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Everything You Need to Know About Skin Exams

By Mathew Loesch, DO, PhD

In the United States, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined.[i]  The best way to detect and treat skin cancer early is by scheduling an annual skin examination with your dermatologist. 

A skin exam may seem intimidating if you don’t know what to expect. Dermatologist Dr. Mathew Loesch shares tips on how to prepare for a skin exam, what to expect during your appointment and next steps.

Scheduling your full skin exam

As soon as you either need to or want to be seen by a dermatologist for a full skin check, reach out to make an appointment. If you need a referral from your primary care physician, be sure that they place an order before scheduling your dermatology appointment. When scheduling your exam, it is important to clarify that your appointment will be for a full skin examination or full skin check.

Preparing for your exam 

Prior to your appointment, you should self-examine your skin and take note of any spots or concerns you would like addressed, this includes any areas that have changed, itched, have a burning sensation, bled for no reason or have not healed. 

When examining your own skin, the ABC Method and Ugly Duckling techniques are helpful in determining which spots or areas of skin should be focused on during your in-office exam.

Also, it is helpful to record any past skin conditions with any of the treatments performed and your family history of skin cancer as these will be helpful for your dermatologist during the examination.

Additionally, it is recommended that you remove all makeup and nail polish before your appointment.

During your exam

At the exam, you will be asked to put on a medical gown. When you are ready, your dermatologist will enter and introduce him/herself. During this time, it is important to discuss previous skin conditions and areas you would like reviewed more closely during the exam. Also, be sure to mention whether or not you have a family history of skin cancer.

Your dermatologist will begin the exam and cover all areas of your skin and hair, from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. During the exam, a specialized magnified glass and light may be used to better observe suspicious spots or places you expressed concern for during your introduction.  

A suspicious spot

If your dermatologist is suspicious about a spot on your skin, he/she may consider performing a skin biopsy in order to test for a certain skin condition or disease.

To perform the biopsy, they will inject a numbing anesthetic directly into the area under and around the spot in question and either perform a shave or punch biopsy.

A shave biopsy, the most commonly used technique, is used for superficial lesions like a suspicious mole and removes a thin disk of tissue that can be tested for cancer cells. A punch biopsy is used for lesions that require a deeper incision in order to extract a larger sample.

Performing a biopsy allows for a dermatopathologist, a specialized physician trained in skin pathology, to examine the mole under a microscope and determine if it is benign or cancerous.

Next steps

If a biopsy was performed, healing will depend on the size and depth of the biopsy, where it was located and other medical conditions you may have. In general, most biopsy sites heal within two to three weeks. Biopsies are processed and read in one to two weeks and your dermatologist or a nurse will contact you with the results.

If the spot was found to be benign, no follow-up is needed until your next annual skin exam. If the spot was found to be abnormal, your dermatologist or a nurse will contact you to discuss next steps pending the pathology report. 

If you are ready to take the next step in detecting and treating skin cancer early, learn more about out dermatology physians and locations or schedule an appointment online with a dermatologist


[i] Cancer Facts and Figures 2019. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/research/cancer-facts-statistics/all-cancer-facts-figures/cancer-facts-figures-2019.html. Accessed January 14, 2019.

Topics and Subtopics: Skin Health

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