All good sun protection advice includes wearing a hat to protect against sun exposure. One of the most important reasons behind this advice is the little known fact that scalp and neck cancers can be more deadly than skin cancers diagnosed elsewhere on the body. Researchers have found that although only six percent of melanoma patients present with head and neck melanomas, they account for 10 percent of melanoma deaths.

Dermatologists have been aware of this fact for some time. They used to think the lethality occurred because scalp and neck melanomas were not diagnosed as early as other skin cancers. Now, however, they believe that there is something “different” about tumors on the head and neck and many suggest research is needed to look at tumor cell types on the molecular level to identify the mutations that drive malignancy.

While the science behind scalp and neck cancers may not yet be entirely clear, there is one fact upon which all dermatologists agree: Wearing a hat in the sun is critically important for effective sun protection. And, dermatologists also agree that routinely examining the head and neck for suspicious lesions is an important part of self-examinations.

Experts recommend wearing a hat with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of at least 50+. The UPF should be noted on a hang tag on the hat and the brim should be at least three inches wide to protect the neck. Do not rely upon shampoos and conditioners to provide protection. Coverage is uneven and you are unlikely to “reapply” every two hours.

In addition to wearing a hat, you should check your scalp as a routine part of examining your skin. Using a hair dryer and a comb, make parts through your hair, one row at a time, over the top of your head and down to your ears. Use a hand held mirror to check the back of your head. (If this proves to be too cumbersome, ask a member of your family or your hairdresser to make the check.) And, of course, report anything suspicious immediately to your dermatologist.

Be safe in the sun.

About The Author

Mary M. Barrow is an author and executive director of SunAWARE, a not-for-profit education and advocacy group for the prevention and detection of skin cancer. She wrote “Sun Protection for Life: Your guide to a lifetime of healthy and beautiful skin” and several books aimed at pre-teens and teens to help introduce safe sun protection habits early in life. She created the SunAWARE educational acronym which has been endorsed and used by a number of leading sun protection organizations. For sun protection advice, educational resources and other information, visit her website at melanomaprevention.org.

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