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What is a skin biopsy?

Skin biopsies involve removing a sample of skin for examination under a microscope to determine if cancerous cells are present. Various skin biopsies are performed under local anesthesia and are used to diagnose all types of skin cancer including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. The patient usually feels a small needle stick and a little burning for about a minute, with a little pressure, but no pain.


There are several different types of skin biopsies:

  • Incisional skin biopsies — The physician uses a scalpel to remove a small sample of a larger lesion or suspect site on the skin.
  • Excisional skin biopsies — The physician uses a scalpel to take off the entire lesion, which is typically used in the case of much smaller lesions or suspect sites on the skin.
  • Punch skin biopsies — A small instrument known as a punch is used to remove a circular section that includes all layers of a lesion.
  • Shave skin biopsies — Instruments are used to shave a thin layer from the top of the lesion or suspect site.
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