Questions to Ask a Dermatologist

No question is too small when it comes to your skin.

Skin is the body’s largest organ, and even small skin changes may have major health implications. Dermatologists — doctors who specialize in treating disorders of the hair, skin and nails — are eager to share information about treating skin problems and keeping your skin healthy.

However, if you have a chronic skin condition — such as psoriasis or eczema — you probably already know how difficult it can be to make a dermatology appointment. With a continual shortage of dermatologists, locating a nearby practice or finding one taking new patients is often challenging. But be persistent, especially in seeking attention for new or worsening skin issues that require prompt attention.

Once you’re in the door, dermatologists advise asking questions like these to make the most of your visit.

I have a new or changing skin growth — what could it mean?

Skin growths or changes are often benign, but in some cases, they could be cancerous or precancerous lesions. From freckles to moles, ask and tell your dermatologist when anything changes with your skin. “Patients need to tell their doctors specifically if they have something new or something that might be getting larger, crusted, scabbed or darker,” says Dr. Joel L. Cohen, director of AboutSkin Dermatology in the Denver area. “In addition, let your doctor know about a skin growth, even a tiny freckle with irregular color or borders.”

Don’t put off scheduling an appointment. “Duration of the lesion change can be very important as well,” he says.

How does my family and personal medical history affect my skin cancer risk?

A close relative has been diagnosed with skin cancer, and you’re understandably concerned. It’s important to bring this up with your dermatologist. “Patients should always indicate if they have a family history of skin cancer such as melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma,” Cohen says. “And they should indicate if they have a personal history of skin cancer or a personal history of atypical moles (or dysplastic nevi) — as patients with atypical moles have a higher risk of future melanoma.”

Describe previous sun exposure, as well. Your doctor wants to know if you’ve ever had any severe or blistering sunburns and their location, Cohen says, such as on your nose, shoulders or legs.

Why do I need a full-skin exam?

You came in for a rash on your elbow — so why is the nurse handing you a gown and asking you to change behind the screen? A full-skin exam helps put isolated skin changes in context, explains Dr. Suzanne Olbricht, chief of dermatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“One sign of melanoma are ‘ugly-duckling moles’ or moles that don’t look like your other moles,” Olbricht says. If a dark mole on your arm is similar to others on your body, she says, that’s probably normal. But if a patient has light-colored moles, a dark mole, even if it’s small, might be a sign of an atypia or even cancer.

Similarly, she adds, “if you have psoriasis on your elbows, the physician might want to look and see if you have psoriasis in other places. That would help them better tailor a treatment for you.”

Would it help to see my ‘before’ pictures?

Patients sometimes show up at appointments with past cellphone images of problem skin areas. That can be useful, Olbricht says. Your dermatologist can then compare your skin’s current appearance to how it looked six months ago or see how it’s responding to treatment.

Visuals play a large role in diagnosing common skin disorders. That’s another reason, in addition to dermatologist shortages, that some patients are turning to teledermatology to receive a virtual examination and treatment recommendations for a skin growth or condition.

How can I monitor myself or family members for potential skin problems?

It helps to be proactive.

“I really like when patients are interested in what type of skin lesions or changes they should be monitoring themselves and their family members for,” Cohen says. “It’s a great prompt for me to give them a handout and review the ABCDE of atypical skin lesions with them.”

This is the ABCDE rule to look for common signs of melanoma, one of the most lethal forms of skin cancer:

— Asymmetry. In a single birthmark or mole, one part doesn’t match the other.

— Border. Edges are ragged, irregular, notches or blurred.

— Color. You see color variations that may include brown or black shades, sometimes with pink, red, white or blue patches.

— Diameter. The spot is larger than 1/4 inch in diameter, roughly the size of a pencil eraser. However, melanoma can sometimes be smaller.

— Evolving. A mole is changing in shape, size or color.

Should I bring along a list of skin care products I use?

