Your hairstylist may be one of your greatest defenses against skin cancer, suggests a new study published in this month’s issue of Archives of Dermatology.In the survey of 203 hair professionals spanning 17 salons in the Houston area, 37.1 percent reported looking at clients’ scalps for signs of suspicious lesions, while 28.8 percent looked over necks and 15.3 percent closely studied faces for suspicious lesions while performing routine hair services.What makes the findings especially pertinent is that while melanoma of the scalp and neck represented only six percent of all skin cancer cases, it accounted for 10 percent of all melanoma deaths in the United States from 1973 to 2003. Experts say that growths on sun-prone areas like the tips of ears and scalp can often escape notice until cancer has spread to a later stage, which may attribute to the higher fatality rate.QUIZ: How Healthy Do You Feel?Because hairstylists work so closely with the head and often see clients on a regular basis, they’re in the unique position to detect changes that may signal a cancerous lesion. And since many ‘regulars’ often chat openly about health, diet and medical care while sitting for a color service or routine trim, stylists often get a more comprehensive view of wellbeing than even a personal physician.

Courtesy of Natasha SunshineNatasha Sunshine, left, and her father Andrew Bycoffe
Natasha Sunshine

“This study provides evidence that hair professionals are currently acting as lay health advisors for skin cancer detection and prevention, and are willing to become more involved in skin cancer education in the salon,” says lead researcher Elizabeth E. Bailey, M.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. A follow-up study, supported by the Melanoma Foundation of New England, aims to educate hair professionals about detecting skin cancer.Yet stylists like Natasha Sunshine of L.A.’s Byu-Ti Salon have in part helped increase survival rates by detecting skin cancer before it can take hold.MORE: Beauty Issues That Signal Health ProblemsWhile giving her own father—61 year-old Andrew Bycoffe—a haircut, she noticed an irregular mole she didn’t remember seeing while previously working on his hair. After urging her father to see a dermatologist, the lesion was determined to be pre-cancerous.It was surgically removed before the cells could propagate. “I was pretty scared when she mentioned it, and I wanted to find out if I had cancer. I didn’t want to take any chances,” says the airfreight forwarder from Torrence, Calif., who made a beeline to the doctor’s office shortly after his haircut. “Natasha saved my life.”QUIZ: How Healthy is Your Skin?At Philip Kingsley Clinics in New York and London, staffs of educated trichologists—experts in the science of the scalp and hair—often consult with clients on everything from hair loss options chemical damage solutions, but are also trained on spotting the signs of skin cancer. If they encounter a suspicious lesion on a client’s head during routine scalp evaluations, they record it in a personal chart, and recommend the client be seen by a dermatologist.“Our expertise and function is to promote optimal scalp health, so this type of assessment is a routine part of what we do,” explains trichologist Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips of the Philip Kingsley salon. “Just like your esthetician knows your skin, we get to know people’s scalps.”On an interesting note: Philip Kingsley staffs a General Medical Council (GMC) registered physician in its U.K. and New York City locations. Could the next health frontier be the hair salon?MORE: Be Sunscreen SavvyColorists also say that the careful sectioning of hair while applying dye makes it especially easy to spot anything that may look amiss on the scalp. Areas on the top and back of the head may be particularly difficult for people to check on their own, so bumps here can grow significantly before they’re detected.“Sometimes the lesions are already quite large and can even bleed when they get scratched by the comb or brush,” says colorist Beth Minardi, co-owner of New York City’s Minardi Salon.Minardi’s own father had a brush with skin cancer in the ‘60s, which he found only after his barber told him to get a spot checked out. “That was back when we weren’t nearly as aware or educated of the risks as we are today,” adds Minardi.MORE: Can Coffee Prevent Skin Cancer?This anecdote also illustrates another point of the hairstylist and skin cancer study; stylists who have had family or friends diagnosed with skin cancer are far more likely to take it upon themselves to inspect client scalps for signs of cancer, and to educate themselves on the signs that a lesion may need medical attention.The intimate bond that many clients have with their stylists has been utilized to spread health awareness in other medical arenas, too.Hairdressers Against AIDS, an advocacy program funded by L’Oréal last year that debuted in a kick-off at the United Nations in New York, urges stylists to take advantage of the close and trusted relationships they often have with clients to initiate and engage in conversation about AIDS prevention and safe sex practices.MORE: Your Skin Type, Decoded“Use Your Voice, Use Your Power,” is the group’s tagline—a fitting statement on how hairstylists can change the world with more than just a haircut.