surface of our skin, protecting the tissue underneath. While squamous cell carcinoma can happen to anyone, it is more common in people who live with a transplanted organ, people who have used (or are still using) tanning beds, or those who have fair skin that has become sun damaged. What does squamous cell carcinoma look like? According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, "SCCs can appear as thick, rough, scaly patches that may crust or bleed. They can also resemble warts, or open sores that don't completely heal. Sometimes SCCs show up as growths that are raised at the edges with a lower area in the center that may bleed or itch."

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dermatologist examining mole on back of male patient in clinic

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer due to how fast it can spread, but thankfully it is not the most common. Here is the commonly-used AAD's "ABCDEs" to spot signs of melanoma:  


  • A is for Asymmetry: One half of the spot is unlike the other half.
  • B is for Border: The spot has an irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined border.
  • C is for Color: The spot has varying colors from one area to the next, such as shades of tan, brown or black, or areas of white, red, or blue.
  • D is for Diameter: While melanomas are usually greater than 6 millimeters, or about the size of a pencil eraser, when diagnosed, they can be smaller.
  • E is for Evolving: The spot looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color.

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How Can I Protect My Skin?

woman smears face sunscreen at the beach for protection

Wear sunscreen daily, use sun-protective clothing, eat an anti-inflammatory diet, avoid indoor tanning, and keep an eye on your skin—and if there is any doubt whatsoever, visit a dermatologist and have a full examination. "The American Academy of Dermatology encourages individuals to perform these self-skin exams on occasion to be in touch with how your skin looks because almost half of melanomas are self-detected," says Klint Peebles, MD, a dermatologist in Washington and suburban Maryland at Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. "The self-skin exams actually become even more important for those at higher risk of skin cancer such as people with a personal or family history of skin cancer. Sometimes I will recommend, at the very least, making it a habit on your birthday of doing a full self-exam. If it's your birthday, get yourself in your birthday suit and get familiar with what's on your skin. Also, keep in mind that skin cancer can happen anywhere where there's skin—not just sun exposed areas."

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Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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