You’re likely aware of the skin health basics — using sunscreen, limiting sun exposure and avoiding the tanning bed, for instance. A regular skin check is a great addition to these; it can help you stay aware of any new freckles, moles and other marks, as well as any changes to existing ones.
This isn’t simply a vanity-driven endeavor, either. A thorough skin check can catch most skin cancers in their early stages, according to the American Cancer Society. This means better therapeutic options if your physician does find a suspicious growth.
Sun and Your Skin: The Basics
A burn is an obvious sign you’ve spent too long in the sun, but the sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage your skin in less immediate ways. Over time, UV light breaks down elastin, the fibers that help keep skin smooth and tight. This causes skin to stretch, sag and wrinkle. Worse, UV rays damage the DNA in skin cells, setting the stage for common cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as for melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.
To protect your skin from the sun, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends staying out of direct sunlight — particularly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. — covering up, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, applying broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 a half-hour before going outdoors and reapplying it every two hours.
Getting to Know Your Skin
The best way to stay on top of skin health is to examine your skin monthly and set up a professional skin check with a dermatologist. When performing a self-check, the American Cancer Society recommends these steps:
- Check your skin in a brightly lit room, ideally in front of a full-length mirror. You can use a hand mirror to view hard-to-see areas like the back of your arms and legs. Ask a loved one to help you examine out-of-reach spots on your back, neck and scalp.
- Facing the mirror, look at your face, ears, neck, chest and abdomen. If you’re female, lift your breasts to check underneath them.
- Check your underarms, arms, hands and fingernails. Don’t forget to look at your palms and between your fingers.
- Sitting down, check your legs, feet, toes and toenails, including the backs of your legs and bottoms of your feet.
- Using the hand mirror, check your back, buttocks, genitals, neck, ears and scalp.
Once you’ve performed your first skin self-check, you’ll become familiar with all your freckles, moles and beauty marks. With this knowledge, you can better notice any changes in the future. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, these developments include:
- Asymmetry, where one side of the mole or mark is different from the other.
- Border, specifically edges that are scalloped or otherwise irregular.
- Color, especially if there are variations in shades of tan, brown, black, white, red or blue.
- Diameter, particularly if the mole is larger than a pencil eraser.
Changes such as these could indicate a more serious issue and merit a trip to your physician.
The Importance of a Professional Skin Check
Although you’re familiar with your own body, it’s a good idea to see your dermatologist for a regular professional skin check, Dr. Masterpol said. Dermatologists are specially trained to identify skin changes, making them the best people to check your skin. A professional full-body skin exam will only take about 10 to 15 minutes. Be sure to ask about any spots or changes that concern you. You should have your skin checked professionally every year. If you have numerous moles or a history of skin cancer, you may need to be seen more often.