What Does Skin Cancer Look Like? Pictures and More

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. It can affect the skin’s texture and growth. Early detection can help with diagnosis and treatment. The American Academy of Dermatology Association estimates that around 1 in 5 people in the U.S. will develop a form of skin cancer.

Early detection of skin cancer symptoms may prompt you to see treatment quickly.

Read on to learn what skin cancer looks like. This article discusses risk factors and skin cancer treatment and answers some frequently asked questions.

What are the early signs of skin cancer?

A person applies sunscreen to the skin while sitting in the sun.
Marc Tran/Stocksy United

The symptoms of skin cancer include specific physical changes.

Symptoms can include changes to the color and texture of the skin or blemishes. You may notice new growths or changes to the size, appearance, and borders of moles.

Initial symptoms can also include:

Still, other health conditions can also cause these changes. However, regularly checking your skin and watching for changes in growths can alert you to seek medical care.

Actinic keratosis and actinic cheilitis

A red spot with a crust due to actinic keratosis on a person's head.
An actinic keratosis lesion. Douglas Cliff/Shutterstock

Actinic keratosis growths or “keratoses” are precancerous lesions that are usually not serious.

“Precancerous” refers to tissues or structures that may or are likely to develop into cancer. However, some precancerous lesions remain benign. Not all precancerous structures will develop into cancer.

Symptoms to look out for include patches of skin that are:

  • dry, rough, or scaly
  • between 1–2 centimeters (cm) in size
  • the same color as your typical skin tone, or from pink to brown
  • itchy and tender when scratched

These symptoms frequently appear on skin exposed to the sun. Actinic keratoses may appear as horn-shaped papules.

Crusting actinic chelitis lesions on lips.
Actinic chelitis lesions. Reproduced with permission from ©DermNet NZ www.dermnetnz.org 2022

Like actinic keratosis, actinic cheilitis is a precancerous lesion due to UV exposure. They most often occur on the lower lip. Additional symptoms include:

  • dry, scaly, or rough plaques
  • plaques that are painful or painless
  • plaques that develop into scaling or ulcers
  • thick patches of paler or dulled skin
  • a dulled border around the lips

Basal cell carcinoma

A swollen basal cell carcinoma lesion.
Dermatology11/Shutterstock

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that around 8 in 10 skin cancer cases are due to basal cell carcinomas.

Like other kinds of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma tends to develop in areas of skin exposed to the sun but can occur anywhere.

Visible symptoms of basal cell carcinoma in the early stages can include:

  • an open sore or wound that:
    • does not heal or appears to heal and then returns
    • bleeds, oozes, or crusts
  • redness, flushing, or discoloration of the skin
  • telangiectasia, small visible blood vessels on the skin that may or may not bleed
  • skin irritation, such as crusting, itching, or pain
  • a shiny nodule on the skin, which may appear like a typical mole or have the following colors:
    • pearlescent, clear, or white
    • pink or red
    • tan, black, or brown
  • a small pink or discolored growth that may have crusting or very small visible blood vessels
  • a skin lesion that resembles a scar, which may be hypopigmented (lacks color), yellow, or white, and appears shiny or taut

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

A bleeding and inflamed squamous cell carcinoma growth.
Reproduced with permission from ©DermNet NZ www.dermnetnz.org 2022

SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer. It can result from accumulative or chronic exposure to UV light, such as from the sun.

Actinic keratosis and actinic cheilitis lesions may occur as a precursor to SCC, so they may be your first indications of the condition. Also, actinic keratosis lesions can turn into SCC.

Other visible symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma include:

  • growths or lesions that may be the same color as your skin tone, or flushed and swollen
  • growths that are flat, nodular, or plaque-like
  • occasional pain or tenderness
  • skin scaling or crusting
  • skin ulcers or bleeding
  • hyperkeratosis, the thickening of the outer layer of the skin
  • telangiectasia

SCC most commonly appears on areas that include:

  • the face, neck, or scalp
  • the forearms or hands
  • the shins
  • other areas that get high exposure to the sun

Melanoma

Melanomas can present as sores, pigment changes, lumps, or other changes or markings on the skin. They can also occur in moles, making it important to recognize when a mole has changed.

