What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, so your likelihood of running into this potentially life-threatening condition is pretty high. The stats reveal that in the United States:

The good news is that, if caught early, almost all types of skin cancer can be treated and survived. Dr. Robert Topham here at Holladay Dermatology & Aesthetics helps people throughout the greater Salt Lake City area identify precancerous moles and lesions. He urges all of our patients to learn how to spot the possible signs of skin cancer so you know when to come in for an official diagnosis and treatment. 

Skin cancer explained

Your skin is constantly renewing itself. New cells grow and push the older ones to the outer surface where they die and fall off. That’s the ideal. But exposure to the sun’s damaging UV rays over your lifetime damages your DNA and triggers mutations in your skin cells.

All cancer starts with abnormal growth and behavior of cells, and skin cancer is no different. Your skin produces new, often mutated, cells at an accelerated pace, and they build up on the surface. Not all skin growths are cancerous, but if yours are, early treatment is your best chance of beating it.

Types of skin cancer and what they look like

There are many kinds of skin cancer, and they all look a little different. In general, come in and see Dr. Topham when you notice any changes to your skin, which means you need to inspect it regularly. 

Moles are common and usually not dangerous, but some can be cancerous. The key is change. If any of your moles change in color, size, height, or shape, it’s time to get them checked. 

Other types of skin cancer show up as a textural issue, a lesion, or a sore. Here are the most common cancers of the skin and their telltale characteristics.

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis is a precancerous skin lesion. Spend too much time in the sun and you may get a close up look at it. It’s a scaly patch of skin that shows up anywhere the sun hits, like your hands, neck, face, and head. You’re especially at risk if you have fair skin, blonde or red hair, and blue or green eyes. 

If actinic keratosis isn’t treated, it may develop into squamous cell carcinoma.

Squamous cell carcinoma

If you have rough lesions that are red and scaly, you may have squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive type of skin cancer. It starts on the outer layer of your epidermis, but if you ignore it, it can spread throughout your body.

Basal cell carcinoma

The top layer of your skin, the epidermis, has a few layers of its own, and the deepest part is called the basal layer. When the cells in that area of the epidermis become cancerous, it’s called basal cell carcinoma, and about 90% of all skin cancers fall into this category. It grows slowly and rarely spreads to other parts of the body. 

Basal cell carcinoma looks like a white, pink, or clear mole, and you may or may not see tiny veins just under its surface.


Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin its color. When those cells grow abnormally and cluster, you get freckles or moles, most of which are benign. But if they become cancerous, it’s melanoma, the deadliest of all skin cancers. 

There are four main types of melanoma, and they can appear as flat or raised patches of brown skin with irregular edges. They can take on other colors, too, like blue, red, or black, and they can affect the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, and even your nails.

What to do if you spot skin cancer

It’s important to get to know your skin so that when changes occur, you can spot them right away. If you have a mole that’s getting bigger, darker, or changing shapes or colors, or if you notice any of the symptoms we mentioned above, come in and see Dr. Topham right away.

Even if you don’t see anything wrong, an annual skin cancer screening can give you the peace of mind that comes from knowing Dr. Topham has checked you from head to toe.

If he finds anything suspicious on your skin, he runs the appropriate diagnostic tests and begins treatment if necessary. With Dr. Topham in your corner and a commitment to keeping yourself protected from the sun as much as possible, you can rest assured that your skin will stay cancer free, or at least stand the best chance of beating the disease if you get it.

To schedule a skin cancer screening or talk to Dr. Topham about your skin cancer concerns, call us today to set up a consultation.

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