What Is Dermoscopy & What Can It Detect?

If you’ve noticed abnormal changes in your skin, one of the first things you should do is book an appointment with a dermatologist. Although many skin lesions are harmless, some can be a sign of an underlying condition requiring treatment, so it’s important to promptly consult with a medical professional.

When you meet with a dermatologist, they may recommend undergoing a diagnostic procedure known as “dermoscopy.” But what is dermoscopy, exactly, and what can it be used to detect? Below, we explain what dermoscopy is and how dermatologists use it in their practice.

What Is Dermoscopy?

Dermoscopy (also known as “dermatoscopy” and “skin surface microscopy”) is a noninvasive procedure used to evaluate a person’s skin, hair, or nails. A trained dermatologist uses a handheld instrument that supplies additional light and magnification (a dermatoscope), allowing them to visualize the area in greater detail.

What Can Dermoscopy Detect?

Dermoscopy is most commonly used to examine pigmented skin lesions. Because a dermatoscope produces much more detailed images than that which could be seen by the naked eye, it makes it considerably easier for a dermatologist to evaluate a pigmented skin lesion’s:

  • Borders
  • Color
  • Patterns
  • Pigment distribution
  • Shape
  • Structure
  • Symmetry
  • Uniformity

Pigmented skin lesions can be a symptom of various conditions, including:

  • Atypical moles – When determining whether a mole is atypical, dermatologists consider the ABCDE warning signs: asymmetry (atypical moles are less symmetrical than normal moles); border (atypical moles usually have uneven borders); color (atypical moles may contain multiple colors); diameter and darkness (atypical moles are usually larger and darker than normal ones); and evolution (a mole that changes over time may be atypical). Although atypical moles are generally benign, they can sometimes develop into melanoma.
  • Basal cell carcinoma – The most common type of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma develops when the basal cells (found in the top layer of the skin) begin to grow uncontrollably. Approximately 3.6 million Americans are diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma each year.
  • Bowen’s disease – Also known as “squamous cell carcinoma in situ,” Bowen’s disease is an early form of squamous cell skin cancer. When the malignancy is at this stage, the cancer cells are confined to the top layer of skin. But if left untreated, the cancer may spread deeper.
  • Hemangiomas – A hemangioma is a bright red birthmark consisting of extra blood vessels. Hemangiomas are typically flat when they first appear but may gradually turn into a rubbery bump.
  • Melanoma – Melanoma develops when the melanocytes (the cells responsible for producing melanin) start growing uncontrollably. Although melanoma is less common than certain other types of skin cancer—such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma—it’s generally more dangerous because it tends to spread more quickly.
  • Merkel cell carcinoma – This is a very rare type of skin cancer, with about 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States. When compared to other forms of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma tends to grow quite rapidly.
  • Seborrheic keratosis – Seborrheic keratosis is a relatively common type of noncancerous skin growth. These lesions aren’t contagious and generally don’t require treatment. However, you may want to have them removed for aesthetic reasons or if they become irritated when clothing rubs against them.

Other Types of Dermoscopy

Although physicians primarily utilize dermoscopy to diagnose pigmented skin lesions, they can also use this procedure to:

  • Evaluate other skin conditions (for example, discoid lupus erythematosus, lichen planus, melasma, scabies, and vitiligo)
  • Assess hair loss
  • Find a splinter

What to Expect During a Dermoscopy Procedure

If you’ve never undergone dermoscopy before, you may be unsure of what to expect. Here’s what will likely happen:

  • The provider will clean the area in question, apply a gel or solution, then gently press the dermatoscope against your skin. The gel helps make the skin’s surface more transparent, allowing the provider to also see structures below the surface.
  • Once the dermatoscope is in place, the provider will view your skin through it and capture any necessary photos or video.
  • The provider will let you know whether you need to undergo further monitoring or testing (for example, a biopsy).

Many patients are concerned about whether they will experience any pain during the course of dermoscopy. You can rest easy knowing that dermoscopy is a painless procedure. Although you may feel gentle pressure when the provider places the dermatoscope against your skin, you shouldn’t experience any discomfort.

Where to Go for Dermoscopy in Tampa Bay

If you’re interested in undergoing the dermoscopy procedure, you can turn to the dermatology specialists at Florida Medical Clinic, a trusted practice that’s been treating patients since 1993. We have numerous offices throughout the Tampa Bay region, including one in North Tampa (at 17401 Commerce Park Boulevard). Click here to request an appointment with Dr. Diaz at this location.

About Dr. Lisa M. Diaz, DO, FAAD

Dr. Diaz attended the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton, interned at Larkin Community Hospital in Miami, and completed a dermatology residency at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where she served as Chief Resident and received the Resident of the Year award. She has earned board certification by the American Board of Dermatology, and she practices in all areas of the field, including general, cosmetic, surgical, and pediatric dermatology.

Dr. Diaz’s research has been published in peer-reviewed literature and presented at national and international conferences, and she’s also coauthored two books that were published as part of the Clinical Cases in Dermatology series. A Tampa native, Dr. Diaz enjoys visiting the beach, trying out new restaurants, and traveling with her family.



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