What to Expect at a Skin Cancer Screening

  • Young Girl Nail Biting
    Consider a yearly skin exam if you have a history of skin cancer.
    Generally, people with fair skin, blond or red hair, blue or green eyes, many moles, or skin that easily burns or freckles have a higher risk of skin cancer. Health experts recommend that everyone perform monthly self-skin exams to look for changes. However, if you fall into one or more of the above risk groups, or have a personal or family history of skin cancer, you should see a dermatologist at least yearly for a skin exam. Here's what to expect.

  • Patient in doctors office
    A skin cancer screening is a visual, tactile, and painless examination of your skin.
    A skin cancer screening is a simple, visual examination of your skin. It is not painful, and does not involve needles or lab tests. A skin cancer screening takes about 30 minutes to complete. This small time investment could save your life. When skin cancer, including melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—is detected early, it is highly treatable.

  • Group of doctors
    A dermatologist or other skin specialist performs a skin cancer screening.
    When you visit a dermatology practice for a skin cancer screening, you will see a highly trained healthcare provider. Depending on the practice, you may see a dermatologist, dermatology resident, or an advanced practice provider, such as a physician assistant or nurse practitioner. If you have a preference for the type of provider or the provider’s gender, let the receptionist know when you call to make the appointment.

  • Dermatologist looking at moles on women's back
    Your provider looks at all areas of your body.
    Skin cancer screenings in a dermatology practice are usually full-body examinations. You will undress and use a sheet or gown for modesty. The healthcare provider will examine all areas of your body, including your scalp, face, neck, chest, abdomen, back, buttocks, and extremities. He or she will also check between your fingers and toes, behind your ears, and possibly inside your lips. No need to be self-conscious, your dermatologist has truly seen it all before! And if you are at a public screening clinic, your exam will only include areas that are normally exposed.

  • Dermatologist examines a mole
    They may use a magnifying glass to take a closer look at some areas.
    During your skin cancer screening, your healthcare provider may use a magnifying glass or an instrument called a dermoscope. A dermoscope has a light and magnifies the skin to better see the skin. It does not touch your skin and is not painful.

  • closeup image of ringworm (tinea), a fungal skin infection
    You may need a biopsy to check suspicious-looking spots for cancer.
    If your provider sees a suspicious area, he or she will likely take a biopsy and send it to a pathologist. The pathologist will use a microscope to examine the skin tissue and determine whether it is cancerous or not. A biopsy is a quick office procedure and the results are usually available within a week. Your doctor will talk to you about the results. If your provider finds a precancerous area, he or she may freeze the area without taking a biopsy. Freezing kills the cells.

  • Calendar showing date circled in blue
    You should have a skin cancer screening at least once a year.
    Recommendations vary depending on your risk factors. Generally, people with skin cancer risk factors—family history, multiple moles, or fair skin that burns easily—should see a dermatologist annually. If you’ve had nonmelanoma skin cancer or precancerous lesions, you may need screening every six months. And if you’ve had melanoma, you may need to visit your doctor more frequently.

  • Health Insurance on paper being held in a hand
    You have an option of free skin cancer screenings if you can’t afford one.
    If you don’t have healthcare coverage or can’t afford an exam, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) offers free screenings. Visit the AAD’s website to find a free screening location near you.

  • Woman examining face
    Check your skin monthly to help catch skin cancer early.
    Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with one in five Americans developing it in their lifetime. The good news is that skin cancer, even melanoma, is highly curable when it is detected early. And you are the key to early detection. Make sure you are checking your skin monthly and know what is normal for you. If you find something that doesn’t look right, see a dermatologist right away. And schedule an annual skin cancer screening.

What to Expect at a Skin Cancer Screening

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. What You Need to Know About Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers: Risk Factors. National Institutes of Health. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/wyntk-skin-cancer
  2. Skin Cancer Screening (PDQ). National Institutes of Health. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/patient/skin-screening-pdq#section/all
  3. What to expect at a SPOTme skin cancer screening. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/spot-skin-cancer/community-programs-events/spotme-skin-cancer-screenings/what-to...
  4. Skin cancer: Diagnosis, treatment, and outcome. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/q---t/skin-cancer/diagnosis-treatment
  5. Actinic keratosis: Diagnosis, treatment, and outcome. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/a---d/actinic-keratosis/diagnosis-tre...
  6. Skin Cancer Information. Skin Cancer Foundation. http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information.
  7. Skin cancer: Tips for preventing and finding. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/dermatology-a-to-z/diseases-and-treatments/q---t/skin-cancer/tips.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jun 30
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