Should You Use a Skin Check App to Screen for Skin Cancer? Here's What Dermatologists Say

A photo of a Caucasian person outside taking a photo of their arm skin with their phone

Key Takeaways

  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and about 1 in 5 people will get it in their lifetime.
  • Several apps claim to help you keep track of skin changes, assess your skin health, and check for skin cancer. 
  • While these apps can help you keep track of skin lesions, experts say the tech should not replace seeing a dermatologist about your skin health.

Nearly 9,500 Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer every day and about 1 in 5 people in the United States will have it in their lifetime.

In April 2023, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) updated its 2016 recommendation on skin cancer screening to state that there’s still not enough evidence to be definitely “yay” or “nay” when it comes to having healthcare providers do visual skin checks on teens and adults who do not have symptoms or risk factors.

However, since many skin cancers go undetected (and therefore undiagnosed), it’s important to be proactive about learning the signs and knowing your risk. If you have a smartphone, there are some digital tools you can get started with on your own.

For example:

  • The Skinive app helps detect skin conditions like dermatitis, eczema, herpes, and moles, as well as look for skin cancer risks from a photo.
  • The SkinVision app analyzes moles from a photo and evaluates whether they could be high-risk. 
  • The UMSkinCheck (developed by the University of Michigan Medical School) helps users do a complete skin cancer exam as well as track skin changes over time. 

While many apps claim to spot skin conditions—including cancer—here’s what experts want you to know about skin cancer and whether you should use these apps to screen yourself.

How Do Skin Cancer Apps Work?

Most skin detection apps have a user take a picture of their skin or upload pictures, Vamsi Varra, MD, a resident physician in the Department of Dermatology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, told Verywell.

Varra said that some of the apps also ask questions about the user’s skin problem, such as how long it has been there, whether it has grown, and if they are having other symptoms.

Many of the apps then refer to a database of images and use an algorithm to identify the most likely diagnosis, Melanie Palm, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Art of Skin MD, told Verywell. 

It’s important to note, however, that skin-detecting apps can vary in how they work. Some require more information from users than others and have different ways of analyzing and detecting skin issues. 

Are Skin Cancer Apps Reliable? 

Although some developers of skin cancer apps claim the tech can identify problematic skin lesions and issues, experts say these apps may not always be accurate.

“There are definitely uncertainties and improper diagnosis that arise from various apps,” Palm said. “I would not rely solely on an app to diagnose and reassure myself that a spot is benign.”

Palm has seen many cases where a skin lesion may look completely benign (that is, not cancerous), but after a biopsy and microscopic evaluation, it turns out to be something unusual like amelanotic melanoma or Merkel cell carcinoma

Melanie Palm, MD

I would not rely solely on an app to diagnose and reassure myself that a spot is benign.

— Melanie Palm, MD

Research also seems to back up the questionable accuracy of the apps:

  • A 2018 article in the BMJ found that widely available skin cancer apps had many drawbacks, including issues with the technology and a lack of expert input when developing apps.
  • A 2018 Cochrane review found that in two studies that included 332 skin lesions, 86 of the lesions were detected as melanomas by different apps—however, those apps missed up to 55 melanomas.

Varra said that since these apps have not been studied much in medical settings, it is hard to tell if they are reliable. 

“Just like any other medical device, they should undergo appropriate testing and receive FDA approval before being used regularly for medical purposes,” he said. “At this point, they haven’t been sufficiently validated and have the potential to harm patients if they miss skin cancer diagnosis.”

For now, there is no app or tool endorsed by any dermatological societies as being trustworthy or reliable enough that it would substitute for a healthcare provider.

Do Dermatologists Recommend Apps? 

While apps can be a first step in figuring out what might be going on with your skin, experts do not necessarily recommend using them because they can provide a false sense of security or even an incorrect diagnosis. 

Melanie Palm, MD

Although apps can be helpful in identifying if something is concerning, it is not the equivalent of an in-person evaluation and a possible biopsy by a board-certified dermatologist.

— Melanie Palm, MD

For now, Varra would not recommend that people use apps to decide whether to see a dermatologist or to screen for skin cancer. If you have a lot of skin lesions, turning to an app could be especially unhelpful.

“There is a high chance [an app] will mistake a benign lesion for a dangerous lesion, causing unnecessary worry,” he said.

Palm said that if you decide to try out the apps, understand that the tech should not replace seeing a specialist (like a dermatologist) for an evaluation.

“Although apps can be helpful in identifying if something is concerning, it is not the equivalent of an in-person evaluation and a possible biopsy by a board-certified dermatologist,” she said. “I am a big believer in artificial intelligence and its ability to help with the health of our patients, but these apps are not a substitute for the experience and in-person evaluation by a dermatologist.”

When Should You See a Dermatologist?

If you have a personal history of skin cancer or a family history of melanoma, Varra said that you should have a full body skin exam by a healthcare provider at least once every year, especially if you have fair skin or several moles.

Varra added that patients with lesions that are new, changing quickly, growing, or painful should also see a dermatologist.

“While many benign skin lesions can have these features, they are possible indicators of a dangerous skin lesion,” he said.

Palm added that if you notice skin lesions that follow any of the ABCDEs of melanomas—changes in asymmetry, border, color, diameter, or evolution—you need to see a board-certified dermatologist.

“I truly trust patients and their intuition,” said Palm. “If a skin lesion is itching, sensitive, bleeding, crusting, or dynamic and changing in some way, it should be evaluated by a dermatologist.”

What This Means For You

While skin apps can be a rough screening tool, experts say that the tech is not perfect and should not be used to diagnose a skin lesion that’s concerning to you. It is always best to see a board-certified dermatologist if you are worried about your skin health.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer.

  2. Center for Surgical Dermatology & Dermatology Associates. Be aware: the early signs and symptoms of skin cancer.

  3. Wise J. Skin cancer: smartphone diagnostic apps may offer false reassurance, warn dermatologists. BMJ. 2018;362:k2999. doi:10.1136/bmj.k2999

  4. Chuchu N, Takwoingi Y, Dinnes J, et al. Smartphone applications for triaging adults with skin lesions that are suspicious for melanoma. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;12(12):CD013192. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD013192

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.