What Does Skin Cancer Look Like?

Skin cancer is the atypical growth of skin cells. The most common cause is prolonged exposure to the sun. However, skin cancer can also develop in areas where there has been no sun exposure.

There are four types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma, which describes cancer that develops in the lowest part of the outer layer of skin
  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which describes cancer that develops in the middle and outer layer of the skin
  • Melanoma, or cancer that begins in the cells that control the pigment, or color, of your skin
  • Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer that tends to impact the areas of the body that are exposed to the most sunlight

This article looks at the four types of skin cancer, their symptoms, as well as how they are diagnosed. It also provides photographs of each skin cancer type.

Why Is Early Detection Important?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. It affects more than 300 million Americans each year. This equals a combined treatment cost of just over $8 billion per year.  

Early detection of skin cancer is very important and increases the likelihood of survival. This is why knowing the signs and symptoms of skin cancer is so critical. This knowledge can help you decide if you need to get a suspicious looking mole, or skin spot checked out.

Survival rates refer to how likely someone with a specific cancer may live after their diagnosis in comparison to an average person who doesn't have cancer. Survival rates for skin cancer vary by type:

  • If melanoma is detected early, individuals are 99% as likely as someone without this cancer to live for at least five years after diagnosis if the cancer is localized and hasn't spread.
  • If basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma are detected early, the survival rate is 92%.
  • If Merkel cell carcinoma is detected early, individuals are 76% as likely as someone without this cancer to live for at least five years after diagnosis.

When Is a Mole a Problem?

If a new or existing mole begins to change, make an appointment with your dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin, hair, and nails. Changes to watch for include:

  • Changes in shape, color, or size,
  • A mole that becomes flaky or crusty
  • A mole that begins to bleed

On rare occasions, a mole can turn into melanoma. In early melanoma, the shape of a mole becomes asymmetrical and uneven.

Dermatologist examining patient's skin with dermascope.


kali9 / Getty Images

Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer. It is often caused by sun exposure. Basal cell carcinomas can differ in appearance from person to person. Because basal cells grow slowly, with early detection and treatment, most cases are curable.

Nodular Basal Cell Carcinoma

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Nodular basal cell carcinoma.

P. Marazzi / Getty Images

Nodular basal cell carcinoma is most often found on the head. This type of cancer starts in basal cells. These cells make new skin cells and push the old ones towards the skin's surface.

Of all basal cell carcinomas, 60% to 80% are nodular. In the United States, it’s estimated that 4.3 million cases of basal cell carcinoma are diagnosed every year. Of those cases, 2.5 to 3.4 million are nodular basal cell carcinoma.

This type of cancer appears as a pearl-like papule, or swelling. It is round and surrounded by threadlike red lines made up of tiny blood vessels.

Spending a lot of time in the sun increases your risk of developing nodular basal cell carcinoma. Other risk factors include:

  • Having fair skin
  • Getting older
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer
  • Taking drugs that suppress the immune system
  • Long term exposure to arsenic, a type of heavy metal
  • Certain rare genetic disorders such as basal cell nevus syndrome, a condition that impacts the organs throughout the body
  • Living in high-altitude and sunny locations
  • Radiation therapy, or treatment that kills cancer cells and shrinks tumors

Although this type of cancer is common, it is highly treatable. The five-year relative survival rate is 100%. 

Infiltrative Basal Cell Carcinoma

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Basal cell carcinoma affecting the face.

DermNet NZ

Infiltrative basal cell carcinoma occurs when a tumor, or abnormal growth, makes its way into the dermis. The dermis is the inner layer of the two main layers of skin.

Typically, infiltrative basal cell carcinoma appears as scar tissue or thickening of the skin.

Because of its location, this type of skin cancer is harder to diagnose and treat. It is also aggressive, which means it grows and spreads quickly. It requires a biopsy, or tissue or cell sample, to properly diagnose.

A specific type of surgery called Mohs is used to remove this type of basal cell carcinoma. During surgery, thin layers of skin are removed until there is no cancer tissue left.

Superficial Basal Cell Carcinoma

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Superficial basal cell carcinoma on the face.

DermNet NZ

Superficial basal cell carcinoma is also called in situ basal-cell carcinoma. It is most common on the shoulders or the upper part of the torso. It can also be found on the legs and arms.

Superficial basal cell carcinoma isn’t generally invasive. This means it doesn't spread to other parts of the body. It grows slowly and is fairly easy to spot and diagnose. It is reddish or pinkish in color and may crust over or ooze.

Superficial basal cell carcinoma accounts for roughly 15%-26% of all basal cell carcinoma cases.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma occurs when the squamous cells become cancerous. These are small, flat cells in the middle and outer layers of the skin.

Early Stage Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Squamous cell carcinoma of limbs

DermNet NZ

Early stage squamous cell carcinomas may appear as a bump or a flat, scaly patch.

