Why It’s So Important to Protect and Examine Your Skin
The skin is the largest organ of the human body—and like all our organs, skin is vulnerable to infection and disease. While we are generally aware of some changes in our skin, the ones we don’t notice can often cause the most harm when left unchecked.
Numerous factors, genetic and otherwise, may put you at increased risk of skin cancer. These can include reduced immunity, genetic predisposition and excessive unprotected exposure to the sun. Even on overcast days—and even in winter—the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays come into the atmosphere. Over a lifetime, all this sun exposure adds up. That’s why it’s important to regularly examine your skin for signs of trouble.
What Should You Look for When Checking Your Skin?
There are many different types of skin cancer and it may not necessarily be obvious to the untrained eye. While there are many types of skin cancer that show up on parts of the body more commonly exposed to the sun, such as the scalp, face, neck, arms and hands, skin cancer can form on any part of the body.
The key thing to look for when examining your skin is anything that has changed or is new. Pay special attention to any of the following:
- A new spot, bump, blemish or mole. Some types of skin cancer can even look like a pimple or zit, with the difference being that the spot doesn’t go away over time.
- Any red or scaly patches of skin that might occasionally bleed or crust over.
- Anything that looks like a wart.
- A sore that does not seem to heal and might bleed.
- Moles that change in diameter, texture or color, that appear to have more than one color or that have irregular borders.
If you find any of these things, that does not necessarily mean you should worry—as our bodies age, we naturally develop many blemishes that are perfectly harmless. But you should see a dermatologist, who has the specialized training needed to differentiate between a benign mole and something more serious.
What Is the Best Way to Check Your Skin?
A proper skin self-exam means more than simply glancing in a mirror as you exit the shower. There are specific signs you’ll want to look for. If you have children, you should also periodically examine their skin, as skin cancer doesn’t discriminate based on age. That said, survival rates for skin cancer are high when detection and treatment happen early. The good news is, once you learn the following step-by-step process, it can easily become a simple routine.
- Conduct your self-exam in a well-lit room with access to a full-length mirror. If possible, have someone you trust, such as a spouse or parent, available to examine your back, the top of your head and other hard-to-see areas. If you’re flying solo, a handheld mirror will come in handy.
- Face the mirror and check your face, ears, neck, chest and belly. Women will need to lift the breasts to examine the skin underneath; men will need to do the same with the scrotum.
- Next, check your underarm areas, both sides of your arms, the tops and palms of your hands, in between your fingers and even under your fingernails. That’s skin too!
- Now, sit down. Check the front of your thighs and shins, the tops of your feet, in between your toes and under your toenails.
- Then, use a handheld mirror to look at the bottoms of your feet, your calves and the backs of your thighs, first checking one leg, then the other.
- Use the handheld mirror, or ask someone you trust, to check your buttocks, genital area, lower and upper back and the back of your neck and ears. It may be easier to look at your back in the wall mirror with the help of the hand mirror.
- Finally, use a comb or hair dryer to part your hair to examine your scalp.
If it’s your first time doing a self-examination, prepare to spend a little extra time and take mental notes of any marks on your body—even those that look like a temporary blemish or that mole you’ve always had. If you think you’ll forget, you can take pictures of questionable areas. This will help you notice in the future if there have been any sudden or distinct changes.
The American Cancer Society recommends a self-exam once a month, particularly for people that are at high risk. You should also visit a dermatologist annually for a routine examination. This is especially helpful when learning the areas of your body that need special attention.
Checking your skin is an easy and effective way to help protect yourself from skin cancer. With minimal effort, and as part of a holistic, healthy skin-care regimen, you’ll not only help preserve your long-term health—you’ll also keep your skin looking great and can help slow the aging process while you’re at it.
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