What’s the Buzz

Do I Need an Annual Skin Cancer Screening?

cartoon doctor examining patients skin

Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Americans. It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will develop some type of skin cancer during their lifetime. Based on current estimates, some 9,500 people receive a skin cancer diagnosis in the US every day. 

A skin cancer screening can help detect skin cancer in the early stages by identifying any skin lesions, moles, or suspicious spots with an unusual size, shape, color, texture, or irregular borders. 

Please keep reading to learn more about why skin cancer screening is important, who should get screened for skin cancers, and how often you should have a skin cancer exam.

Who is at risk of skin cancers?

The most significant risk factor for skin cancer is excessive exposure to sunlight's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Using indoor tanning beds is also dangerous and can  increase your risk.

Anyone can develop skin cancers. However, people at increased risk include those with:

  • Fair skin, freckles, red or blond hair, and blue or light-colored eyes.
  • More than 50 moles on the body.
  • Family history of melanoma.
  • Personal history of basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Previous history of melanoma (melanoma survivors have an 8 times higher risk of developing melanoma again compared to the general population).

Frequent or intense sun exposure increases the risk for skin cancer. A history of one or more blistering sunburns is a risk factor (experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 increases the risk of melanoma by 80% and the risk of basal and squamous cell skin cancers by 68%).

Before the age of 50, skin cancer is more common in women than men. After age 50, men have higher rates of skin cancer in general. This difference could be due to work-related and recreational UV exposure or lower rates of sun protection use among men. 

It is important to remember that skin cancer can affect people of all skin colors, including darker skin tones. Indeed, it is more difficult to detect skin cancers early in people with darker skin tones. Skin cancer is often more difficult to treat when it is diagnosed in the later stages. 

People with white or fair skin are at greater risk than other races. The occurrence of skin cancer in Whites is almost 30 times more than in African Americans or Asian/Pacific Islanders.

You can reduce your risk of skin cancers by practicing sun safety and using UV protection.

Do I need to perform skin self-exams?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Cancer Society, everyone should perform regular skin self-exams of the entire body. Skin self-exams can help with early skin cancer detection (when it is at a more easily treatable stage). 

Regular skin self-exams are particularly important for people with certain skin cancer risk factors. For example, people with a personal or family history of melanoma have a higher risk of skin cancer and should do regular skin exams. 

A self-check only takes around 10 minutes. It should be done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Experts recommend removing nail polish before the skin check so you can clearly see the nail beds. You should ask a spouse or family member or use a hand mirror to examine hard-to-see areas such as your back, buttocks, and thighs. Marking any moles on a map of the body or taking a photo of any unusual spots can help you keep track of your findings. Remember the ABCDE approach for spotting skin cancer, especially melanomas:

  • Asymmetry - skin cancer moles are usually not perfectly round or symmetrical
  • Borders - borders that aren’t well defined 
  • Color - melahomas are usually more than one pigment or shade
  • Diameter - melanoma growths are usually more than 6mm in diameter, about the thickness of a pencil
  • Evolution - melanoma will often change characteristics, so look for differences in size, color, or shape

When should you see a dermatologist for a skin check?

You should also seek a professional opinion if you notice any warning signs of skin cancer, such as changes in the size, shape, or color of a skin lesion, an irregular mole, or a suspicious-looking mole with an odd shape. Other signs and symptoms that warrant evaluation by a dermatologist or healthcare professional include new skin growths, sores that do not heal, and itching or bleeding lesions.

How often should you get skin cancer screening?

A skin cancer screening is a full-body skin exam. It is a thorough examination (visual inspection) of the skin. You can do it at home or get a professional skin exam from a healthcare provider. 

Most people are recommended to get an annual skin exam from a dermatologist or other healthcare provider. However, people at high risk for skin cancer may need more frequent skin exams. 

Your dermatologist can tell you how often you should get skin checks depending on your risk factors, such as skin type, sun exposure, and history of skin cancer.

Is annual skin screening necessary?

The American Cancer Society and American Dermatology Association recommend skin cancer screenings for people at increased risk, such as those with a personal or family history of skin cancer. An increased risk of skin cancer does not mean you will get skin cancer, but if you do, regular screenings can ensure it is caught early and treated appropriately. Treatments for early skin cancers are more successful than for later-stage cancers.

Is skin cancer screening considered preventive?

A skin cancer screening serves two main functions—it helps detect suspicious moles that may be cancerous and rules out moles and other marks that are not.

If the skin cancer screening detects something concerning, the next step may be a skin biopsy in which a small skin sample is taken and examined under a microscope to check if cancer is present. 

Most of the time, a biopsy tells you that the lesion poses no danger and gives you peace of mind. However, if it does turn out to be any type of skin cancer, your doctor will discuss treatment options.



  1. https://www.aad.org/media/stats-skin-cancer#
  2. https://www.beaumont.org/conditions/melanoma/abcde%27s-of-melanoma