This type of cancer has an extremely high survival rate. It can be aggressive in nature, though. Left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious complications.

Squamous cell carcinoma is mostly found on the parts of the body that get the most exposure to sun, such as:

  • Face
  • Lips
  • Ears
  • Scalp
  • Shoulders
  • Neck
  • Backs of the hands
  • Forearms

It can also develop within scars, sores, or skin that has otherwise been damaged in some way.

In the early stages, a nodule will form. The nodule resembles an opalescent wart. This nodule may also have a dip in the middle that looks like a crater.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma With Central Hyperkeratosis

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Squamous Cell Carcinoma (Central Hyperkeratosis

DermNet NZ

Later-stage squamous cell carcinoma has a distinct appearance. The wart-like nodule changes into scaly, red patches called hyperkeratosis. It can also present as an open sore.

When this happens, the crusted skin can bleed on and off and become itchy.

It is important to seek treatment at or before this stage. This is because squamous cell carcinoma may spread in the body. This can lead to more serious health concerns.

Squamous cell cancers affect roughly one million Americans every year. Assigned males are more likely to develop this type of cancer. People over 50 are also at a greater risk.

Other risk factors include:

  • Light skin, hair, and eyes
  • A weakened immune system
  • Chronic, or long term infection
  • Blood cancer
  • Cancer of the bone marrow, or the spongy tissue within certain bones
  • Organ transplant, a surgery that replaces a diseased organ with a healthy one
  • Skin injury or damage

People with xeroderma pigmentosum are also at a greater risk. This is a rare genetic condition that affects the body’s ability to repair DNA, or genetic material, in the skin after sun damage.

Ulcerated Squamous Cell Carcinoma

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Squamous cell carcinoma of the lip.

Research Gate

Squamous cell carcinoma may develop into an ulcer, or sore, or become affected by one. This is known as a Marjolin ulcer.

Marjolin ulcers can be considered an infiltrative type of basal cell carcinoma. However, they are usually a squamous cell carcinoma.

Marjolin ulcers form in skin that has been damaged in some way. They happen most often in skin that has been badly burned. They can also have other causes, such as:

Marjolin ulcers can take anywhere from 11 to 75 years to turn into cancer. The average length of time is 30 to 35 years.

This type of cancer is quite aggressive, even if it grows slowly. It can infiltrate, or spread to, other areas of the body.

In the early stages of this disease, the damaged skin where the ulcer formed will begin to itch and burn. A new sore will show up shortly afterwards.

The new sore is generally flat with hard, raised edges. Other symptoms may occur, such as:

  • Severe pain
  • Bleeding
  • Crusting
  • Foul-smelling pus

Squamous Cell Carcinoma In Situ

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Ungual squamous cell carcinoma in situ.

DermNet NZ

Squamous cell carcinoma in situ is also known as Bowen’s disease. It appears as a red or brownish patch or plaque on the skin that grows slowly over time. It is a pre-cancerous condition, meaning it could turn into cancer if left untreated.

The patches are often found on the legs and lower parts of the body. They can also be found on the head and neck. In rare cases, the patches are found on the hands and feet, in the genital area, and around the anus.

Bowen’s disease is uncommon. Only 15 out of every 100,000 people develop this condition every year.

The condition typically affects Caucasian individuals. Assigned females are more likely to develop Bowen’s disease than assigned males. The majority of cases are in adults over 60.

As with other skin cancers, Bowen’s disease can develop after long-term exposure to the sun. It can also develop following radiation treatment.

Other causes include:

  • A suppressed immune system
  • Skin injury
  • Inflammatory skin conditions like eczema
  • A human papillomavirus infection, or a group of conditions that cause warts

Bowen’s disease is generally treatable. It doesn’t usually develop into squamous cell carcinoma. Up to 16% of cases develop into cancer.

What's the Difference Between Basal Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma?

Both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma aren't usually life-threatening. Squamous cell carcinoma, though, is more likely to infiltrate the deeper layers of the skin.

Melanoma

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer.

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Melanoma in situ.

DermNet NZ

Risk factors for melanoma include:

  • Sun exposure
  • Fair skin
  • Family history of melanoma

Some research suggests that genetics play a role in 72% of cases.

Using the ABCDE Method to Check for Melanoma

Use the ABCDE method to check for this form of cancer:

  • Asymmetry: Normal moles tend to be symmetrical, or a similar shape all the way around. If a mole is asymmetrical, it could be a sign of melanoma.
  • Border: Harmless moles will have regular edges. Those that could be melanoma often have an irregular border.
  • Color: The color of a mole can be a good indicator of whether it needs to be checked. Melanoma moles will have more pronounced coloring that varies. They can be red, black, dark brown, or flesh-colored.
  • Diameter: The size of the mole matters. If a mole is larger than the eraser end of a pencil, it should be checked.
  • Evolving: Moles that change over time may need to be checked. Changes in color, size, shape, or elevation should always be examined by a dermatologist.

