Woman putting sun screen on shoulder

Learn the ABCDEs of Skin Cancer

Private: Vinod E. Nambudiri, MD, MBA
Contributor Vinod E. Nambudiri, MD, MBA

Did you know that skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States each year? In fact, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in his or her lifetime.

The most common skin cancers are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, followed by melanoma and other skin cancers. When identified early, almost all skin cancers can be cured with treatment.

“Learning the ABCDEs of skin cancer is important in identifying, treating, and preventing skin cancer,” says Dr. Vinod Nambudiri a dermatologist in the BWH Department of Dermatology. “People can look for signs of skin cancer in moles or skin lesions using these letters, and a self skin exam is quick, easy, and free.”

ABCDE Rule for the early detection of Melanoma: asymetry, uneven borders, dark or multiple colors, diameter greater than 6 mm, evolving

A – Asymmetry: One half is unlike the other half.

B – Borders: Irregular, scalloped, or poorly defined border.

C – Color: Varied from one area to another (shades of tan or brown, black, red, white, or blue).

D – Diameter: Diameter of 6mm or larger (size of a pencil eraser).

E – Evolution: Looks different from the rest, or is changing in size, color, or shape.

To perform a self skin exam, find a full-length mirror and a hand mirror. Standing in front of the full-length mirror, raise your arms and examine your body front and back, then your right and left sides. Next, bend your elbows, looking carefully at your forearms, the back of your upper arms, and your palms. Then, examine the back of your legs and your feet, including the spaces between your toes and the soles. Using your hand mirror, examine the back of your neck and scalp, while lifting and parting your hair. Finally, using the hand mirror, examine your buttocks. In addition to regular self skin exams, you should also have a skin exam by your primary care physician or a dermatologist each year.

To prevent skin cancer, understand the risk factors. These include sun exposure, use of indoor tanning devices, age, prior skin cancer or family history, and other health conditions. Using sunscreen and limiting exposure to the sun during peak sun hours (10am and 4pm) by seeking shade and avoiding direct sun are the easiest ways to help prevent skin cancer. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher every day, even in the winter and on cloudy days. Apply liberally and reapply every two hours. In addition, wearing sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection, as well as a wide-brimmed hat, is recommended.


Private: Vinod E. Nambudiri, MD, MBA
Vinod E. Nambudiri, MD, MBA

Vinod E. Nambudiri, MD, MBA, is a dermatologist in the Department of Dermatology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Instructor in Dermatology at Harvard Medical School.

Before you go,

Find out how to keep your skin healthy and learn when changes in your skin may be a sign of a health condition that should be checked out by a dermatologist. Read more articles about skin health.