For years now, you’ve been bombarded with the same skin protection wisdom: Cover all exposed areas of the skin with sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 before heading outdoors. While we do a good job of protecting our faces, shoulders, arms and legs, one often-missed area — the scalp — is incredibly vulnerable to painful sun damage and dangerous melanoma skin cancers. Key prevention strategies such as grabbing a hat before you head outdoors might reduce your risk of melanoma.
What Is Melanoma?
Like other forms of skin cancer, melanoma — the deadliest form of the disease — typically develops when the skin cells are damaged by dangerous ultraviolet radiation. When this happens, the melanocyte cells — which produce the melanin responsible for hair and skin color — become altered, leading to new moles or changes in the appearance of existing moles.
While melanomas can be found anywhere on the skin, they’re usually seen on the chest, back or legs. Melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer, and people with melanomas found on the scalp die at twice the rate of those with melanomas on the legs and arms, most likely due to delayed detection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that rates for new melanoma cases have doubled during the past 30 years.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends monthly skin cancer self-examinations to evaluate every part of your body for changes. If you’ve never performed a self-exam of your skin before, ask your primary care provider or dermatologist to help you do the first one so he or she can discuss any existing areas of concern. After that, you can easily track changes to all your birthmarks, freckles, scaly patches, bumps and moles.
Get a spouse or friend to help with areas you can’t easily see on your own or with mirrors. Ask your hairdresser to evaluate your scalp and neck during your hair appointments. Melanomas are often easier to see on the scalp during a shampoo or haircut when the hair is wet or parted.
If you notice changes, schedule a follow-up appointment with a physician.
Prevention Is Key
Sunscreen is critical to protecting your skin from damage and reducing your risk of melanoma, but the CDC says that less than 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women report regular use of sunscreen when they go outside for one hour or longer. If you’re not using sunscreen as frequently as you should — or you’re not using it correctly — now is the time to start. Try these tips from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
- Generously coat all skin that isn’t covered with clothing with sunscreen. The AAD recommends you use about one ounce of sunscreen — the amount that would fill a shot glass.
- Don’t wait until you’re outside to use your sunscreen. Instead, apply it about 15 minutes before you go outdoors.
- Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to commonly missed areas, such as the lips, feet, tops of hands, neck and scalp. You can use a lip balm or lipstick that provides protection, and you can wear a tightly woven hat if you’re uncomfortable putting sunscreen on your scalp.
- Reapply your sunscreen after swimming or sweating, and at least every two hours.
To find a Texas Health physician who can help you in your quest for healthy skin, visit TexasHealth.org.