The National Cancer Institute's "Melanoma Action Plan" calls for reduction of melanoma mortality through early detection. Routine skin self-examination (SSE) has the potential to increase chances of early detection and treatment and may be the key to melanoma survival. We provide a focused review of the accuracy of SSE for detecting premalignant lesions and cutaneous risk factors for melanoma, with suggestions for future directions for enhancing measurement of SSE accuracy and ways in which to improve the public's perceptions of melanoma efficacy. We examined published data on the efficacy of skin self-examination for the early detection of melanoma. We searched the MEDLINE database for publications between January 1, 1987 and June 1, 2007 using search terms for "melanoma" and "self-examination." We found that sensitivity of skin self-examination is low, ranging from 25% to 93%, while specificity is generally higher (83% to 97%). Attempts to increase improve the lay public's perceptions of the early signs of melanoma have proved effective, while those aimed at increasing accuracy of SSE with targeted interventions have been moderately successful. SSE's insensitivity for detection of pigmented lesions should prompt further investigation of educational interventions to enhance its accuracy and lead to its adoption as a cheap, simple screening tool. Assessment of the accuracy and efficacy of SSE should proceed using standardized definitions and measurements such that it is easier to pool data on the overall value of SSE as a screening modality.