The ABCDE method can help you keep track of any mole changes that require a visit to the dermatologist.

Using Ugly Duckling Signs to Check for Melanoma

The "ugly duckling sign" is an observation method that helps people identify a mole that could be cancerous. 

This just means you should look for moles that are "ugly ducklings" compared to your other moles. Any mole that stands out as being different in size, shape, or color compared to your other moles should be checked by a dermatologist.

Nodular Melanoma

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Nodular melanoma.

DermNet NZ

Nodular melanoma can develop on any part of the body. However, it occurs most often on:

  • Legs
  • Torso
  • Arms
  • Head

Nodular melanoma may look like a mole, bug bite, or pimple. It is typically solid in color. It is often black, but it can also be pink, tan, blue, gray, red, or white.

Assigned males are more likely to develop nodular melanoma than assigned females. The condition is often found in adults over 50.

The EFG method can be used to detect this type of melanoma:

  • Elevation: A mole that is elevated off the skin could be a cause for concern. The elevation could be even or uneven.
  • Firm: Nodular melanomas are usually very firm to the touch.
  • Growth: Mole growth is a significant cause for concern. This always requires further inspection.

Nodular melanomas are fast-growing. A nodular melanoma will continue to grow past the typical two to three week growth of a new, normal mole.

Amelanotic Melanoma

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Amelanotic nodular melanoma.

DermNet NZ

An amelanotic melanoma often has little to no color. It may have a pinkish or whitish appearance.

This type accounts for the majority of melanoma cases in children. It may be difficult to spot using the ABCDE method. That's because this type of melanoma doesn’t have the typical features of other types of melanoma.

Acral Lentiginous Melanoma

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Acral lentiginous melanoma.

DermNet NZ

Acral lentiginous melanoma occurs on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, or beneath the nails. It can develop on its own or within an existing mole.

This type of skin cancer first appears as a discolored flat patch. It can infiltrate the skin when it passes from the top layer of skin into the dermis.

This type of melanoma typically looks like a large mole with a smooth surface. It thickens over time. Its color varies from a mixture of brown, blue, and grey to black and red colors.

This cancer is the most common form of skin cancer in people with black or brown skin, accounting for 29%-72% of all melanoma cases in this group of individuals.

Assigned males and assigned females are equally affected. The majority of cases occur in adults over the age of 40.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel cell carcinoma is rare. It grows rapidly and presents as a nodule that is flesh-colored or bluish-red.

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Merkel cell carcinoma.

DermNet NZ

It most commonly found on the face, head, or neck. Older adults are more likely to develop Merkel cell carcinoma.

Risk factors include:

  • Sun exposure
  • A suppressed immune system
  • Light skin
  • A history of other skin cancers

It is very aggressive and can spread easily throughout the body. Its risk for returning is also high. 

It is estimated that one in 130,000 people in the United States will develop Merkel cell carcinoma at some point in their lives.

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Merkel cell carcinoma.

DermNet NZ

The AEIOU method can help with early detection:

  • Asymptomatic: The nodule won't feel tender.
  • Expanding rapidly: The nodule grows rapidly in less than three months.
  • Immunosuppression: A person with a weakened immune system is more at risk for developing Merkel cell carcinoma.
  • Older age: Adults over 50 are more susceptible to this type of cancer.
  • UV exposure: The nodule will often appear on sun-exposed, fair skin.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma, Collision Tumor

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CSL of a basal cell carcinoma and an angioma.

Europe PMC

A collision tumor occurs when there is more than one type of skin cancer on the same part of the body. This can happen with Merkel cell and squamous cell cancers. It can also happen with Merkel cell and Bowen’s disease or basal cell carcinoma.

Collision tumors are more likely to occur in adults over 60 following a lifetime of sun exposure.

Summary

Learning how to spot different types of skin cancer can help you get an early diagnosis. Many skin cancers are very treatable in the early stages.

The four types of skin cancer include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and Merkel cell carcinoma. Appearance may vary from person to person. If you notice nodules, crust, warts, sores, or patches on your body, it's best to see your dermatologist right away.

A Word From Verywell 

It's good practice to have a dermatologist check out any new growths, even if they look normal.

You can decrease your risk of developing skin cancer by avoiding too much sun and tanning, as well as wearing sunscreen, and covering your body as much as possible while outdoors.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does skin cancer look like?

    Skin cancer can appear as moles, nodules, rashes, scaly patches, or sores that won't heal. Look for skin growths or patches that are different from other areas of the skin and change over time.

  • What types of skin cancer are deadliest?

    Melanoma causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. These cancers are usually asymmetrical with ragged borders, and are unevenly colored.

  • What does skin cancer on the lip look like?

    Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of lip cancer. It starts as a raised, wart-like bump that may or may not have a dimple in the middle. A scab-like crust may form, but the area won’t heal and may occasionally bleed.

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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.
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