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Do You Know What Skin Cancer Looks Like?

Properly identifying marks or growths on your skin is one of the best ways to detect cancer early. Most skin cancer are treatable and often can be cured. If you can catch them in their beginning stages, your dermatologist can formally evaluate.  Knowing what to look for is the key to addressing the cancer quickly. Skin cancer affects millions of people in the United States, particularly those 65 and older who are fair-skinned.

What does skin cancer look like when it starts?

It takes on a variety of forms. It can be rough and scaly. It can be a raised growth with dark bumps. It can be a flat crusty patch of skin. If you notice a new growth or one that is changing, get it checked by a dermatologist.

Here are some tips for early skin cancer detection:

  • When examining the skin and notice your skin is changing in some way, make plans to see your dermatologist of make a Telehealth appointment.
  • Know that skin growths and cancers do not all look the same. In fact, the way they appear can look vastly different. When in doubt, get it checked out.
  • Look for new growths, marks, moles, and sores monthly. Be sure to check the scalp.
  • If your dermatologist has treated you for precancerous growths, know that you are in a higher risk category. Check your skin regularly and have a partner help with areas you cannot see or feel.
  • If you have a family member who has had skin cancer, you are likely at higher risk of developing it. Most skin cancer types are not hereditary. It does make sense that relatives have similar skin types. Therefore, examine your skin monthly.
What Skin Cancer Looks Like

Atypical black mole photo with uneven border- possibly cancerous

What Skin Cancer Looks Like

Close up photo of mole to be tested for skin cancer

Common Types of Skin Cancer

Actinic Keratosis: Precancer

These appear as small scaly patches on the skin and form as a result of prolonged sun exposure. While you will see many websites call these growths cancer, actinic keratosis lesions are actually precancerous skin growths. They can develop into squamous cell carcinoma if untreated. Patients that have actinic keratosis (k) have a greater risk of developing cancer and will likely see more AKs as time progresses.

They most often appear on the most commonly exposed areas of the body such as the head, neck or hands. Having a natural defense against the sun helps. Dark-skinned patients, who may identify as black, Hispanic, or Native American, tend to have fewer cases of cancer on the average. There is a scientific reason. Why is it that people with naturally darker skin don’t burn as easily? The answer is this: These darker-skinned people have melanin, which works diligently to absorb the sun’s harmful rays.

One type of actinic keratosis is known as a cutaneous horn that appears as a cone on the skin. It is made of keratin, a protein that is found in fingernails. Adults often see cutaneous horns later in life and are more likely in patients who have been exposed to the sun over time without protection. Squamous cell carcinoma is often present in this type of cancer and is located in the area where the growth connects to the skin.


This precancer shows up as dry and flakey and may be red, light brown, white pink or flesh in color. You can sometimes feel these skin growths before you notice them visually as they are rough to the touch. In addition to the hands, neck and face (including ears), they can appear on the forearms, shoulders, or bottom lip (actinic cheilitis).


According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, 5-10% of these growths transition to squamous cell carcinoma. It is best not to risk foregoing treatment. These growths are good candidates for cryotherapy or cryosurgery. This procedure involves the use of extremely cold temperatures applied directly to the cells using a medical device or cotton swab. The surrounding cells also freeze. This procedure can be performed in your dermatologist’s office often immediately following a skin evaluation.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

This type of cancer is the one most people are familiar with and is the most common according to the American Cancer Society. These types of cancer are also called basal cell cancers and are found on the face or neck area. You may see the cancer appears on the ears or scalp.  This skin cancer along with many other types results from unprotected or insufficiently protected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  For these cells to develop into cancer, it generally takes years of outdoor sun exposure.

Does tanning bed use decrease the risk of skin cancer compared to sun exposure?

The use of tanning beds can greatly increase risk of developing skin cancer after one session or more. They are considered just as harmful or even more harmful than exposure to the sun for the same period of time.

According to research performed by the American Academy of Dermatology, basal cell cancer risk rises 29% for those who have used a tanning bed or sun lamp. It is important to catch this cancer early and treat it before it grows deeper. The good news is that it usually is a slow growing cancer and tends not to spread to other body parts. It can deepen and penetrate tissue, nerves, or bone, causing additional damage.


  • This skin cancer may be raised above the skin and have a pale flesh, pink, or reddish color to it.
  • Other raised types may have bumps on them that are dark blue, of dark brown or even black.
  • When the cancer lays flat across the skin, it can be crusty and seep fluid.


