Definition and Overview

An annual skin screening test is an examination carried out by a board-certified dermatologist to detect or diagnose skin cancer.

Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States. According to American Skin Cancer Foundation, one in every five Americans is expected to be diagnosed with the condition. Further, the rate in which the number of skin cancer cases has increased over the last 30 years is faster than other cancers combined.

There are two general types of skin cancer: non-melanoma and melanoma. Non-melanoma skin cancers are classified as basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. Both can affect the epidermis, or the upper layer of the skin, although the basal cell is much deeper.

Melanoma is the deadliest type of cancer. It occurs due to a genetic mutation of the melanocytes, the skin cells that create melanin, which is the pigment that gives skin color. It normally begins as a mole, and the cancer can spread quickly as it goes deeper into the skin and reaches the bones, cartilages, lymph nodes, and nearby vital organs.

Although a person can perform a skin self-exam, a professional screening test can provide a more comprehensive and accurate result.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

An annual skin cancer screening is recommended to:

  • Those who are at least 50 years old
  • Those who spend plenty of time outdoors and in tanning beds
  • Patients who have a family history of skin cancer
  • Those who have experienced skin cancer at least once
  • Those who suspect abnormal growths and lesions on the skin
  • People who are prone to getting sunburns
  • Those who have a lot of moles and patches around the body

The skin cancer screening can be helpful in:

  • Determining whether the lesions or growths are cancerous or benign
  • Knowing whether biopsy is necessary
  • Monitoring the recurrence of skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, for example, is known to recur within five years following treatment)
  • Providing the necessary recommendations to reduce or prevent skin cancer and its recurrence

How Does the Procedure Work?

During the test, the patient is directed to wear a medical gown and lie on a table with a bright light placed nearby. The doctor then begins to scrutinize every part of the skin, using a body map to determine the exact location of a mole, growth, birthmark, and other possible conditions of the skin. In some cases, the growths are small or they are obscured, for example, by the hair, so the dermatologist may have to use a magnifying lens.

The dermatologist will then take note of the asymmetry of the moles, pigmentation color, irregularity of the border, dimensions of the growth or lesion, and changes of skin growths. Depending on the result of the skin exam, the dermatologist may request for a biopsy for any suspicious lesion or growth.

The annual skin screening tests usually takes at least 20 minutes to complete.

Possible Risks and Complications

Skin cancer screening tests are generally safe but there is a possibility that the skin cancer will remain undetected during the exam, especially if the growth is very small or the changes are extremely subtle.


  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines): Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. Version 2.2013. Available at Accessed August 19, 2013.
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