Sun spots and skin cancer: Your guide to protection and prevention

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

Sun spots, liver spots, moles, freckles, cysts. Our skin can develop many different bumps or markings over 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,” says 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 may be cancerous? And what can you do to help prevent skin cancer? Here’s what to know.

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, having 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.

And everyone should perform regular self-checks. Each month, check your skin from head to toe to see if you have any abnormal marks or moles. When doing 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, and neck. These spots are “actinic lentigines,” which are also called 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 need 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 doing a self-check, remember the ABCDE rule. This rule lists red-flag issues that can be cause for concern.

  • Asymmetry: When one half of the mole or mark looks very different in shape than the other half.
  • Borders: Edges that are blurry, irregular, or uneven on the outside of the mole or mark.
  • Color: A variety of colors or shading in one mole or mark. Noncancerous 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 with any of the above red-flag issues, make an appointment with your doctor.

Practice prevention

One of the best ways to prevent sunburns, premature aging, and skin cancer is by using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day. You should 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 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, talk to your doctor. Early detection can help prevent the spread of cancer. When it comes to skin cancer, it’s always a good idea to play it safe.