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How to Spot Skin Cancer on the Scalp (Hint: Your Hair Stylist Can Help) + 4 Ways To Cut Your Risk

Sure, you know that sunscreen should be part of your daily skincare routine year-round. And as we head into summer, it’s even more important to slather on the SPF. But even if you’re dutiful about applying sunscreen from your face to your feet, you may forget to protect one key sun-exposed area: your scalp. Not only can that lead to painful sunburn and unsightly peeling, but it can also put you at risk for skin cancer on the scalp.

“The scalp is not an area we typically think of when we think about skin cancers,” says Michele Green, MD, a dermatologist in NYC. But it should be, because your scalp is perfectly positioned to absorb the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. “Our scalps are directly exposed to the sun, especially for individuals who are bald or have thin hair,” Dr. Green adds. “Additionally, individuals tend to forget to apply sunscreen to the scalp, leading to an increased risk of developing skin cancer.”

So how can you keep your scalp protected from skin cancer? Here’s what you need to know.

Why is skin cancer on the scalp so common?

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, affecting around 20% of Americans at some point in their lifetime. Skin cancer can appear anywhere on the body, even unexpected places like under your fingernails or inside your ear. But it’s most likely to appear on the areas of skin that get the most sun exposure. Your scalp ranks high on that list, especially if you’ve been a little lax about protecting it.

“The biggest risk factors for skin cancer on the scalp are loss of hair and time spent outside without a hat or diligent sunscreen applied to the scalp,” says Lindsey Bordone, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at NYP-Columbia University Medical Center.

A family history of skin cancer can also increase your likelihood of getting skin cancer on the scalp. And while skin cancer can affect anyone, people with fairer skin tones tend to have a higher risk due to lower levels of melanin, which protects against UV damage, Dr. Green says.

What’s more, the risk of skin cancer increases as we age. Here’s why:

1. Thinning hair

“Hair on the scalp provides sun protection,” Dr. Bordone says. “Without this protective layer, the scalp has full exposure to sun.” The younger you are when your hair starts thinning, the greater your risk is over time, thanks to cumulative sun exposure on the scalp.

2. Decreased immune response

Typically, your immune system identifies and destroys abnormal cells through a process called immune surveillance. But as the immune system slows with age, it’s more likely for skin cancer cells to slip past this surveillance system, Dr. Bordone says.

3. Past damage

“Most skin cancers develop due to years of accumulated sun exposure, which increases the likelihood of developing skin cancer with age,” Dr. Green says. This is especially true if you have a history of turning into a lobster in the sun, since every burn boosts your risk for developing skin cancer. (See our best sunburn self-care remedies.)

How to check for skin cancer on the scalp

Skin cancer on the scalp can be tricky to spot, especially if you have thick hair. But it’s important to check your scalp regularly for any suspicious growths or changes. Left untreated, skin cancer can grow deep into the skin, damaging the tissue. Certain types of skin cancer can spread to other organs and may even be fatal. “Early detection of skin cancer is crucial, as it can significantly increase the chances of successful treatment and reduce the severity of the treatment needed,” Dr. Green says.

Your dermatologist will check for skin cancer on the scalp as part of your annual skin exam. Still, you should also get into the habit of doing regular self-exams between visits. Use a comb to part your hair and examine your scalp in the mirror, Dr. Green says. Wherever you usually part your hair is the most vulnerable section of your scalp since it sees the most sunlight.

But skin cancer can pop up anywhere, so repeat the process over your entire scalp. Use a hand mirror or enlist a friend to check the back of your head. And finally, Dr. Green says, “run your fingers through your entire scalp to feel for any raised, firm, crusty or scaly growths.”

A woman in a striped top checking her hair and scalp in a bathroom mirror
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You can also monitor any changes to your scalp during your usual hair care routine. “When shampooing your hair, make sure to feel for any new bumps or scaly areas,” Dr. Bordone says. If a new spot sticks around for more than two weeks, let your derm know. And when you get your hair cut or styled, ask your stylist to alert you to any bumps or moles she may spot.

