My friend Connie thought she was having a bad hair day-until her stylist made a medical diagnosis. Overnight, after a cut and color from a new stylist who came highly recommended, her hair seemed frizzy and unmanageable. Desperate for a solution, she asked her former stylist to rapair the damage. "This isn't from a bad haircut," the stylist said, as she examined Connie's frizz. "You've lost a lot of hair. Are you taking any medication?"
"And that's how I found out that my hair had thinned thanks to a drug I was taking to prevent migraines," Connie told me. She stopped taking the drug (it wasn't helping the migraines much, anyway), her hair grew back, and she had a newfound respect for her stylist's medical acumen.
The old TV commercial for hair color that whispered "only your hairdresser knows for sure" was way ahead of its time. Stylists and barbers have a close-up view of our scalps, necks and faces, and a new study from Harvard suggests that they are uniquely situated to help prevent and detect skin cancer, especially potentially deadly melanoma.
How can hairdressers spot skin cancer?
More than anyone else in your life, hair stylists get a really close look at your scalp, neck, and face while they're cutting or coloring. The Harvard study, a survey of 203 hair professionals from 17 salons in Houston, found that many hairdressers routinely check clients for abnormal moles on their scalps, necks, and faces.
Fifty eight percent of the stylists who responded to the poll said that they had suggested to at least one client that an abnormal mole should be checked by a doctor. In addition, 37 percent had looked at the scalps of half their customers during the previous month. About 29 percent said that they had examined the necks of more than half their clients and about 15 percent said they had checked the faces of more than half their customers. Nearly half said they would be interested in participating in a skin-cancer education program.
How often does skin cancer occur on the scalp, neck and face?
More than 80 percent of squamous cell carcinomas and basal cell carcinomas, the most common types of skin cancer occur on the scalp, neck and face. Only six percent of melanomas occur on the scalp and neck, but according to a study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill these cases tend to be fatal nearly twice as often as melanoma elsewhere on the body. In a press release issued when their study was published, the North Carolina researchers said that there may be something different about melanomas found on the scalp and neck that underlies the poorer outlook. They urged physicians to pay particular attention to these areas during skin exams.
What does a suspicious mole look like?
Changes in a mole (or a sore or growth that bleeds or changes color) could be a sign of skin cancer. Here's the ABCDE of what to look for:
• Asymmetry: Half of the abnormal area is different from the other half.
• Borders: These edges irregular.
• Color: Changes in color from one area to another, with shades of tan, brown, or black, and sometimes white, red, or blue. A mixture of colors may appear within one sore.
• Diameter: Size (usually) matters-focus on spots larger than the size of a pencil eraser (but don't ignore smaller ones that have changed).
• Evolution: The appearance of the mole keeps changing.
What else can hair reveal about your health?
• Hair loss can signify a scalp infection (ringworm), a disease (diabetes or lupus), poor nutrition (usually inadequate protein or iron), alopecia areata (an autoimmune disease). It can also be a sign of stress or anxiety, or simply the result of natural aging.
• Visible thinning can be a sign of thyroid disease (either underactive or overactive). Once the thyroid problem is treated, hair should grow back.
• Dandruff is a sign of seborrheic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin condition. If over-the-counter dandruff shampoos don't help, a prescription one might.