Recognizing early stage skin cancer can drastically improve the outlook. Lesions can vary in appearance but common features include irregular skin changes and wounds that do not heal.

In early stage skin cancer, the cancer is small and has not yet spread beyond the top layer of the skin. Early stage skin cancer is also known as stage 0 or stage 1, depending on the type of skin cancer.

Early stage skin cancer is highly curable with appropriate treatment, but prompt detection and treatment are key to successful outcomes.

This article explains how people can recognize early stage skin cancer.

Early stage cancer can appear differently on different skin tones. Here are some examples of what it can look like.

Early skin cancer can appear in different ways, depending on the type.

Here are some common signs to watch for:

  • a sore that does not heal
  • a spot or bump that becomes scaly, crusty, or bleeds
  • a mole or birthmark that changes in size, color, or shape
  • a new growth on the skin that looks pearly, translucent, or shiny
  • a red or scaly may be a red or scaly patch of skin that does not heal
  • a scaly skin patch or wart-like growth

People should self-examine once a month to look for any unusual, new, or changing spots.

If a person has concerns about skin changes, a dermatologist can assess these changes. The outlook is better for skin cancer when there is early detection and treatment, and it is essential to seek help as soon as changes occur.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has an online directory to help people find a dermatologist.

What does skin cancer look like on darker skin tones?

Doctors classify skin cancer according to its types and spread.

The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.


These are the most common types of skin cancer, which doctors stage as 0–4.

  • Stage 0: In the precancerous stage, abnormal cells are present but have not yet developed into cancer. In BCC, there may be a red or scaly patch of skin that does not heal. In SCC, there may be a scaly skin patch or wart-like growth.
  • Stage 1: In stage 1, cancer has formed, and the tumor is 2 centimeters (cm) or smaller.
  • Stage 2: In stage 2, the tumor measures 2–4 cm.
  • Stage 3: The tumor is either larger than 4 cm or cancer has grown into tissues under the skin and possibly the bone and nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4: Cancer has spread throughout the body.


Melanoma also has stages 0–4:

  • Stage 0: Also known as melanoma in situ, abnormal cells are present but have not spread beyond the top layer of skin. A mole may have changed in appearance, or there may be a new mole.
  • Stage 1: Cancer has spread into the dermis, the layer under the skin.
  • Stage 2: Cancer is still in the skin tissues but deeper than before and more likely to spread.
  • Stage 3: Cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or lymph vessels.
  • Stage 4: Cancer has spread to distant organs, such as the lungs or brain.

Learn more about the types of skin cancer.

The ABCDEs can help people detect melanoma on the skin.

FeatureMole or birthmarkCancer
A: Asymmetryoften symmetrical, where one side matches the othertwo sides are not symmetrical
B: Borderusually smooth and evenblurred or irregular border
C: Coloruniform colorcontains different shades of brown, black, red, purple, white, or blue
D: Diameter usually less than 6 mmmoles or birthmarks larger than 6 mm — about the size of a pencil eraser — are more likely to become cancerous
E: Evolvingtends to remain the samechanges in size, shape, texture, or color

Read on to learn the answers to some commonly asked questions about early stage skin cancer.

What does stage 1 skin cancer look like?

Stage 1 skin cancer can vary in appearance depending on the type of skin cancer. Generally, it appears as a small growth or sore with a pearly or waxy appearance. It may also look like a red, scaly patch or a pink or flesh-colored bump.

How can you tell early skin cancer?

Early skin cancer can be difficult to distinguish from benign skin growths or typical moles, but there are some signs to watch for.

For melanoma, a person can use the ABCDE method to check for signs of skin cancer in moles or growths. This method stands for asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, diameter greater than 6 millimeters (mm), and evolving changes in size, shape, or color.

Is early stage skin cancer curable?

With early detection and prompt treatment, the outlook for skin cancer is generally high. For instance, a person with localized melanoma has over 99% chance of surviving another 5 years after diagnosis compared with someone without melanoma. However, untreated, skin cancer can spread to other body parts, making treatment more challenging.

Can apps help with early detection?

Skin cancer is highly treatable with early detection. Early stage skin cancer is the initial phase when the cancer is small and has not yet spread beyond the top layer of the skin.

Regular skin checks, self-examinations, and sun protective measures can help reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. The ABCDE method can help people recognize the early signs of melanoma skin cancer.

What effect does sun exposure have on skin cancer risk?