Sun spot or not? Know when to call your doctor

“Being able to tell the difference between a sun spot and a potentially cancerous mole could save your life,” explains Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Paola Rodriguez, a board-certified dermatologist. “Performing periodic self-checks, asking your doctor about regular screenings, and practicing daily UV protection are all ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer.”

Learn how to tell if your skin blemishes are potentially cancerous and what preventive measures you can take.

Factor in your risk

Some people have a higher risk of skin cancer than others. If you fit any of the risks listed below, you should take extra precautions like performing self-checks and getting regular screenings.

  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Fair skin
  • Naturally light-colored hair (red or blond)
  • A history of serious sunburns or prolonged sun exposure
  • A large number of moles all over your body

Check yourself

Whether you have a high or low risk factor, scheduling a full-body skin screening with your doctor is a good idea. Work with your doctor to assess your risk and decide how often you should schedule a screening.

Everyone should perform regular self-checks once a month. Check your skin from head to toe to see if you notice any abnormal marks or moles.

Seeing spots?

If you’re over 50, you may notice spots appearing on areas of your skin that are often exposed to the sun, like your face, hands, and neck. These spots are called “actinic lentigines,” more commonly known as sun spots, age spots, or liver spots. These small, gray-brown spots are not a sign of skin cancer. They will not progress to become skin cancer and don’t require any treatment. If you notice any rapid changes to one of these spots, get it checked out by your doctor right away.

Don’t forget your ABCDEs

When performing a self-check, follow the ABCDE rule. The red-flag issues listed below highlight causes for concern.

  • Asymmetry: When one half of a mole or mark looks very different in shape from the other half.
  • Borders: Check for edges that are blurry, irregular, and uneven on the outer edge of the mole or mark.
  • Color: Look for variety in the colors or shading within a single mole or mark. Noncancerous moles or marks are typically all one color.
  • Diameter: Anything larger than 6 millimeters in diameter — about the size of a pencil eraser — should be seen by a doctor.
  • Evolving: If a mole or mark that changes in shape, size, color, or texture over time.

If you notice a mole or mark displaying any of these red flag issues, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away.

Practice prevention

Regularly use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30. It’s the best way to prevent sun burns, premature aging, and skin cancer. You’ll want to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every 2 hours. Be sure to use sunscreen on any area that will be exposed, including your neck, lips, ears, and even your scalp. You can also wear a hat for added sun protection. For more sun safety tips, watch Kaiser Permanente dermatologist Lauren McCaffrey, MD discuss how to correctly apply sunscreen in a segment on Seattle’s Q13 Fox. For a more comprehensive look, Kaiser Permanente melanoma specialist Andy Chien, MD, PhD partnered with REI to develop the online guide, Sunscreen: How to Choose and Use.

When in doubt, get it checked out

If you’re still not sure if your mole or skin spot you have is harmless or not, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. Early detection can help prevent the spread of cancer, so don’t be afraid to reach out with any questions or concerns. When it comes to your health, it’s always a good idea to play it safe.

Test your sun safety knowledge with our Washington sun safety quiz.


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