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Here's What Skin Cancer Looks Like, Dermatologists Say

With skin cancer, knowledge is power.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S, with one in five Americans developing it by the age of 70. Most skin cancers are treatable if found early, so knowing what they look like is incredibly important. "People who are at high risk can benefit from yearly visits to a dermatologist for skin checks," says Brian Gastman, MD. "The longer you wait, the more you increase the risk of having to go through more toxic treatments, and the greater the risk of dying. An appointment with a dermatologist can save your life." Here is what skin cancer looks like, according to the experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Basal Cell Carcinoma


Approximately 2 million Americans are diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma (the most common form of cancer worldwide) every year. "Basal cell carcinoma usually occurs in sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your neck or face," says the Mayo Clinic. "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." 


Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Young woman looking at birthmark on her back, skin. Checking benign moles.

Squamous cell carcinoma is commonly linked with people who use tanning beds, have fair, sun damaged skin, or who have a transplanted organ. "SCCs can appear as thick, rough, scaly patches that may crust or bleed," says the Skin Cancer Foundation. "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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Woman in her 30s sits by her living room window with a cup of tea and looks out contemplatively. She is a cancer survivor and is wearing a headscarf.

Melanoma, while uncommon, is the most serious type of skin cancer and can even be inherited through your genes. "Some research shows that about 1 to 2% of melanoma cases are inherited. Some literature says it's higher, maybe closer to 12%," says oncologist Pauline Funchain, MD. "Among my patients, I see two to three each week with cancer that has some kind of familial connection. When you add that up, the number is pretty significant. I would say it's anywhere from 10 to 20%."

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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Be Aware of Unexplained Changes in Skin

close-up of doctors hands checking mans moles

Unexplained changes in your skin—for example a new growth, a mole that changes, or a sore that doesn't heal—are usually the first sign of skin cancer and should never be ignored. "Skin cancer, including melanoma, is often itchy," says Dr. Gastman. "See your doctor if you also notice red, inflamed patches of skin and lasting open sores that bleed, ooze or crust. Also, check your skin regularly for new spots and changes in moles."

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How Can I Protect My Skin?

woman smears face sunscreen at the beach for protection

"Don't use tanning beds. And you can lower your risk by staying out of the sun — but you don't have to live indoors," says Dr. Funchain. "We encourage wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 every day. And you can wear sun-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats. Researchers in Australia, which has a lot of fair-skinned people who receive a lot of sun exposure, conducted a study where half of the participants wore sunscreen daily and the others only when needed. After 20 years, the sunscreen group had half as many instances of melanoma than the other group."

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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