What are the Warning Signs of Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer worldwide. Fortunately, most cases can be cured if they are caught early enough. By keeping an eye out for these skin cancer warning signs, you will know how to identify any suspicious skin lesions that might appear and get treatment right away.

What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Skin cancers can vary greatly in appearance. Here are the most common visual indicators for each major type of skin cancer.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

BCC can appear as:

  • An open sore that does not heal for weeks, or appears to heal but then returns
  • A sore that bleeds, oozes, or crusts
  • A reddish, irritated skin patch that may itch, crust, hurt, or cause no discomfort
  • A shiny bump that is clear, pearly, pink, red, or white
  • A shiny bump that is tan, black, or brown (especially in darker-skinned individuals)
  • A small pink lesion with a raised, rolled edge and crusted indentation in the center, which may develop small surface blood vessels
  • A shiny, taut, and flat area which may be white, yellow, or waxy, usually with poorly defined borders

People with BCC frequently find two or more of these warning signs in a single skin lesion. It is also important to note that sometimes, BCCs may resemble eczema, psoriasis, or other noncancerous skin conditions.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

SCC can appear as:

  • A thick, rough, scaly patch that may crust or bleed
  • A wart-like skin lesion
  • An open sore that does not completely heal
  • A growth with a raised edge and lower center, which may bleed or itch
  • A skin lesion that is accompanied by wrinkling, color changes, and loss of elasticity
  • A skin lesion that develops on scarred or injured skin


Melanomas often look like moles. They can be detected with these ABCDE warning signs:

  • A (Asymmetry): Unlike most moles, melanomas are usually asymmetrical.
  • B (Border): While common moles tend to have smooth, even borders, melanomas tend to have uneven borders, sometimes with notched or scalloped edges.
  • C (Color): Benign moles are usually all one color, but melanomas may have different shades of brown, tan, black, or even red, white, and blue.
  • D (Diameter or Dark): If the lesion is larger than the size of a pencil eraser, or if it is darker than other nearby lesions, it is a possible warning sign of melanoma.
  • E (Evolving): Any skin spot that changes in size, shape, color, or elevation, or any skin spot that develops a new symptom such as bleeding, crusting, or itching, may be a warning sign of melanoma.

Another warning sign of melanoma is the “ugly duckling”. Most normal moles on your body will resemble each other, but melanomas will usually stand out. They may be smaller, larger, lighter, darker, or visually different in another way. Also, an isolated lesion with no nearby moles for comparison is considered an ugly duckling and could be melanoma.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

MCC may appear as:

  • A pearly or shiny lesion or nodule
  • A skin lesion that is on average 1.7 cm in diameter
  • A skin lesion that is skin-colored, red, purple, or bluish red
  • A rapidly expanding skin lesion
  • A lesion that is not painful or tender, but asymptomatic

All new, changing, unusual, or suspicious skin lesions of any kind may be a warning sign of skin cancer and should be examined by a dermatologist.

What about Actinic Keratoses?

Actinic keratoses (AKs) are skin lesions that may develop into skin cancer, which makes them a concerning warning sign for possible skin cancer. They usually appear as rough, scaly patches in sun-exposed areas, and they may range in size from as small as a pinpoint to several inches in diameter. If you have a skin lesion that you think may be actinic keratosis, visit your dermatologist as soon as possible.

Where Does Skin Cancer Appear on the Body?

Most often, skin cancer appears on sun-exposed areas like the face, lips, ears, neck, scalp, chest, shoulders, back, forearms, and hands. However, skin cancers can appear anywhere on the body, even on areas that rarely or never get sun exposure.

What are My Risk Factors for Developing Skin Cancer?

These factors increase your risk of developing skin cancer:

  • UV exposure (especially unprotected and excessive) from the sun or indoor tanning
  • Personal history of skin cancer (note: if you have had any type of skin cancer, your risk of developing a different type of skin cancer is also increased)
  • Personal history of precancerous skin lesions, including actinic keratosis (AKs)
  • Age over 50
  • Fair skin
  • Male gender
  • Family history of skin cancer (especially for melanoma)
  • Many moles (for melanoma)
  • Large or atypical moles (for melanoma)
  • Weakened immune system due to medical conditions or medications (for BCCs, melanomas, and MCCs)
  • Chronic infections and skin inflammation (for BCCs and SCCs)
  • Sun-sensitive skin conditions like xeroderma pigmentosum (for SCCs)
  • History of HPV (for SCCs)

Keeping an Eye Out for Skin Cancer

By watching for these warning signs and noting your personal risk of developing skin cancer, you can make sure that any developing skin cancer does not go unnoticed. In addition, examine yourself head to toe once a month, looking for any new or changing skin lesions. Pay close attention to sun-exposed areas, especially the head, scalp, neck, and face.

If you have any questions about a skin lesion, see a dermatologist. Even more importantly, we recommend everyone get a full dermatology checkup at least once per year. At Medovate Dermatology, we offer Total Body Photography (TBP) and mole mapping with DermEngine to assist with early skin cancer detection. This provides an extremely accurate map of the skin and makes it possible to track any changes with high accuracy. With TBP, we can help you monitor your skin, watch for any skin cancer warning signs, and take quick action if any suspicious precancerous or cancerous lesions are discovered.

Please call Medovate at 847.499.5500 to get more information about our skin cancer screening and schedule your annual skin examination today.