Even the most skincare-savvy individuals would love to get insider intel from a dermatologist. But sometimes, it’s hard to ask a doctor your most burning questions — maybe you believe your concern is too trivial, or you’re embarrassed to get the answer in a face-to-face appointment. That’s why Spotlyte brings you Ask a Derm, a regular column where we have professionals provide the answers to your questions, no matter how big or how small. In this installment of Ask a Derm, Dr. Mona Gohara shares how to tell if that spot on your skin is nothing to worry about, or something more serious — and more information on detecting skin cancer.
Ask any young woman under 25 about her skincare regimen, and you’re bound to hear how essential sunscreen is to her regimen. While Generation Z has been cognizant of the importance of sun protection since birth, most of the earlier generations have had to adjust — physically and mentally — from slathering themselves in baby oil at peak tanning hours to SPF 24/7.
And with good reason — according to Dr. Mona Gohara, skin cancer is a very real risk: it’s the most common cancer in the United States. “1 in 5 Americans will get skin cancer,” she shares. “The incidence of skin cancer is more common than the combined incidence of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancers.”
Unfortunately, attempting to make up for those years of laying out with daily, dutiful SPF application isn’t enough. Warns Dr. Gohara, “Just one severe sunburn can double your lifetime risk of melanoma,” which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. (Remember — there are three types: the very common basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.)
But the forecast isn’t entirely grim. Even if there is a possibility you could get skin cancer, detecting it early could absolutely save your life. Dr. Gohara recommends checking yourself monthly looking for new, different, or changing lesions.
It’s not just moles that you should be looking for (though we’ll get to that!). “Skin cancer can look like anything,” she says. “Anything” could include a pimple that isn’t healing, a weirdly scaly area, an irregular brown patch, or something bleeding. And don’t just quickly scan your body and call it a day. Methodically study every part — even places you think have never seen the light of day.
“Look in your scalp [and on your] genitals, palms, and soles as well,” advises Dr. Gohara. Skin cancer could even appear skin-colored and flat, and practically invisible to the naked eye. That’s why it’s important to also get a professional skin check from a dermatologist every year (or more if you or a family member has had skin cancer), who can best evaluate any new or changing lesions.
When we refer to changing lesions, that could include that mole you’ve had as long as you can remember. Dr. Gohara advises that you monitor your existing marks closely, using what dermatologists call the “ABCDEs:”
- Asymmetry. “Meaning, if you drew a line through the center of the mole and one side of the mole doesn’t equal the other,” she clarifies. That’s a sign of an abnormality.
- Border. If that mark has a jagged or irregular edge, it could be a sign of something more serious.
- Color. Pay attention to the shade of your spot. It should be even, not having “lighter, darker, or variegated pigment.”
- Diameter. Any mole that is “wider than a pencil eraser (6mm)” should be carefully scrutinized by a doctor.
- Evolving. This factor was recently added to the list. “It indicates that any changing mole should be examined,” she explains.
If you’ve observed that a mark has one or more of these characteristics, don’t panic. “It doesn't mean it is absolutely cancerous, but you need to have it examined by a board-certified dermatologist,” says Dr. Gohara.
Anyone with a prior history of skin cancer should absolutely be even more vigilant about any changes on their skin — and not just because they’ve already gone through the experience of having it. “One skin cancer puts you at a 30 percent risk for another,” she warns. And as nerve-wracking as that sounds, it’s not a reason to give up on wearing sunscreen. Prevention still goes a long way to protect your skin and your health. So, remember — always wear SPF — a minimum of SPF 30 — reapplying every two hours if you’re outside or after swimming or sweating.