10 Places You’re Ignoring When You Check for Skin Cancer
A head-to-toe monthly check is your best defense against nonmelanoma and more serious melanoma cancers.
Before you begin
Ideally, the best time to do a self-exam is when you’re already naked, such as before or after you shower or bathe. “We recommend performing monthly skin exams so any new or changing lesions can be detected early,” says surgical and cosmetic dermatologist Adele Haimovic, MD, an associate at the office of Lance H. Brown, MD. But it can be difficult to remember where you spotted something or if a mole really grew or changed color from one month to the other. “Making a note in a journal is a great idea, and taking pictures are even better! It’s always easy to reference a phone picture and then there is little question if it has changed,” says Dr. Haimovic.
Between your toes
When you’re slathering on sunscreen, it’s easy to skip over the areas in between your toes. It’s even more common to completely ignore this area when doing a skin cancer self-check. If you discover pink, pearly, or scaly spots or sores that won’t heal, it could be a sign of a nonmelanoma skin cancer says Dr. Haimovic. Luckily, nonmelanoma skin cancer is highly curable if found and treated early. “For melanomas, we want to check for a new brown or black spot. However, melanomas can lack pigment and present as a pink or red spot,” says Dr. Haimovic.
Your eyes and eyelids
Even if you have an assortment of sunglasses that protect your peepers, you shouldn’t ignore your eyelids and eyebrows when checking for skin cancer. The eyelids are one of the most common sites for nonmelanoma skin cancers, says Steven Wang, MD, dermatologist and founder of Dr. Wang Herbal Skincare. The lower eyelid is where the cancer turns up most often around the eye, followed by the inner eyelid. If you discover lumps and bumps that bleed or don’t go away, swollen eyelids or red eye that doesn’t respond to medication, unexplained loss of eyelashes, or the sudden appearance of flat or pigmented lesions with irregular growth and borders, call your doctor.
The outside of your ear is full of all kinds of nooks and crannies, like the concha cymba and antihelix area. Those curvy features are often overlooked because we tend to focus on the bigger area of the earlobe. Dr. Wang says to look for legions that are raised, have multiple colors or bleeding.
Genitals and the anus. Really? Yep, especially if you like to sunbathe sans swimsuit or lie nude in a tanning bed. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States each year are linked to indoor tanning, including about 6,200 melanomas. Melanomas may begin elsewhere in the body and spread to another site like genitals or the anus. A handheld mirror or one that is magnified will help you get a closer look for bumps, lumps, moles, and changes in the appearance of the skin.
Under your nails
You would think fingernails and toenails would be pretty noticeable because we use our hands all the time. But it’s a commonly missed spot. During your monthly check, be sure to remove any fingernail or toenail polish. “For melanoma, we are looking for a dark streak on the nail, darkening of the skin next to the nail, and any spots that look like a bruise without known trauma and does not grow out with the nail,” says Dr. Haimovic.
Under your boobs
A painful pimple or sebaceous cyst on your bra line is probably the only time you glance under your boobs, but you should check for skin cancer signs while you do your monthly breast self-exam. “Under the breast, we are looking for new or changing moles and pink or skin-colored pearly pimples or scaley bumps that do not resolve,” says Dr. Haimovic. Use a hand-held mirror to get a closer look.
Search your sole
Non-melanomas on the soles of the feet aren’t very common but that doesn’t mean you should skip this area. If you notice a bump, a scaly red patch, a sore, or a wart-like spot—and especially if any of those things bleed, get crusty, or ooze—get checked out. Dr. Haimovic says to watch for any new brown or black spots. But remember that melanomas can lack pigment and appear pink or red. Be especially mindful of your soles and palms if you are a person of color. According to the Skin Care Foundation, dark skin is more susceptible to acral lentiginous melanoma, a very dangerous type of melanoma.
It may be easier if you have your partner or a friend help you check your scalp. It’s also a good idea to ask your hairstylist to let you know if they see something that looks suspicious. “Look for raised lesions with multiple colors or bleeding. Take advantage of the time when you are drying your hair with a hairdryer,” says Dr. Wang. Pay attention to the top of your head, any areas where your hair is thinning, and any part in your hair.
Open wide and get a mirror because skin cancer can be lurking here too. Look closely under your tongue, inside your cheeks, and the roof of your mouth. If you have something similar to a canker sore that doesn’t completely heal in three weeks or gets larger, make an appointment. Do the same if you see dark red or white patches inside your mouth. Dr. Wang says people who expose their mouth to extreme heat from smoking pipes and other tobacco products have a higher risk of getting skin cancer here.
“Another tricky place that people should make sure to check is in tattoos,” says Dr. Haimovic.”Both non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancer can hide in your tattoo, leading to a delay in diagnosis.” Plus getting inked doesn’t exclude your skin from getting skin cancer. In fact, exposure to ultraviolet light can fade some inks and increase your risk of getting skin cancer.
Next up: Learn about 15 skin cancer myths you need to stop believing.
- Adele Haimovic, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist and an associate at the office of Lance H. Brown, MD
- Steven Wang, MD, dermatologist and founder of Dr. Wang Herbal Skincare
- Skin Cancer Foundation: "Focus on Eyelid Skin Cancers: Early Detection and Treatment"
- Skin Cancer Foundation: "Skin Cancer Facts & Statistics"