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6 Skin Changes That Probably Aren’t Cancer But Still Need Attention

Why you should pay attention when your skin displays these warning signs

woman scratching her arm
Maria Fuchs / Getty Images

Is your skin sending up red flags? Even if you diligently watch for changing moles and other possible signs of skin cancer, you should not ignore changes that are unlikely to be cancer but could spell trouble, skin-health experts say. In some cases, these changes are warning signs of other potential problems; in others, they are treatable conditions that tend to get worse if you do nothing.

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Here are a few common skin changes to watch for.

1. Very dry skin

Dry skin isn’t deadly, but it can make you vulnerable to more serious problems, including skin infections and inflammation. As we age, the glands in our skin produce less oil, making it dryer. Joseph Jorizzo, M.D., a professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, estimates that about one-third of people are especially prone to dryness because they have low levels of a barrier protein found in the skin’s outer layer.

Those people are “really going to notice it when they get past 55,” he observes. Dryness tends to be worst in winter, thanks to dry indoor air, but the most vulnerable people have problems in summer, too, because their skin has low heat tolerance, Jorizzo says.

Hot baths and showers, frequent handwashing, harsh soaps and chlorine in pools can dry skin further.

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Your best defense, Jorizzo says, is a daily moisturizer containing ceramide fatty acids, found in many drugstore brands, applied right after your bath or shower. Shari Lipner, M.D., an associate professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, adds that “you want to use something as thick as possible.” Look for a product that won’t drip off an overturned palm, she advises.

2. Itchy, scaly or cracked skin

Skin that isn’t just dry but is itchy, scaly, cracked, inflamed or otherwise irritated requires a higher level of attention, Jorizzo says. Many people with milder irritation will get relief from an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, he says. But more severe and persistent problems need medical attention and a proper diagnosis.

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One common diagnosis: eczema, a disorder in which the skin becomes inflamed, red and itchy. Although many people think of eczema as a childhood disease, it’s also common in later years, as a complication of dry, damaged skin, Jorizzo explains.

Watching for Skin Cancer

Some skin changes, of course, may signal cancer and should be checked out by a doctor. Signs of the most serious skin cancer, melanoma, can include: ​

  • A mole or other spot that is changing​
  • A spot that differs from any other spot​
  • A growth that itches, bleeds or hurts​
  • A band of color beneath or around a nail​
  • A sore that does not heal or heals and returns

Source: American Academy of Dermatology

Adults of any age can develop psoriasis, a skin disease with a strong genetic underpinning that causes itchy or sore patches of thick, red or purplish skin (depending on your skin tone) with silvery scales. “I have seen people who never had psoriasis until they were 94 years old,” Jorizzo says.

Distinguishing eczema from psoriasis is important because treatments and complications differ. For example, some people with skin psoriasis develop a related form of arthritis, Lipner says, and need treatment for both their skin and joints.

Very dry, itchy skin also can be a sign of kidney disease, but it typically develops in the late stage of the condition, when people are sick enough to need dialysis or a transplant.

3. Persistent bruising

Bumping your arm and getting a bruise that goes away in a few days is no cause for concern. And bruising is more common as we age and our skin becomes more fragile, Lipner says. But she adds that persistent, easy bruising sometimes points to a problem with blood clotting. It’s worth a visit to a health care provider to figure out the cause, she notes. The list of suspects could include blood thinners and certain blood cancers.

4. Acne or acne-like bumps

Adults do get acne. It’s especially common in women going through the hormonal changes of menopause, Lipner says. It’s a treatable condition at any age.

But many adults who think they have acne actually have another condition called rosacea, Jorizzo points out. Rosacea typically shows up as visible blood vessels and red pus-filled bumps over the nose and cheeks. People with rosacea also may have gritty-feeling eyes. The hallmark of the condition is flushing over the face that happens when the “brain feels that you are too warm,” Jorizzo says. Triggers can include hot beverages, alcohol, spicy food, hot showers, exercise and strong emotions.

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While there’s no cure for rosacea, people can learn to manage it and reduce symptoms.

5. Rashes on your feet

Any unexplained rash should get your attention, especially if it is widespread or comes with fever or pain. Allergic reactions and infections are common causes. But lingering rashes on your feet may be easy to miss or ignore until they really cause trouble.

One big problem has a mild-sounding nickname: athlete’s foot. It’s a fungal infection that can cause irritated patches, often starting between the toes. Left untreated, the infection can spread to toenails, which are more difficult to treat. The infection can cause open sores, which are especially dangerous in people with diabetes, Jorizzo says. An infection that starts out as a minor nuisance can cascade to a foot amputation, he cautions. The earlier that a foot or toenail infection is treated, the better, Jorizzo and Lipner stress.

6. Flat, dark spots all over your skin

The good news is that the flat spots or blotches proliferating on your hands, back, chest or elsewhere almost certainly are not skin cancer. You may know them as age or liver spots, but dermatologists call them solar lentigines. They are usually tan or brown and are most common in people with fair skin.

If you have a lot of them, your skin is telling you something important, Lipner says: “It’s a sign that you’ve had a lot of cumulative sun exposure over the years … and that contributes to skin aging and to the risk of skin cancer.” It’s never too late to reduce your risk for premature wrinkles, skin cancer and more age spots by using sunscreen, seeking shade, and wearing clothes and hats that cover your skin, Lipner and Jorizzo say.

People with many solar lentigines also should stay alert for possible skin cancers in the same areas, Jorizzo says. Especially suspicious, he says, is any “ugly duckling” spot that looks very different from surrounding spots. A dermatologist can do a full-body skin exam periodically to look for worrisome spots.​

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