Warning signs and symptoms of melanoma can include:

  • a sore that does not heal
  • the spread of pigment on the skin from the edges of a blemish to surrounding skin areas
  • a new pink or discolored patch of skin with no other symptoms, such as itching or bleeding
  • redness or discoloration of a blemish
  • a new swelling beyond the edge of a blemish
  • a blemish that is itchy, tender, or painful
  • changes to the surface appearance of a blemish, such as:
    • scaling
    • oozing or bleeding
    • changes to the general appearance of a growth
  • a change in appearance to an already present mole, or a mole that presents with additional symptoms

Identifying melanoma

The ACS outlines two strategies for identifying possible melanoma. These include the ABCDE characteristics:

  • Asymmetry: Two sides of a mole do not match.
  • Border: The edges of a mole or skin mark are blurred, notched, or irregular.
  • Color: Melanoma may cause discoloration, such as the color not being the same all over, and include shades of brown or black. This can also include white, pink, red, or blue patches.
  • Diameter: A spot that is larger than 6 millimeters or one-quarter of an inch may indicate melanoma. This is about the size of a pencil eraser. Some melanomas can be smaller.
  • Evolving: The skin mark or mole changes in shape, size, or color.

The other approach is the “ugly duckling” sign: A skin mark looks different than other blemishes and features.

If your skin mark has any of these features, contact your doctor. Still, not all melanomas have these characteristics. Tell your doctor about any skin symptoms.

Merkel cell carcinoma

A red, dome-shaped merkel cell carcinoma growth.
Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany, CC BY 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

Merkel cell carcinoma often first appears on skin that has had sun exposure, such as the head and neck, and the arms, legs, and torso. It can also appear on areas with less sun exposure.

It can grow quickly, even in the early stages. Merkel cell carcinoma usually appears as a lump or nodule that is:

  • firm
  • red to violet in color
  • raised or dome-shaped
  • painless
  • fast-growing
  • free of other symptoms

Kaposi’s sarcoma

Purple patches on the nose due to Kaposi's sarcoma.
M. Sand, D. Sand, C. Thrandorf, V. Paech, P. Altmeyer, F. G. Bechara, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaposi’s sarcoma is a rare cancer that can appear inside the mouth or lymph nodes because of herpes infection.

Signs of Kaposi’s sarcoma include:

  • red or purple lesions that resemble bruising
  • patches on the skin or in the mouth that may be small, painless, or discolored
  • patches that grow into nodules and that can merge

What to do if you are unsure of the cause of your symptoms

Many other cancers can cause skin changes and may have different symptoms. Some may have similar symptoms, and others may not show any characteristic signs.

Also, some of these symptoms can occur because of other health conditions.

Sometimes, only a doctor or testing can confirm the most likely cause. Contact your doctor promptly regarding skin changes or symptoms that do not improve. If you are uncertain about any symptoms, contact a doctor.

Who is at risk for skin cancer?

Risk factors for some skin cancers can include:

  • having particular phenotypes, such as:
    • light skin color
    • skin that freckles, flushes, or burns easily, or that becomes painful after sun exposure
    • blue or green eyes
    • red or blond hair
  • having many moles
  • a family history of melanoma
  • having had skin cancer
  • being older
  • having exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds
  • having a compromised immune system

Still, anyone can develop skin cancer.

How do you treat skin cancer?

The treatment plan your doctor recommends may vary depending on factors such as the type of cancer you have, your other symptoms, and whether you are immunocompromised.

Treatment options for skin cancer can include:

Learn more about the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of skin cancer.

Other frequently asked questions

Clare Wightman, MS, PAC, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

What can be mistaken for skin cancer?

Some symptoms of skin cancer — such as sores, rash, or skin irritation — can occur due to other noncancerous conditions.

Other conditions can include:

  • verruca vulgaris (verrucas or warts)
  • burns
  • scar tissue
  • seborrheic keratoses
  • other forms of cancer
  • benign growths such as moles or seborrheic keratoses

Can I pick off skin cancer?

You should not pick at skin cancer lesions or other skin symptoms. Cancer will still be present and can still spread. Picking at areas may delay diagnosis and treatment.

Picking at the skin can also lead to complications such as infection.

Summary

Cancer can change the skin’s appearance. This can include pink, discolored, and scaling patches, lesions that change in appearance or do not heal, and new growths. Cancer can also cause changes to moles, such as symmetry and color.

Other skin cancer symptoms include growths, sores, or rashes that may be swollen, crusty, or leak fluid or blood. You may notice a mark on the skin that resembles scar tissue. Some types of skin cancer commonly occur in areas frequently exposed to UV rays.

Though some symptoms result from other conditions, contact a doctor promptly if you notice skin changes or symptoms that do not improve.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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