Lotions, body wash, facial masks, perfume and even lip balm can cause contact dermatitis or other skin reactions. If you have an unexplained rash, bringing along a list of those products — or better yet, the products themselves — gives your dermatologist clues about which potentially irritating ingredients you’ve been exposed to. That can include natural products or ingredients. Over-the counter materials, organic ingredients, natural materials or something that’s labeled as natural can potentially irritate the skin or cause a rash, too, Olbricht says.

Similarly, let your dermatologist know about any prescription or over-the-counter medications you take, including nutritional supplements, to rule out allergic reactions or drug interactions.

How do you protect your family from the sun’s rays?

Your dermatologist can offer a wealth of sun-smart advice on effective sunscreens, times of day to avoid the sun and long-term skin cancer risks you may not be aware of — like left-arm sun exposure for frequent drivers or right-arm exposure for passengers.

If patients ask, Cohen is happy to share his family’s sun-protection strategies: “Wide-brim hats, sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium every two hours and then UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) shirts are all key when we are at the beach or on the athletic field.”

How can I manage dry, itchy skin during the winter?

Different seasons bring different skin-care issues. Dry, rough, itchy, chapped and cracked skin can be particularly troublesome during winter, with changes in humidity and the drying impact of indoor heat.

Because older people tend to have thinner, more fragile skin, they can be especially vulnerable to shifts in weather or climate. Your dermatologist can suggest a variety of preventive skin care techniques including but not limited to sun and cold-weather protection.

When will I hear about the pathology report?

When you’ve just had a skin biopsy to provide a sample to be tested for cancerous cells, you don’t need extra suspense. Your dermatologist should be able to give you some idea of when to expect the results. “Some offices prefer to call,” Olbricht says. “Some will send a letter. We all have an idea of how long it will take for the pathologist to give us an answer.” It’s not unusual to have some delay around the holidays, for instance, and the doctor can let you know that.

However, don’t assume that no news is good news. Speak up to make sure this important information doesn’t fall through the cracks. “If the patient doesn’t get an answer when they’re told that they would, it is 100% fair and proactive to call the doctor’s office and ask about the report,” Olbricht says.

How do I take care of the site after a dermatology procedure?

After a dermatology test or procedure — such as a skin biopsy or light therapy for psoriasis — you need to know how to manage the skin site and which side effects to watch for at home.

With a biopsy, routine information includes:

— When to remove the dressing.

— When it’s OK to shower or bathe.

— How long to avoid certain activities.

— Whether you need to return to have any stitches removed.

The dermatology staff will likely send you home with instructions about when to call regarding side effects such as worsening pain, swelling, bleeding, redness, warmth or pus-like drainage at the site, or if you’re running a persistent fever.

Could an on-the-job task, sports activity, hobby or other habit be affecting my skin?

Your dermatologist has no way of knowing that your skin is routinely exposed to artificial sports turf, harsh occupational chemicals or campsite poison ivy — unless you say something.

For example, food service workers who routinely wear gloves could experience skin reactions, such as itchiness, redness or rash, due to a latex allergy. If you’re a frequent swimmer, chlorine can take a toll on your skin. Once dermatologists are aware of issues like these, they can suggest workarounds and preventive measures to safeguard your skin.

Questions to ask a dermatologist

During your dermatology visit, learn about skin health through questions like these:

— What could a new or changing skin growth mean?

— How does my family and medical history affect my skin cancer risk?

— Why do I need a full-skin exam?

— Would it help to see my “before” pictures?

— How can I monitor myself or family members for skin problems?

— Should I bring along a list of skin products I use?

— How do you protect your family from the sun’s rays?

— How can I manage dry, itchy skin during the winter?

— When will I hear about the pathology report?

— How do I take care of the site after a dermatology procedure?

— Could an on-the-job task, sports activity, hobby or other habit be affecting my skin?

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Questions to Ask a Dermatologist originally appeared on

Update 01/18/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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