How to Tell if Your Child Needs to be Seen by a Dermatologist

Few things are quite as pristine as a child’s skin. Soft, smooth and unblemished, if only it could stay that way—for all of us. But even though the incidence of melanoma and skin cancer in children and adolescents is rare, it’s on the rise, with an average increase of 2% each year. And the best way to safeguard your children’s health is to detect and treat any issues as early as possible.

“There is rarely a good excuse for not getting your skin examined to prevent the development of dangerous skin cancers,” says Stefan Bradu, MD, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at New York University and SUNY Downstate Medical Center. “Skin cancer is the most common of all cancer types and one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.”

Dr. Bradu recommends seeking professional advice for moles that are changing in shape, border, color, size or surface. Other concerning skin growths are those that are new, asymmetric, large (over 5 mm across), itching, tender, bleeding or “unusual.” “In patients with multiple moles, we pay particular attention to the “unusual” moles that look different from all the other moles, for example darker moles,” says Dr. Bradu. “Dangerous childhood skin cancers like melanoma are relatively rare, but diagnosis can be challenging. Moles can grow during childhood, but they should grow uniformly and in proportion to the rest of the body. Childhood melanoma is often amelanotic (without obvious dark pigment) and may also appear as raised, bumpy or ulcerated lesions that are sometimes mistaken for benign skin conditions.”

According to Dr. Bradu, the ideal test for skin cancers is a total-body skin examination that should cover all areas of the skin, including the scalp, back, and feet, especially between the toes. “The examining doctor should be comfortable with an examination technique called dermoscopy,” he says. “It is done with an instrument that allows one to determine if a skin lesion is benign or dangerous. With dermoscopy, it is becoming more common for physicians to be able pick up small melanomas known as micromelanoms.”

But helping to prevent skin cancers doesn’t take a lot of effort: Avoid sun burns. Try to seek shade, cover up and wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or more). Dr. Bradu recommends finding out information about free skin-cancer screenings in your area from the American Academy of Dermatology. And if you are nervous about any potentially dangerous chemicals in the sunscreen, you can find out more about its safety factor at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.