Sun spot or skin cancer? Know the difference

by Kaiser Permanente |
Person staring at their face in a mirror

Sun spots, liver spots, moles, freckles, cysts — oh my. Our skin can develop many different bumps or markings over the course of our lives. Some are harmless, but others may be cause for concern.

"Being able to tell the difference between a sun spot and a potentially cancerous mole could save your life," explains Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Paola Rodriguez, a board-certified dermatologist. "Performing periodic self-checks, asking your doctor about regular screenings, and practicing daily UV protection are all ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer."

But how can you tell if the marks on your skin are potentially cancerous and what can you do to help prevent skin cancer? Here’s what to keep in mind:

Factor in your risk

Some people are more likely to get skin cancer than others. If you have any of the following, you may want to take extra precautions, perform self-checks often, and schedule regular screenings:

  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Fair skin
  • Naturally light-colored hair — red or blond
  • A history of serious sunburns or prolonged sun exposure
  • A large number of moles all over your body

Check yourself

Whether your risk factor is high or low, scheduling a full-body skin screening with your doctor is always a good idea. Based on your risk, ask your doctor how often you should schedule these screenings.

Everyone, however, should perform regular self-checks. Each month, check your skin from head to toe to see if you notice any abnormal marks or moles. When performing these checks, here’s what to look out for:

Seeing spots?

If you’re over 50, you may notice spots appearing on the areas of your skin that are often exposed to the sun — like your face, hands, neck, etc. These spots are called "actinic lentigines," which are more commonly referred to as sun spots, age spots, or liver spots. These small, gray-brown spots aren’t a type of skin cancer. They also don’t progress to become skin cancer and don’t require any treatment. But if you notice any rapid changes to one of these spots, get it checked out by your doctor right away.

Remember the ABCDE rule

When performing a self-check, you’ll want to remember the ABCDE rule. This rule lists red-flag issues that could be cause for concern.

  • Asymmetry: When one half of the mole or mark looks very different in shape to the other half.
  • Borders: Edges that are blurry, irregular, and uneven on the outside of the mole or mark.
  • Color: A variety of colors or shading in one mole or mark. Non-cancerous moles or marks are usually all one color.
  • Diameter: Anything larger than 6 millimeters in diameter — about the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Evolving: A mole or mark that changes in shape, size, color, or texture over time.

If you notice a mole or mark displaying any of the above red flag issues, then schedule an appointment with your doctor right away.

Practice prevention

Regularly using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher is one of your best ways to prevent sun burns, premature aging, and skin cancer. You’ll want to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every 2 hours. Be sure to use sunscreen on any area that might be getting some sun — your neck, lips, ears, and even your scalp (you can also wear a hat for added sun protection).

When in doubt, get it checked out

If you’re still not sure if the mole or skin spot you have is common or cancerous, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Early detection can help prevent the spread of cancer so don’t be afraid to reach out with any questions or concerns. When it comes to skin cancer, it’s always a good idea to play it safe.