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Last updated: March 11, 2020

How To Detect Skin Cancer On Clients—And What To Say If You Do

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Instagram via @skincancerorg

How Hairdressers Can Help Fight Skin Cancer

When Dr. Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD went to her go-to salon, she thought she’d be leaving with a haircut. Instead, she left with a potential skin cancer diagnosis when her stylist of 25 years noticed a black spot on her scalp. 


A quick biopsy determined it was benign, but that horrifying experience inspired the dermatologist and Skin Cancer Foundation President to start Heads Up!, a program that educates hairdressers on skin cancer to promote early detection in high-risk, hard-to-see areas like the neck and scalp. Scalp melanomas are the deadliest form of skin cancer mainly because they’re concealed by the hair (which results in a late discovery), so we spoke to Dr. Sarnoff to get her expert advice on how you can educate your clients on scalp health and potentially save a life. 



Scalp Melanomas Are The Deadliest Form Of Skin Cancer

“A 2014 study found that melanomas on the scalp have a much higher incidence of spreading to the brain—12.7 percent within five years after diagnosis—than those elsewhere on the head and neck [at] 6.7 percent, or on the trunk or limbs [at] 4.7 percent,” says Dr. Sarnoff.


We tend to forget the scalp when it comes to skin cancer, but in reality it’s one of the spots we should be most aware of. “The scalp often receives a lot of sun exposure, so it’s at high-risk of developing skin cancer,” remarks Dr. Sarnoff. “Studies show that anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of all melanomas occur on the head and neck and unfortunately, head and neck melanoma cases in the United States and Canada increased by 51.1 percent from 1995 to 2014.” 


Instagram via @skincancerorg


Here’s Where Hairdressers Come In

Melanomas on the scalp and neck are dangerous, but hairdressers are in a unique position to catch these abnormalities early because of easy access to the scalp and the regularity in which they see their clients. “Skin cancers can appear in many shapes, sizes and colors, so any lesion, spot, bump or funny-looking mole should be brought to the client’s attention,” says Dr. Sarnoff.


Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate based on racial identity, however, it does occur more frequently on fairer skin because of the lack of melanin, aka the skin’s natural pigment and a minor sun protection. When it does occur on darker skin, it’s usually found later at a more critical stage.


The ABC’s Of Melanoma

Melanomas come in all shapes and sizes, but there are ways to identify a potential abnormality on your clients using the first five letters of the alphabet—ABCDE:

  • A is for Asymmetrical: The majority of melanomas are asymmetrical.


  • B is for Border: The edges around melanomas are usually uneven and notched while normal moles have smooth edges.


  • C is for Color: A benign mole is usually a single shade of brown while melanoma can be multiple hues of tan, brown and black with other colors like red, white and blue as it progresses.


  • D is for Diameter or Dark: A huge warning sign for a potential melanoma is if it’s larger than a pencil eraser and if it appears darker than other moles.


  • E is for Evolving: Look for any changes in shape, size, color or elevation in a mole as well as new symptoms like bleeding, itching or crusting.


Instagram via @skincancerorg


If You See Something, Say Something

If you find something abnormal on your client’s neck or scalp, you should always tell them in a calm and professional manner. “Simply point out the suspicious-looking spot, then suggest they have a dermatologist look at it,” advises Dr. Sarnoff. “Don’t worry about offending your clients, but try not to alarm them either. This could be lifesaving advice.”


How Can Clients Protect Their Scalp?

If a client ever asks about how they can protect their scalp from the sun, let them know there are a few steps they can take to better protect their skin. Dr. Sarnoff says the easiest way is to wear a hat with a brim that’s at least three inches around. Not only will this protect both the scalp and hair from damaging UV rays, but it also ensures their face and neck are covered as well.


She also recommends sunscreen products that are specifically formulated for the scalp. These will offer protection without leaving unwanted residue in the hair. “It’s also good to remember that unprotected exposure to UV rays not only increases your risk of developing skin cancer but damages hair as well,” notes Dr. Sarnoff.


Interested In Learning More?

After her life-changing visit to the salon, Dr. Sarnoff started the Heads Up! program with the Skin Cancer Foundation to specifically train haircare professionals to spot signs of skin cancer on the scalp and neck. “Heads Up! enlists dermatologists to host beauty professionals for an educational event where they will do a deeper dive into skin cancer and its warning signs,” says Dr. Sarnoff. “Since early detection is critical, the Heads Up! program ensures that this group of first responders will be prepared to give a ‘heads up’ to their clients if they see something suspicious and encourage them to visit a dermatologist as soon as possible.” 


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