Thinning Thatch Creates a Risk of Skin Cancer

Armen Hareyan's picture

It may be that you're noticing the sun beating down on your scalp a little more warmly than in years past, because of thinning hair, due to heredity in most cases. While you may not want to bother with doing something about the increasing depth of your forehead, it's important that you take measures to protect your scalp from sun exposure.

"The most well-known cause of many skin cancers is excessive ultraviolet light: sun exposure," says Dr. Daniel Berg, director of dermatological surgery at University of Washington Medical Center. "The scalp isn't that common a place to develop melanoma, since it is usually protected by hair. However, many men have thinning hair as time goes on, and hair does thin among younger men as well. They start losing the protection their hair provides. Surprisingly large numbers of women undergo hair thinning as well."

Of course, not all skin cancers are caused by sunlight exposure, just as cigarette smoking does not cause all cases of lung cancer. Melanomas are the most dangerous and deadly of the skin cancers.

"You can have melanomas in places that the sun doesn't reach, like under fingernails and on the soles of feet, so you can have skin cancers of all kinds on the scalp," Berg says. "Even with a full head of hair, therefore, you can still develop a melanoma on the scalp that may be unrelated to sun exposure. The bottom line is, a suspicious lesion anywhere on the body should be addressed, by talking to your health care provider about it."

To know if a lesion is suspicious, the American Academy of Dermatology says to remember:

  • A for asymmetry - one half of a mole or pigmented spot is unlike the other.

  • B for border irregularity - a scalloped or poorly circumscribed border.

  • C for color varied from one area to another -- shades of tan and brow, black or sometimes white, red or blue.


  • D for diameter - larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser.

Early detection is important in all forms of cancer.

"From a surgical point of view, tissue on the scalp can be harder to move than tissue in other parts of the body, so even small defects can be difficult to close surgically," says Berg. "That can make scalp cancers hard to treat. Some veteran golfers and farmers can have many scalp lesions."

You can take some measures to cut down on the risk of melanoma.

"The sun can get through thinning hair. The best option is to block the light completely, with a hat, something we recommend anyway," Berg says. "A broad-brimmed hat doesn't just protect the scalp, it also protects the upper face by keeping it in the shade. It's certainly my favorite sun protection."

Creamy sunscreens also work, but may not be satisfactory if you still have some hair. Many companies now have spray-on sun blocks that work very well. Avoiding mid-day sun exposure can also help.


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