Skin cancer symptoms: What does skin cancer look like?

Most of us have at least some moles - but how do you know when you should be worried about one? Use our picture guide to check your moles aren't showing signs of skin cancer

We're all aware of how important it is to protect our skin when the sun is strong - but would you know what to do if you spotted a change to your skin that is unusual, or sticks around?

Here, we look at skin cancer symptoms that everyone should be aware of, so you can keep an eye on your skin, and learn how to stay safe in the sun. There are two different types of skin cancer.

Non-melanoma skin cancer refers to a group of cancers that slowly develop in the upper layers of the skin. This is a more common kind of skin cancer and includes Basal Cell Carcinoma (or BCC) and Squamous cell carcinoma (or SCC).

A Melanoma can spread to other organs in the body, and can develop from abnormal moles. The most common sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole, but not all melanomas develop from moles so it's important to tell your doctor about any unusual or lasting changes to your skin.

About 131,772 people are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer every year in the UK. About 15, 419 people are diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer in the UK each year. The risk increases with age, it's important to go to the doctor if you notice a change to your skin or a mole that's unusual, or that lasts for a while. Knowing what's normal for you will help you to spot changes.

What does skin cancer look like?

Here's our A-D guide to melanomas with a picture of what to look out for. They may not make for pretty viewing, but it's really important you know what you're looking for...

A: Asymmetry

The shape of a melanoma is often uneven and asymmetrical, unlike a mole that is usually round and even.

B: Border

The border or edges of a melanoma are often ragged, notched or blurred.

C: Colour

The colour (pigmentation) of a melanoma is often not uniform. So there may be 2-3 shades of brown or black. A mole usually has one uniform colour.

D: Diameter

The size of a melanoma is usually larger than a normal mole, and it continues to grow.

And remember that skin cancer doesn't always look like a mole. Tell your doctor about any unusual or lasting changes to a freckle, mole or normal patch of skin. Some of the possible symptoms include:

  • A spot or sore that doesn't heal
  • A spot or sore that itches, hurts, is scabbed or crusty, or bleeds
  • Areas where the skin has broken down and doesn't heal
  • A lump, that might be small, slow growing, shiny and pink or red

Moles can be pretty odd-looking things, and it isn't always easy to spot skin cancers - so it's safer to go to the doctor about any skin changes that are unusual for you or persist, It probably won't be melanoma skin cancer, but if it is,spotting it early means that treatment is more likely to be successful.

For more information about skin cancer go to the Cancer Research UK website. (opens in new tab)

What are moles?

A mole is a collection of 'pigment' cells under the skin. Pigment cells are what give our skin its colour, which is why a collection of them will appear darker. Most moles develop after birth and throughout our childhood and 20s. They can appear for no reason or after being out in the sun.

Survival for people with melanoma skin cancer is relatively high, with almost 90% of adults surviving the disease for at least ten years after diagnosis in the UK. Like other cancer types, spotting melanoma skin cancer early is important, as treatment is more likely to be successful at an earlier stage.

How do I keep my skin safe?

Getting sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma skin cancer.

Spend time in the shade when the sun is strong (opens in new tab) (between 11am and 3pm in the UK) and cover up with clothing (like long sleeved t-shirts, wide brimmed hats and sunglasses) to help to protect your skin.

As a last line of defence, use plenty of sunscreen (at least SPF 15 and 4 stars) on the parts of your skin that aren't covered, and reapply it often.

Sarah Finley
Freelance wrtier

 Sarah is a freelance journalist, writing for various women's magazines and national online consumer titles including the BBC and The Daily Mail, for over 10 years. Sarah has interviewed CEO's, real-life case studies and celebrities. Writing on everything from travel to fitness, and business to beauty - some of her features have been read by millions of people - in just one day.