ABCDs of checking your skin

Skin cancer may be your last health worry under winter’s gray skies. But skin cancer checks need to be a year-round maintenance effort.

“About 50 percent of melanomas are identified by patients, and even more are discovered if the skin is examined with the help of a partner,” says Dr. Kenneth Arndt, a Harvard Medical School professor.

Knowing what to look for can give you the confidence that you’re being proactive about your skin health. A recent study published in Archives of Dermatology found that older adults who received a hands-on tutorial from a dermatologist and a computer-based tutorial in how to check for skin cancers were much more confident in their ability to identify early cancer signs on their skin and have them evaluated promptly.

But Arndt says you don’t need a special program. Just ask your partner to help you and take 10 minutes a month to look for skin lesions that you haven’t noted before, or those that have changed in color, size or shape, and feel.

“Pay particular attention to spots that have grown and may display a variety of hues, such as tan, black, brown, pearly or translucent; moles or pigmented spots that have changed in color, mass or contour; or sores that continually crust, bleed, and itch,” says Arndt.

For full instructions on skin exams and examples of what skin cancers look like, visit the websites of groups such as the Skin Cancer Foundation or the Melanoma Educational Foundation.

“Catch skin cancers early, and most can be cured,” says Arndt.

The best way to check your skin: ABCD

Asymmetry: Melanoma is asymmetrical.

Border irregularity: Melanoma borders are shabby and uneven.

Color: Melanomas are usually very dark.

Diameter: Most melanomas are larger than 5 millimeters.

Harvard Health Letters