ABCDE Test: Why This Skin Self-Exam Could Save Your Life

“Early detection of skin cancer is important because it could save lives.”

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“Early detection of skin cancer [is] important because it could save lives,” says Kira Minkis, MD, PhD, dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, NewYork Presbeterian. “It could potentially mean the difference between life and death for somebody, so most skin cancers could be treated very easily with an in-office procedure, whereas advanced skin cancer could potentially be deadly.”

One way you can help detect skin cancer early on your own is by doing a skin self-exam. Evaluating your own skin on a monthly basis can help you monitor any potential spots, so you can reach out to a physician the moment you notice something concerning.

If you’re not sure what to look for, think of the “ABCDEs of melanoma.” This letter pattern can help you remember what to look for when checking your skin for melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Here’s how to use the ABCDE skin check: 

  • A stands for asymmetry: A normal, healthy mole is typically symmetrical, but melanoma growths tend to have uneven shapes.

  • B stands for border: “A normal mole has a well-defined border where you could really see where the mole ends and where the normal skin begins,” says Dr. Minkis. Melanoma growths, on the other hand, may have blurred or fuzzy borders between the mole and the normal skin around it. 

  • C stands for color: A normal mole is typically all one color and in some even shade of brown or pink, whereas melanoma growths can have uneven or asymmetrical color and contain colors like red, blue, black, or white.

  • D stands for diameter: “If a mole or a growth on the skin is larger than 6 millimeters, which is about equivalent to the size of a pencil eraser … it might be a melanoma and needs to be evaluated,” says Dr. Minkis.

  • E stands for evolving: “A normal mole should stay pretty even,” says Dr. Minkis. “The exception to that is in children because children develop new moles, and they could change and mature and grow in size, but in adults, a mole should not grow or change.” A mole that’s evolving in shape, size, or color could potentially indicate melanoma.

In addition to skin self-exams, it’s recommended to see a dermatologist once a year for a skin cancer screening; however, “if you notice any changes to your moles or any of the ABCDE symptoms, then you should see a dermatologist and obtain a full-body skin exam,” says Dr. Minkis.