Basal cell carcinoma has a high cure rate and is a good candidate for cryotherapy if identified early. In the early stages, the growth resembles more of a light pink or flesh-toned or dark mole that doesn’t heal. It may have shiny pink or red areas that are slightly dry and rough. Once the cancer progresses past the initial stage, your dermatologist will discuss other treatment options, including Mohs micrographic surgery.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

As noted in the precancer section above, squamous cell carcinoma develops from actinic keratosis. This cancer can progress through the skin into other areas by deepening. Just as with basal cell cancer, squamous cell can penetrate into nerves, tissue, and blood vessels and cause damage. This cancer is more likely to develop into deeper tissue than basal cell and may spread to other parts of the body, as well. An enlarged tumor may result. People with fair skin who have faced significant sun exposure and those who have used tanning beds are most often afflicted by this cancer. When fair skinned patients are exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays for long periods of time without proper protection (sunscreen with sufficient SPF and protective clothing) have an increased chance of developing squamous cell carcinoma. As a precursor to developing this skin cancer, patients may notice significant age spots and deep wrinkles, along with skin discoloration. Approximately 20 percent of all skin cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers show up on similar places on the skin as basal cell, including the face (including lips and ears) and neck areas and hands.  If you can think of any areas of your body that typically receive direct UV rays, that is where this cancer tends to appear. If you have a scar or consistently have sores on your skin, squamous cell carcinoma may form there.


  • Warning signs include age spots from the sun and deep wrinkles.
  • It can appear as red dry patches on the skin.
  • It can appear as open sores that bleeds or becomes crusted.
  • It can look more like a wart that can become crusty and bleed.


Various treatments exist for this cancer. Mohs surgery is a definite option.


Of all the skin cancers described so far, melanoma is the least common. It does spread and grow at a more rapid rate. This skin cancer has the greatest risk of harm and can be fatal. In fact, they are the cause of most of the deaths from skin cancer. It shows up as a change in the way a mole looks or is growing or a change in a pigmented section of the skin. Moles that are changing in appearance are a reason to visit your dermatologist. Young patients can develop melanoma. The causes are not known yet there is shown to be a higher risk with those who use tanning beds or are exposed to ultraviolet rays without protection. Early detection is the key to curing this cancer.


  • It generally shows up on sun-exposed areas such as legs, back, arms, and face.
  • It can appear on unexposed areas of the body such as the palms or soles of the feet.
  • It usually shows up as an abnormal mole. This could be a mole that is large in diameter, changes in color, has irregular borders, keeps changing, or is asymmetrical in shape.


Depending which stage the cancer is in will determine the optimal treatment method. Surgery is a commonly used treatment to remove the cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation may also be used.


Some of the basics of prevention are to reduce sun exposure, or at a minimum, wear protective clothing and sunscreen. If you know you are going to be in the sun, purchase protective clothing if possible. Also avoid tanning bed, sun lamps, and tanning booths. While they may seem like a safe way to tan without sun exposure, the still expose you to damaging ultraviolet rays that can harm the DNA in your skin’s cells. Indoor tanning can also cause sunspots and wrinkles.

Top 5 Tips to Prevent Skin Cancer

  • Avoid the sun from 10:00 a.m. through 3:00 p.m. during the summer. These are the times when UV rays are generally most direct and harmful.
  • Wear broad or full-spectrum sunscreen on any exposed body areas.

Does sunscreen expire?
Yes, the effectiveness of sunscreen can decrease over time, especially if stored in extreme heat. Be sure your sunscreen is not expired.
When should I buy new sunscreen?
If it is three years old or older, get new sunscreen.
How much sunscreen should I apply in one use?
Use ample amounts of sunscreen on you and your child. As a general rule, use one ounce of sunscreen for one person per application. To help with a visual, it is the amount with which you could fill a shot glass. Do not use sunscreen powders or sprays as they have been shows to be harmful when inhaled. Go ahead and put the sunscreen on before going out to the pool or beach or picnic. That way you are protected before the sun hits you. Check with your dermatologist for the most effective sunscreen brands. Ingredients matter. If you need to also use insect repellent, buy a separate product for that. Do not combine the two. Try to avoid exposing an infant or newborn to the sun. Ask your skin doctor when it is safe to use sunscreen on a very young child and the best brands to buy once you are safe to start.

  • Wear sunglasses with UV-A and UV-B protection.
  • Protect as much of your skin as possible with protective clothing. Several clothing lines now make sun protective clothing and swimsuits. Ask your dermatologist office for details on whether to locate and purchase this clothing.
  • Buy a wide brimmed hat if you or your child is planning to be out in the sun for an extended time period.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours at a minimum when in the sun for lengthy periods, especially when swimming or spending time in the water. Ask your skin care professional or read the sunscreen label carefully for instructions.

The dermatologists at Sun Coast Skin Solutions are committed to performing full skin examinations, testing, and recommendations. Our dermatologists select the best available treatments for each patient, resulting in the best care and patient results. The focus of our practice is on the prevention and care of skin cancer. Suncoast Skin Solutions is Florida’s “Most Trusted” Dermatology. Each of our locations has a dermatologist on site to evaluate your skin and perform a full comprehensive exam. We take skin cancer seriously and emphasize to patients that early detection is the key to curing or controlling most skin cancers.

SunCoast Skin Solutions Dermatology offices are located in Tampa / Hillsborough, St. Pete / Pinellas County, Brandon, Lutz, Winter Haven, Largo, Riverview, Brooksville, Ocala, and Daytona Beach, Sarasota, Punta Gorda, Seminole, Florida. Contact us at 1-844-786-3376 or click here.