What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Identifying Three Common Types of Skin Cancer

When you notice a mole or blemish that has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, you might initially ignore it. But then, as it starts to change and grow, you begin to suspect that it may be more than just an innocent freckle or skin tag. How do you really know? 

Melanoma Lesion Characterized by Its Asymmetry

Medical consultation
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The ABCDE Rule of skin cancer can help you spot a potential malignancy by identifying one or several characteristics shared by these types of cancers:

  • Asymmetry in shape
  • Borders that are jagged or blurry
  • Color that is uneven or has multiple hues
  • Diameter of greater than 1/4 inch
  • Elevation, with a surface that is raised or uneven

These apply to the three major types of skin cancer: melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma

Any lesion that is asymmetrical with varying shades of colors and an uneven border (pictured) should raise a red flag that you may be dealing with melanoma.

Melanoma Characterized by Its Irregular Border

Cancer Images
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Everything about this mole is irregular, most predominantly its shape and jagged edge. It also has several, distinct shades of color and a rough, uneven surface. Together, these signs should point you in the direction of melanoma.

Melanoma Characterized by Its Uneven Coloration

Close up of skin cancer
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This mole clearly exhibits the cornerstones of a malignancy: it is unevenly shaped, lacks a consistent border, and contains different shades of brown and black. Normal moles are uniform in color with consistent, symmetrical borders.

Melanoma Characterized by Its Large Diameter

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Besides its shape and uneven coloration, one of the most worrisome features of this mole is its size. The general rule of thumb is that anything larger than a pencil eraser (1/4 inch of 6 millimeters) warrants immediate investigation by a dermatologist.

Melanoma Characterized by Its Elevated Texture

Close-up of a malignant melanoma on an elderly man

Note the raised center of this lesion in comparison to the smoother border. This melanoma exhibits all of the other tell-tale signs of melanoma: an uneven border, a large diameter, and dark, mottled coloring.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Bowens disease
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Squamous cell carcinoma (pictured) commonly appears on sun-exposed parts of the body such as the face and ears. The lesion is often raised with a crusty, uneven surface. It is important to see a dermatologist if you have any spots or bumps that appear scaly, ulcerated, have difficulty healing, or recur after healing.

Characteristics of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell cancer of skin on leg

Squamous cell carcinoma often appears as raised, pale, shiny, pale patches surrounded by scaly areas (pictured). In its early stages, squamous cell carcinoma can sometimes be difficult to spot. It can look like scaly patches that do not go away or a scab that refuses to heal. In some cases, the patch may heal and then suddenly reappear.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma on leg of elderly woman

Basal cell carcinoma accounts for approximately 80 percent of all cases of skin cancer. The lesion is typically flat and scaly with has a slight pearlescent shine. These types of lesions are often small but can sometimes grow to significantly larger size.

Basal Cell Carcinoma With Visible Blood Vessels

Skin cancer, close-up
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Basal cell carcinoma can appear as a flesh-colored lump or bump. The small blood vessels that pass through it are also visible (pictured). another clear indication of the condition.

Basal Cell Carcinoma Characerized by Its Flat Surface

Basal Cell Epithelioma
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A common misconception about skin cancer is that the lesion must be raised in order to be considered abnormal. In this image, the lesion is flat and scaly in some areas, all classic symptoms of basal cell carcinoma. 

Basal Cell Carcinoma Characterized by Its Coloration

Small, reddish/brownish papule, often with telangiectatic blood vessels. May appear transluscent, and when it is, described as "pearly" in color. May have a central depression with rolled borders.
National Institutes of Health images/Wikimedia Commons/PD

This large, red-colored lesion is another example of basal cell carcinoma. The lesion typically grows at a very slow rate but can suddenly accelerate in some people.

Melanoma on Fingernails or Toenails

Melanoma can take hold in places other than the skin. The undersides of nail beds in the fingers and toes are places where this potentially fatal type of skin cancer can develop.

When melanoma occurs beneath the nails, it typically appears as a blue or brown discoloration that extends beneath the cuticle. The discoloration tends to appear as a longitudinal streak that runs from the cuticle to the tip of the nail. It some cases, it can cover the entire nail bed (pictured).