See also: Christie Brinkley Reveals Skin Cancer Diagnosis + Doctors Share How to Best Protect Your Skin

The ABCDE of skin cancer: What to look for

A normal mole is typically round or oval, with even coloring and a distinct edge. If you notice a new mole, bump or scaly patch on your skin, use the ABCDE rule to determine whether it’s something you may need to worry about. Let your doctor know if you notice any of these features:

  • Asymmetry: an irregular shape, or two halves that look different
  • Border: the edges of the mole are ragged or blurred
  • Color: the mole has varying shades of brown, black, pink, red, white, or blue
  • Diameter: the mole is more than 6mm in diameter (around ¼”, or the size of a pencil eraser)
  • Evolving: a mole that changes size, shape or color

The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma may look like a pink or fleshy bump, while squamous cell carcinoma typically appears as a red bump or scaly patch. Melanoma can develop in a mole you already have, or may appear as a new dark spot on the skin.

Bottom line? “If a mole on the scalp darkens, becomes itchy, bleeds or changes in any meaningful way, you should reach out to your dermatologist,” Dr. Bordone says.

An illustration of the ABCDE trick to look for skin cancer on the scalp
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Treatment options for skin cancer on the scalp

When it’s caught early, skin cancer is relatively easy to treat. Superficial skin cancer can usually be scraped, frozen or burned off.

For larger moles or recurring skin cancer, your doctor may use a technique called Mohs surgery. In this procedure, abnormal skin cells are removed layer by layer and examined under a microscope until no cancerous cells remain. This help to ensure all of the skin cancer has been removed while causing minimal scarring.

For advanced skin cancer that has spread, radiation or chemotherapy may be needed.

4 ways to protect your scalp

While early detection is critical, the best strategy is to protect your skin from getting sun damage in the first place. Here are five easy ways to keep your scalp safe from skin cancer:

1. Check your shadow

Take extra precautions if you have to be outside between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun is strongest. An easy way to gauge the sun’s intensity is by using the “Shadow Rule”. If your shadow on the ground is shorter than you are, that’s the time of day when your risk of sun damage is highest.

2. Spritz your sunscreen

Use sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher, and look for a broad-spectrum formula to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. (UVA rays have a longer wavelength and penetrate the skin deeply, causing premature skin aging. UVB rays have a shorter wavelength and cause sunburn.) One that fits the bill: Bath & Body Works Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Sunscreen Spray.

A spray-on chemical sunscreen is the easiest to apply on the scalp, and it’s invisible. But if you’re gearing up for a long day in the sun, you may want to opt for a mineral sunscreen. Mineral sunscreens leave a white film on the scalp, which isn’t the most discreet, but it makes it easier to see when you need to reapply, Dr. Bordone says.

And keep in mind your scalp contains thousands of sweat glands, so opt for a sweat-proof formula and reapply often. “Sweat produced by the scalp washes away the applied sunscreen more quickly that most other areas of the body, given the large amounts of sweat the scalp is able to produce,” Dr. Bordone says. (See why dermatologists say you should wear sunscreen in winter, too.)

3. Wear a hat

Mature woman wearing a sun hat at the beach while smiling
Getty

A physical barrier will be more effective than any sunscreen, and you won’t have to worry about forgetting to reapply often enough. “I strongly recommend wearing a hat if someone plans to be in the sun for an extended period of time,” Dr. Bordone says. Consider this the perfect excuse to buy that wide-brimmed straw hat you’ve been eyeing — it’s an investment in your health!

4. Boost your B3 levels

Skin cancer prevention isn’t just about what you put onto your skin. What you put into your body can help, too. In particular, nicotinamide supplements, better known as vitamin B3, can dramatically reduce your skin cancer risk if you’ve previously had skin cancer. That’s according to a study in American Health & Drug Benefits, where scientists found that taking 500 mg of nicotinamide twice a day reduced the rate of new squamous cell and basal cell skin cancers by 23%. One to try: Heliocare Advanced with Nicotinamide (B3).


For more ways to safeguard against cancer of all kinds:

Itchy Armpits and Armpit Rash Can Be Sneaky Signs of Breast Cancer, Says MD — What You Need To Know

Ob/Gyn: 1 in 5 New Cases of Cervical Cancer Are in Women Over 65 — Here’s What You Need to Know About HPV in Seniors

Christie Brinkley Reveals Skin Cancer Diagnosis + Doctors Share How to Best Protect Your Skin

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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