What happens in a skin check by a skin specialist?
Skin checks are one of the best ways to protect yourself
Along with using sun protection and making a habit of performing self-skin checks at home, having regular skin checks performed by a doctor is one of the best ways to protect yourself from skin cancer.
While there are no guidelines as to how often we should get a professional skin cancer check, it’s something we should all be doing regularly, particularly after age 40. People who have a higher risk of developing skin cancer may need more regular check-ups – potentially every six months – and should chat to their doctor about scheduled skin checks.
Getting to know your own skin by performing regular self-skin exams is just as vital, as it puts you in a better position to notice any changes in your skin and book in a visit to your GP quickly. Use the nib skin self-assessment to help you get to know your skin better.
What’s the difference between a GP, skin specialist and skin clinic?
If you notice changes or simply want a general skin check-up, you can visit your GP, a dermatologist (skin specialist) or skin clinic. Your GP is a good first port of call as they can assess your skin and refer you to a specialist (such as a dermatologist or surgeon) if need be. While there are many ‘skin cancer clinics’ that also perform skin cancer checks, Australia’s Cancer Council points out that they may not offer a higher level of expertise than your regular GP.
What to do before the appointment
It’s a good idea to get familiar with your skin via a self-check before you go so you can point out any spots of concern to your doctor during the examination (use the nib skin self-assessment to help identify your risk).
Avoid wearing make-up and nail polish when you go in for your skin cancer check, as the doctor needs to be able to clearly see your skin and examine under your nails. Leave your hair out loose so they can easily check your scalp.
What to expect during a skin check
There’s nothing to worry about when having a skin cancer check – it’s a fairly quick and simple procedure. The doctor performing your skin cancer check will likely start by asking you some questions relating to your risk of skin cancer and then requesting you to undress to your underwear.
How is a skin check performed?
Your GP or dermatologist will do a close and thorough visual examination of your skin using a dermatoscope. This gives them a better look at any suspicious spots than is possible with the naked eye. They will check your skin all over your body, which may include your scalp, behind your ears, fingers, toes and genitals. (Remember some skin cancers can form on areas that haven’t been exposed to the sun.)
What clothes should I wear to a skin check?
As you’ll need to take your clothes off for a skin cancer check, you might like to wear something that is comfortable and easy to get on and off.
Remember some skin cancers can form on areas that haven’t been exposed to the sun
Understand your risk before you go
Some people have a higher risk of skin cancer than others. Having fair skin that tends to burn, freckles, light eye colour and red hair, many pre-existing moles, a weakened immune system, or a personal or family history of skin cancer can all increase your risk, so be aware of this ahead of your appointment. Your doctor may recommend more frequent skin checks if you’re in a high-risk group. Check out nib skin self-assessment to find out your personal risk.
How long does it generally take?
A skin check is a relatively quick procedure – around 10-15 minutes.
How much does a skin check cost?
If you have a skin check done by your GP and have a Medicare card, part or all of the consult fee will be covered. If you’re referred to a dermatologist, you’ll need to speak to them directly about out-of-pocket costs, though you may also be eligible for a Medicare rebate – and, depending on your coverage, you may be able to use your private health insurance.
Do I have to undress?
Yes, for a professional skin check, you will usually be asked to undress but leave your underwear on unless your doctor asks you to remove it.
What equipment is used?
The doctor performing your skin cancer check will usually use a special magnifying glass with a light attached called a dermatoscope, which helps them better see the patterns formed by the pigment in the skin as well as blood vessels.
What happens if something is found?
If any suspicious-looking spots or areas of concern are found during your skin check, your GP may refer you to a dermatologist or surgeon for further specialist investigation. Alternatively, your doctor may order another test called a biopsy. This can be done by your GP, or they may refer you to a surgeon or dermatologist. A biopsy involves removing part or all of the spot and sending it away to a lab to check for cancer cells under a microscope.
After the skin check
If your doctor doesn’t find anything of concern during your skin check then that’s it, you’re all done! Check with them when you should come in for your next professional skin exam, and don’t forget to keep regularly checking your own skin in between appointments.
If the doctor has sent you for a biopsy, you’ll likely need a follow-up appointment to receive the results. If skin cancer is found, they'll talk to you about the next steps, such as treatment options.
Remember, the majority of skin cancers can be treated effectively if found early, so be sure to schedule regular skin checks with your GP or specialist.
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Dr Hamish Black
In partnership with
Dr Hamish Black
Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.