Your Hairdresser Can Help Catch Cancer

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Make a list of your most intimate relationships and, in all probability, your hairdresser or barber should be on it. You’ve probably swapped many stories during washings and trimmings, and maybe you’ve even traded advice about life and love. (And, really, how many other people run their fingers through your hair?!)

Now, according to the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, there’s even more that your hairdresser can and should do — alert you about possible skin cancer.

Since the only thing that my hairdresser has ever alerted me about has been which shampoo would add the most volume to my hair, I called Alan Geller, MPH, RN, senior lecturer in the school’s department of society, human development and health, because he recently led a study on the topic.



Who else sees — really sees — your scalp and the back of your neck? Understanding that unique view, Geller and his colleagues wondered if hair professionals use, or could use, that perspective to help look for skin cancers. If so, it could save lives, because while melanomas of the scalp and neck represent only about 6% of all melanomas in the US, they account for about 10% of all melanoma deaths. Geller told me that one reason scalp and neck cancers are such high-risk cancers is that we can’t easily see those areas of the body, so cancers there tend to elude early detection — and the later a cancer is detected, the greater the risk for death.



The researchers analyzed surveys completed by 203 male and female hairdressers and barbers from 17 salons in the Houston area. There were 43 questions total, including questions about knowledge of the ABCD rule of detecting cancerous lesions (asymmetry-border-color-diameter), personal practices in caring for their own skin (such as wearing sunscreen and hats) and health communication practices.

What researchers discovered: Although fewer than one-third of these professionals had had any formal training in skin cancer detection, many of them seemed to understand the essential elements — 90% agreed that a customer should see a doctor for a mole that’s changing in size or that bleeds… 89% for a mole that’s changing color… and 78% for a mole that itches. More than one-third (37%) said that they had actually inspected the scalps of more than half of their customers in the past month, and 29% said that they had examined the necks of more than half of their customers in the past month. Researchers were also happily surprised to find that 58% of the hairdressers had already recommended that a customer see a doctor about an abnormal mole that they had found. In addition, Geller was encouraged by the fact that most respondents recognized the importance of their role — half said that they would like to receive formal skin cancer education, and 69% said that they would give customers a skin cancer pamphlet if they had one.



Most people see their physician about twice a year, and only 15% of people see a dermatologist annually. But most people see hairdressers or barbers much more often, so their observations could be extremely valuable, said Geller. Right now, there are no cosmetology rules or incentives that encourage hair professionals across the US to perform skin cancer screenings on customers, but Geller envisions a future where hair professionals are on the front line of skin cancer sightings, alerting customers about suspicious skin lesions and recommending that they see their doctors.

The Harvard group isn’t stopping there. Geller’s colleague, researcher Elizabeth Bailey, MD, is working with the Melanoma Foundation of New England on a 20-minute pilot program to educate hair professionals about checking customers for scalp and neck skin cancers. I asked the foundation’s executive director, Deb Girard, whether Daily Health News could see the brochure that she and Dr. Bailey have developed. She was delighted to share it — you can see it at You’re welcome to download it for free and share it with your own hair professional.

Next on the agenda: Massage therapists, whose work gives them the chance to look closely at other parts of their customers’ skin. Geller reminded me that skin cancer is the only visible cancer and repeated a saying that he loves, “Melanoma writes its message on the skin for all of us to see.” He wants more people to be able to read that message.


Alan C. Geller, MPH, RN, senior lecturer, department of society, human development, and health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston.

Deb Girard, executive director, Melanoma Foundation of New England, Concord, Massachusetts.