Our skin is the largest organ of our body. That’s right, an organ! And it’s a smart one that deserves more than just a little TLC. It protects us from exposure to dangerous bacteria in the environment, produces melanin to protect us from the sun, and it can tell us when something wonky is happening underneath the surface.
Though closely examining every inch of our skin isn’t on the typical day-to-day agenda, people are much more aware of their skin health then they were in the past, says Adam Plotkin, M.D., a South Florida-based dermatologist. This is due to a combination of sun exposure and skin cancer awareness combined with an overall concern with aging and appearance, he says. (Kick-start your new, healthy routine with Women’s Health’s 12-Week Total-Body Transformation!)
So while it’s easy to brush off a blemish as nothing more than, well, a blemish, if you find yourself asking these five questions, it’s time to visit a dermatologist.
In general, you’re looking for changes in any existing moles, or any new moles. If you’ve found any alarming spots or discolorations, it’s time to for a professional to evaluate, Plotkin says. Luckily, people are discovering skin cancers earlier than in the past, which makes them more amenable to treatment. “We’re more aware of the danger of sun exposure and early diagnosis is the key to treat skin cancer more effectively then in the past, sometimes with a non-surgical approach, which is very exciting,” says Plotkin.
If you haven’t found any alarming moles or spots, it’s still important have your skin screened by a dermatologist on an annual basis—or a six-month basis if you have a history of sun exposure, a family history of skin cancer, or are on certain medications, which can affect the bleeding and clotting of the skin.
When you have some kind of skin eruption or rash, it’s best to resort to a doctor visit over relying on the internet or an OTC cream, Plotkin says. While being able to access information on the internet is helpful, pictures of different rashes can look the same. A dermatologist has the ability to spot difficult patterns to replicate in rashes and are able to recommend the correct course of treatment.
“Eighty percent of women experience hair loss due to aging alone,” says Plotkin.
But remember, we’re not able to see the top of our heads and scalps, where small moles or melanomas can appear, so any scaling, itchiness to the scalp, or sudden hair loss are all important signs you need to see a dermatologist. It could also be psoriasis, a very common problem that sometimes occurs because of the chemicals that people use on their hair, according to Plotkin.
While we all know use of sunscreen is a must, a prevention tactic more frequently overlooked is the daily application of moisturizer. “Every day we’re exposed to UV rays, pollens, everything environmental,” Plotkin explains. “As we age, our skin’s tight intracellular bond is lost, so our skin’s immune system weakens and is more prone to reactions of coming into contact with daily environmental factors.” Moisturizer hydrates the skin and repairs the barrier function that is normally lost with aging.
If you’re not asking yourself, or the internet, any of the questions above, you should still see a dermatologist once each year for an annual screening. “Sometimes things grow and you have no symptoms, or nothing bothers you, but things occur quickly,” Plotkin says. “But just because it’s not bothering you doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, and this is where a dermatologist comes in.” The chances of restoring skin, nail, and hair health are much higher when you catch problems earlier rather than later.