What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?
Learn the types of skin cancer—and what skin cancer really looks like—so you can better protect yourself this summer and beyond.
It's July and you're probably well on your way to developing your summer tan. You probably assume that if you're wearing SPF and not burning that you're in the clear when it comes to skin cancer. The truth? There's no such thing as a healthy tan. Seriously. That's because both tans and sunburns result in DNA damage that can pave the way to skin cancer. (Related: Sunburn Remedies to Soothe Scorched Skin)
Prevention, like wearing SPF daily, is step one—but understanding what skin cancer looks like could save your life. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer before age 70, making it the most common cancer in the U.S. In 2019, 192,310 people will be diagnosed and about 2,500 women will die of skin cancer.
As you've likely heard before, a person's risk for melanoma doubles if they have had five or more sunburns in their life, says Hadley King, M.D., a dermatologist in NYC. A family history of skin cancer will also increase your risk. Still, everyone with sun or other UV exposure (like from tanning beds) is at risk of developing skin cancer. (See also: This New Device Looks Like Nail Art But Tracks Your UV Exposure.)
"Skin could be snow white or chocolate brown but you're still at risk," says Charles E. Crutchfield III, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. However, it's true that people with fair skin have less melanin, and therefore less protection against UV rays, which increases the risk of getting a tan or sunburn. In fact, a melanoma diagnosis is 20 times more likely in whites than in African Americans. The concern with people of color is that skin cancer is often diagnosed later and in more advanced stages, when it's more difficult to treat.
Now that you have the basic risk factors down, it's time to move on to the not-so-pretty part. If you've ever felt worried about a suspicious mole or abnormal skin changes or Googled 'what does skin cancer look like?' then read on.
What Does Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Look Like?
Skin cancer is categorized as melanoma and non-melanoma. The most common type of skin cancer is non-melanoma and there are two types: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Both types are directly correlated with your total cumulative lifetime sun exposure and development in the epidermis, aka the outermost layer of your skin, says Dr. King. (Related: How Docs Protect Themselves from Skin Cancer.)
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)
Basal cell carcinomas are most common in the head and neck. BCCs typically show up as an open sore or skin-colored, red, or sometimes dark-colored bump with a pearly or translucent border that appears rolled. BCCs can also appear as a red patch (that may itch or hurt), a shiny bump, or a waxy, scar-like area.
While the most frequently occurring type of skin cancer, they rarely spread beyond the original site. Basal cell carcinomas are usually surgically removed and require no additional treatment, says Dr. King.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
Squamous cell carcinomas, the second most common form of skin cancer, often look like scaly red or skin-colored patches, open sores, warts, or elevated growths with a central depression and may crust or bleed.
They will also need to be surgically removed, but are more serious because they can spread to the lymph nodes and have about a five to 10 percent mortality rate in the United States, says Dr. King.
Melanoma Skin Cancer
Whether you love your moles, hate them, or want them removed, it's important to know what they look like and how they've evolved because melanoma skin cancer often develops from mole cells. While not the most common, melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. When diagnosed and treated early, melanoma is curable, however, it can spread to other parts of the body and become fatal if gone untreated. This is why it's so important to know what skin cancer looks like. The American Cancer Society estimates that currently more than 135,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year and about 9,600 will be fatal. Unlike non-melanoma skin cancer, the sun exposure pattern believed to result in melanoma is that of brief, intense exposure—for example one blistering sunburn, rather than years of tanning, says Dr. King.
What does it look like: Melanomas generally appears as a dark lesion with irregular borders, says Dr. Crutchfield. Decoding doctor speak, a lesion is any abnormal change in skin tissue, like a mole. Knowing your skin's baseline is key so that you can notice any new moles or changes in existing moles or freckles.
What are the ABCDE's of moles?
This is a tried and true way to answer: What does skin cancer look like. The method of identifying cancerous moles is called the "ugly duckling sign" because you're looking for the odd one; the mole that is a different size, shape, or color than the surrounding moles. The ABCDE's of moles will teach you how to spot skin cancer, the ugly ducks if you will. (You can visit the American Academy of Dermatology website for more images of how to spot the suspicious moles.)
A: Asymmetry: If you could "fold" a mole in half, both sides of an irregular one would not line up evenly.
B: Border irregularity: Border irregularity is when a mole has a crooked or jagged edge rather than a round, smooth edge.
C: Color variation: Some moles are dark, some are light, some are brown, and some are pink but all moles should be the same color throughout. A darker ring or different colored splotches (brown, tan, white, red, or even blue) in a mole should be monitored.
D: Diameter: A mole should be no larger than 6 mm. A mole larger than 6 mm, or one that grows, should be checked by a derm.
E: Evolving: A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape, or color.
Any other warning signs of skin cancer?
Skin lesions and moles that itch, bleed, or won't heal are also possible alarm signals of skin cancer. If you notice the skin is bleeding (for instance, while using a washcloth in the shower) and does not heal on its own within three weeks, go see your dermatologist, says Dr. Crutchfield.
How often should you check for skin cancer?
Yearly skin exams are typically recommended as a preventative measure, says Dr. Crutchfield. In addition to a head-to-toe exam, they can also take photos of any suspicious moles. (Related: Why You Should Get a Skin Cancer Screening at the End of Summer)
A monthly skin-check at home is recommended to check for new lesions or to monitor any changes in atypical moles. Do the skin-check by standing naked in front of a full-length mirror, in a room with good lighting, holding a hand mirror, says Dr. King. (Don't miss forgotten spots like your scalp, between your toes, and nail beds). Get a friend or partner to do a check of hard to see places like your back.
Bottom line: There are many types of skin cancer, each of which can look different person to person—so go see your doc if you notice any marks on your skin that are new or changing or worrisome.
Dr. Crutchfield's best advice for identifying what does skin cancer look like is easy to remember because it will likely remind you of a childhood book: "see spot, see spot change, see a dermatologist."