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How to check for skin cancer during the pandemic

A woman examining her face in front of a mirror.

COVID-19 may have sent you indoors, but that doesn't mean the sun's rays can't find you. You can still be at risk for damaging UV rays—especially if your home office is set up right by a window.

Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays is a leading cause of skin cancer. UVA rays, in particular, can penetrate window glass. That means that, even in quarantine, you can be harming your skin.

The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests you apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 to any exposed areas of skin, even if you'll be indoors all day. If you'll be going outside, experts recommend using SPF 30 or higher. The foundation also recommends you take this indoor time to review the warning signs of skin cancer and perform monthly at-home skin exams.

Warning signs of skin cancer

The deadliest form of skin cancer is melanoma. But when found early, melanoma is very treatable. Look for these "ABCDE" warning signs of melanoma on skin lesions and moles:

  • Asymmetry. One half of a lesion is unlike the other half.
  • Border. It has an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.
  • Color. The color varies from one area to the other, with shades of tan, brown, black, and even white, red or blue.
  • Diameter. Melanomas can be small. But usually they're larger than 6 millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser).
  • Evolving. A mole or skin lesion looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color.

How to do a skin self-exam

Skin cancer can occur anywhere on your skin, even your scalp. To perform an at-home self-exam, stand in front of a full-length mirror and use a hand mirror to check hard-to-see places or enlist the help of another member of your household.

  1. Examine your front and back in the mirror, especially your legs.
  2. Bend your elbows. Look carefully at your forearms, the backs of your upper arms and your palms.
  3. Check your feet, including the spaces between your toes and your soles.
  4. Use the hand mirror to examine the back of your neck and scalp. You may want to use a blow dryer to move your hair to the side.
  5. Check your lower back and buttocks with the hand mirror.
  6. Write down notes about any spots or lesions so you can regularly track changes.

What if you spot something unusual?

First, take photos of any moles or skin lesions you're concerned about. Next, call your doctor's office.

If you can't or don't want to go in to your dermatologist's or doctor's office, ask if telemedicine is an option. Telemedicine involves seeing your provider via a computer or smartphone video conference.

During a telemedicine appointment, you can share the photos you took with your provider. They'll be able to tell you whether you need to come in for an office visit.

For information on how to protect your skin, visit the Skin health topic center.

Reviewed 6/23/2020

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