What is a skin biopsy?

A skin biopsy is a procedure that removes a small sample of skin for testing. The skin sample is looked at under a microscope to check for skin cancer, skin infections, or skin disorders such as psoriasis.

There are three main ways to do a skin biopsy:

  • A punch biopsy, which uses a special circular tool to remove the sample.
  • A shave biopsy, which removes the sample with a razor blade
  • An excisional biopsy, which removes the sample with small knife called a scalpel.

The type of biopsy you get depends on the location and size of the abnormal area of skin, known as a skin lesion. Most skin biopsies can be done in a health care provider’s office or other outpatient facility.

Other names: punch biopsy, shave biopsy, excisional biopsy, skin cancer biopsy, basal cell biopsy, squamous cell biopsy, melanoma biopsy

What is it used for?

A skin biopsy is used to help diagnose a variety of skin conditions including:

  • Skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema
  • Bacterial or fungal infections of the skin
  • Skin cancer. A biopsy can confirm or rule out whether a suspicious mole or other growth is cancerous.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell and squamous cell cancers. These cancers rarely spread to other parts of the body and are usually curable with treatment. The third type of skin cancer is called melanoma. Melanoma is less common than the other two, but more dangerous because it’s more likely to spread. Most skin cancer deaths are caused by melanoma.

A skin biopsy can help diagnose skin cancer in the early stages when it’s easier to treat.

Why do I need a skin biopsy?

You may need a skin biopsy if you have certain skin symptoms such as:

  • A persistent rash
  • Scaly or rough skin
  • Open sores
  • A mole or other growth that is irregular in shape, color, and/or size

What happens during a skin biopsy?

A health care provider will clean the site and inject an anesthetic so you won’t feel any pain during the procedure. The rest of the procedure steps depend on which type of skin biopsy you are getting. There are three main types:

Punch biopsy

  • A health care provider will place a special circular tool over the abnormal skin area (lesion) and rotate it to remove a small piece of skin (about the size of a pencil eraser).
  • The sample will be lifted out with a special tool
  • If a larger skin sample was taken, you may need one or two stitches to cover the biopsy site.
  • Pressure will be applied to the site until the bleeding stops.
  • The site will be covered with a bandage or sterile dressing.

A punch biopsy is often used to diagnose rashes.

Shave biopsy

  • A health care provider will use a razor or a scalpel to remove a sample from the top layer of your skin.
  • Pressure will be applied to the biopsy site to stop the bleeding. You may also get a medicine that goes on top of the skin (also called a topical medicine) to help stop the bleeding.

A shave biopsy is often used if your provider thinks you may have skin cancer, or if you have a rash that’s limited to the top layer of your skin.

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