Skin Exams Minus the Embarrassment

If you’ve ever undergone a total-body skin exam by your dermatologist to screen for skin cancer, you may have felt embarrassed and uncomfortable during the process.

The screenings, usually reserved for people who have had, or are at high risk for, skin cancer, involve disrobing so your doctor can check your skin from top to bottom for suspicious moles or growths.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine were concerned that some people might avoid their scheduled skin exams because of the embarrassment of disrobing. The researchers surveyed 443 patients who visited their doctors for a total body skin exam.

The study, published in the September 2016 issue of JAMA Dermatology, found that one-third of women and about one-sixth of men had a preference for the gender of the examining doctor.

Nearly all the women wanted a female doctor, and about two-thirds of the men preferred a male doctor. Nearly half of the women and 40 percent of men said they preferred to leave their undergarments on during the exam.

Although doctors can work around undergarments, 31 percent of women and about 13 percent of men didn’t want their genitals examined at all. Since skin cancer in the genital areas is rare—making up less than 1 percent of all melanomas—the researchers felt that doctors need to balance the benefit of occasionally finding genital melanoma against provoking patient anxiety.

One study limitation was the researchers’ inability to determine how many people avoid total body skin exams altogether, which could increase the number of patients who are uncomfortable during a skin check.

Our advice

Let your doctor’s office know if you feel embarrassed about undergoing a total body skin exam or if you’d prefer a male or female healthcare provider to examine you.

Before your exam, tell your provider if you’d like to leave your undergarments in place or if you don’t want your genital area to be examined. Your doctor may not be aware of your discomfort, so don’t be afraid to speak up.

Learn more about the dangers of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers.

Meet Our Writer

HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.