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What to Expect with a Full Skin Exam

Having a skin examination with your dermatologist can be the easiest and quickest skin cancer screening you will ever undergo. For the most part, you just show some skin, the doctor looks at you painlessly, and you leave the office 15 minutes later. On the other hand, the exam is a very big deal because those 15 minutes can save your life.

Before you arrive

  • To get the best value from regular skin exams, it makes sense to do a few things beforehand.
  • Do a thorough self exam so that you can call the doctor's attention to anything that concerns you. Write it down, including where it is on your body, so you don't forget.
  • Make a note of any personal or family history of skin cancer. Either of these increases your chance of future skin cancers and will make the doctor all the more vigilant.
  • Remove any polish from your fingernails and toenails, so the doctor has a clear view of the nails and of the skin beneath the nails, where skin cancers can grow.
  • Remove all makeup and lipstick. Many skin cancers arise on the face, and some particularly risky precancerous and cancerous growths occur on the lips, so you want the most unobstructed view possible.

At the doctor's office

  • At the start of the visit, give the doctor your personal and family skin cancer history and mention any spots you are worried about. The dermatologist may check the specific lesions first, explaining to you why they do or don't look suspicious.
  • If the exam is going to be complete, the dermatologist will ask you to undress completely. That includes socks, jewelry, and underwear. You can always decline, but remember that the point of a total body exam is that skin cancers can grow anywhere in your body, even in areas rarely exposed to the sun. Many doctors provide a hospital gown, which can be lowered and raised to easily isolate one area to examine at a time, so that you're not sitting around feeling exposed. You can also ask for a medical attendant to be in the room or to leave the room, depending on what makes you feel most comfortable.
  • The dermatologist will visually examine every inch of your body systematically head to toe, looking at everything, including your scalp, ears, eyes, between your fingers and toes, and between your legs. Feel free to ask at any time what the doctor is looking for and what the areas of concern are, so that you can more effectively examine yourself in the future. Use this visit to educate yourself.
  • If nothing on your scan proves worrisome, you can simply set up your next regular exam. But if any lesions raise concern, the dermatologist will use certain preliminary methods to narrow in on a diagnosis. She or he may simply feel the lesion, checking its texture, dimensions, and solidity, or use imaging tools such as a dermatoscope to differentiate the lesion from other, similar lesions. The doctor may also compare against photos taken at a previous visit to see if the lesion has changed significantly. If signs point to skin cancer, dermatologist will do a biopsy. The doctor will give you a local anesthesia to numb the area, then remove a piece of tissue and send it to the lab for analysis. Ultimately, a pathologist will determine if the lesion is a skin cancer, and if so, what kind it is. It can take a week or longer to learn your results. If it is skin cancer, your doctor will schedule a date to remove the entire tumor, discussing with you what kind of treatment will be best based on your preference.


  • The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends an annual skin exam, but if you have had a skin cancer, or have a lesion that could turn into one (such as atypical or borderline lesions), more frequent visits are your best guarantee that any skin cancer you find will be early and curable.
  • Sun avoidance, protective clothing, and sunscreen with SPF greater than 30 and containing a UVA blocker such as zinc oxide are also integral parts of  your participation in the health of your skin.

The above article was adapted from skincancer.org.

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