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Shave biopsy

A shave biopsy is a diagnostic test where a thin piece of skin is removed from the surface using a sharp blade. The skin is then examined under a microscope.

Why a shave biopsy is done

A shave biopsy is only used for growths or abnormal areas that are on the top or outer layers of skin. This includes the epidermis and the outermost part of the dermis.

A shave biopsy is mainly done to diagnose:

  • types of non-melanoma skin cancer such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma
  • other skin tumours including actinic keratosis (a precancerous condition of the skin)
  • non-cancerous skin tumours or conditions such as seborrheic keratoses

In some cases, a shave biopsy is used as a treatment to completely remove a non-cancerous growth such as a wart or skin tag.

How a shave biopsy is done

A shave biopsy is usually done in the doctor’s office or in a clinic. It usually takes about 10–15 minutes.

The skin is cleaned and a local anesthetic is used to freeze the area so you won’t feel any pain. A round bump (called a wheal) may form. The doctor uses a sharp blade to shave off the tumour.

After the biopsy is done, a chemical is put on the wound or the wound is heated with electricity to stop bleeding (called cauterization). You don’t need stitches. A bandage may be used to cover the wound. You can go home right after the biopsy is done.

Diagram of a punch biopsy

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of test, but everyone’s experience is different. Most side effects of a shave biopsy are temporary. They may include:

  • soreness or tenderness at the site
  • a small amount of bleeding
  • wound infection
  • scarring

What the results mean

The biopsy sample is sent to a lab. A pathologist (a doctor who specializes in the causes and nature of disease) will examine the sample. The pathology report describes the types of cells found in the sample and if the cells are normal or abnormal.

An abnormal result may mean a non-cancerous growth, a precancerous condition or cancer.

Depending on the results, your doctor will decide if you need more tests, any treatment or follow-up care.

epidermis

The upper or outer layer of skin (above the dermis) that is made up of squamous cells and basal cells. It also contains melanocytes (cells that make melanin, which gives skin its colour).

Epidermal means referring to or having to do with the epidermis, as in epidermal cell. Epidermoid means made up of or resembling epidermal tissue, as in epidermoid carcinoma.

dermis

The inner layer of the skin (between the epidermis and subcutis) that contains nerve endings, blood vessels, lymph vessels, hair follicles and glands.

cauterization

A procedure that uses heat or a chemical to burn and destroy tissues.

When the tool used for cauterization is heated with electricity, it is called electrocautery. When chemicals are applied directly to the tissue, it is called chemical cautery.

Cauterization is used to destroy abnormal tissue or cancer cells. It is also used to seal off blood vessels to stop bleeding.

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