Is It Cancerous? A Derm Explains How to Decode Your Skin Marks


Camp Cove Swim

If I had to give myself a lifetime grade for sun protection, it would probably be a B-minus. I've never stepped foot in a tanning bed; I've never been so hell-bent on bronzed skin to cover myself in oil and lay out for hours on end. But I've also never been particularly stringent about lathering on SPF on a daily basis. (I'm just going to the office, I tell myself.) Or, I'll go for a hike with a layer of sunscreen on my face and shoulders but completely neglect my arms and legs. (It's just an hour, I tell myself.) Or, I'll shrug off the resulting bad burn. (It happens, I tell myself.)

When I moved to L.A. last year, my own negligence became a lot more difficult to justify—it's a lot harder to ignore the sun when it shines for nearly 365 days a year, unpunctuated by overcast skies and harsh winters. And even though I think I've greatly improved my habits over the past several months as a result (you'll always find a tube of La Roche-Posay's Anthelios in my bag), this summer, I've still noticed a handful of phantom marks appear on my skin. There's a chance that some of them have lived there for some time, and I'm only seeing them now as a result of my newly invigorated routine. But how can I know for sure? What's the difference between an innocuous sunspot and a precancerous mole, anyway?

It only made sense to defer to a dermatologist—in fact, I spoke with two to clear things up. And while both strongly advise checking in with your own skin doc for regular scans—especially if you notice anything new or worrisome—you can sidestep some immediate panic by looking out for certain signs at home. Below, we decode it all.

Being smart about your skin starts with picking a great SPF. Here is everything you need to know about sunscreen.