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How to Do an Honest Skin Assessment

Performing self checks is key to avoiding skin cancer.
Performing self checks is key to avoiding skin cancer.
Garry Wade/Getty Images

You've lived in it your entire life and you see it every single day. But how well do you actually know your skin? Whether you're a beauty product junkie or use nothing but bar soap, there are enormous benefits to understanding your body's largest organ. It can save you money by guiding your skin-care purchases, alert you to chronic or acute conditions, and even help you fight skin cancer. And that's just for starters.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you thoroughly check your birthday suit once a year, and then follow up with a board-certified dermatologist about any concerns [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation's more rigorous guidelines, it's wise to perform a head-to-toe self-examination every month, checking for marks that might be cancerous or precancerous [source: Skin Cancer Foundation].

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So should you aim for monthly or yearly skin assessments, or perhaps something in between? Ultimately, it's your call, but you'll want to conduct more frequent checks if you or someone in your family has had skin cancer or a precancerous lesion, or if you simply get a lot of sun exposure. For help with timing your self-exams, make an appointment with a dermatologist and see what they suggest. Then read on for more about the process.

As part of your skin assessment, you'll want to take stock of your skin's overall appearance and texture. Is it dry or oily? Irritated or clear? Are there areas of redness or flakiness? Breakouts, wrinkles or age spots? Do you have extremely fair skin that burns easily, puffiness under the eyes or any other bothersome conditions?

This general examination will help you identify your skin type as well as any ongoing cosmetic issues. Skin types include oily, dry, normal, combination and sensitive, while common skin concerns range from persistent acne and sun damage to melasma (a patchy brown discoloration) and rosacea [source: Cleveland Clinic].

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Knowing your skin type and keeping tabs on any persistent problems will allow you to make smarter decisions when choosing over-the-counter and prescription products, potentially saving you money. For example, those with chronically dry skin should steer clear of harsh foaming cleansers, which strip away natural oils, while acne sufferers should avoid ingredients like coconut oil and avocado [source: Baumann]. There's nothing worse than spending a fortune on a fancy new product, only to realize it makes you break out, parches your skin or triggers an eczema flare-up.

While this initial step might seem simple, it's not always straightforward, says dermatologist Doris Day. For instance, many people believe they have adult acne but actually suffer from rosacea, a condition exacerbated by certain foods, alcohol, stress and changes in temperature, she notes. Since some topical acne medications worsen rosacea, the distinction is an important one. So if your general examination raises any questions, consult with a dermatologist before following a treatment plan.

The second part of an honest skin assessment involves inspecting your entire body for new or changing moles and markings. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should examine your body from head to toe, making sure to check easy-to-overlook areas like your scalp, the soles of your feet and the backs of your legs [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. For best results, perform your inspection in a very bright room, using both a full-length mirror and a hand mirror [source: Skin Cancer Foundation]. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends this eight-step skin self-exam.

As you perform your self-exam, be on the lookout for any moles, blemishes, bumps and lesions. Take note of moles with uneven borders, differences in color, asymmetric halves or a diameter greater than 4 millimeters [source: Puniewska]. Since these can be warning signs of skin cancer, you should see a doctor if you notice anything suspicious. A mole you've had forever that seems to have undergone a change is also a red flag, Day says. "If something that's always been there all of a sudden looks different, you should bring it to the attention of your dermatologist," she explains.

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Many skin growths, such as seborrheic keratosis and cherry hemangiomas, are very common but completely benign, so don't panic if you notice a new mark, Day says. She recommends annual screenings with a dermatologist, which will help you understand the moles and bumps you already have. "You'll have your own personal map of what to look out for, what's there, what's okay," she says.

Then, Day suggests, follow up the yearly appointment with periodic self-exams. "If you do a regular skin check -- let's say once every two to three months -- you get to know the spots that you have," she says. "You get to see what's stable and what's evolving."

For more information about skin types, skin cancer and when to see a dermatologist, check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "How to perform a self-exam." (September 4, 2013) http://www.aad.org/spot-skin-cancer/understanding-skin-cancer/how-do-i-check-my-skin/how-to-perform-a-self-exam
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Skin cancer prevention tips." (September 4, 2013) http://www.aad.org/spot-skin-cancer/understanding-skin-cancer/how-do-i-prevent-skin-cancer/skin-cancer-prevention-tips
  • Baumann, Leslie. "Save Money: Know Your Skin Type." Yahoo! Health. February 25, 2009. (September 4, 2013) http://health.yahoo.net/experts/skintype/save-money-know-your-skin-type/
  • Cleveland Clinic. "Know Your Own Skin Type Before Choosing Skin Care Products." (September 4, 2013) http://my.clevelandclinic.org/healthy_living/skin_care/hic_know_your_own_skin_type_before_choosing_skin_care_products.aspx
  • Day, Doris. Personal interview. August 26, 2013.
  • Puniewska, Maggie. "How to Perform a Self-Exam for Skin Cancer." Health.com. August 23, 2013. (September 4, 2013) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/perform-exam-skin-cancer/story?id=20029182#
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Early Detection and Self Exams." (September 4, 2013) http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/early-detection
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. "Step by Step Self-Examination." (September 4, 2013) http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/early-detection/step-by-step-self-examination

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