Anyone who has had sunburn on their scalp knows it can be painful and difficult to soothe. And while you should wear a hat to protect your head, people don't often apply sunscreen to their scalp. When scalps are also covered in hair, detecting suspicious spots or skin growths is difficult. For this reason, skin cancers, particularly melanoma, can be quite advanced once they are detected on the scalp. Therefore, the scalp is a high-risk site for skin cancer.
Scalp melanomas are generally more aggressive than other melanomas and mortality rates are more than twice that of melanoma located elsewhere.
So, if you've forgotten your hat more than once, keep reading to discover more important information about scalp skin cancer.
Can you get skin cancer on your scalp?
Yes, skin cancer can affect all areas of your body, including the scalp. In fact, the scalp is considered a high-risk area for skin cancer as it is hard to detect because it is difficult for a person to see themselves and is covered by hair. As it often goes unnoticed, it can easily spread to other areas and organs.
Common types of skin cancer on scalp
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
Less common types of skin cancers on the scalp
- Sebaceous gland carcinoma
- Kaposi sarcoma
- Merkel cell carcinoma
- Cutaneous lymphoma
Risk factors for scalp skin cancer
- Family history of skin cancer
- Pre-cancerous lesions such as actinic (solar) keratoses
- Fair skin tone
- Having light-coloured eyes or hair
- A large number of moles
- Older age
- A personal history of skin cancer
- A history of sunburns
Pre-cancerous lesions such as those below can also increase your risk of developing skin cancers.
- Solar keratosis - Commonly known as a sunspot, these are precursor lesions to squamous cell cancer
- Seborrhoeic keratoses - Raised, round lesions, often darker than a sunspot
- Bowen's disease - SCC localised to the epidermis. Affecting men and women, it is most commonly seen in people over 60 years of age.
- Dysplastic melanocytic naevi - a lesion sometimes referred to as an atypical mole.
Can I get skin cancer from a mole on my scalp?
Scalp melanomas sometimes develop from dysplastic naevi, or atypical moles. These sorts of moles can present with the characteristics of a cancerous mole. They tend to be larger, have irregular borders, an uneven or bumpy surface and may have several different colours.
While atypical moles can develop into melanoma, most do not become malignant. However, they should be carefully monitored for any changes and protected from the sun.
You should also visit your doctor if a new mole - caused by a cluster of melanocytes in the skin - freckle, or spot appears on your scalp. This is because a new mole or unusual skin growths could be skin cancer.
Early signs and symptoms of skin cancers on the scalp
It is possible to have a skin cancer on your scalp and not feel any symptoms. This is why regular skin checks and self-exams can help with early detection and increase your survival rate and treatment success should you have skin cancer.
- The appearance of a new mole, or a change in an old mole such as growth, a difference in its border, a change to its diameter, or one that appears to be different shades
- Sores that won't heal
- A patch on your scalp that is red, may itch, or is flaky
- A lesion, sore, bump, ulcer or lump that bleeds, crusts or weeps
- New spots on your skin or unusual skin growths that are dry and scaly, pearly, pink, red, black or brown. They may also feel lumpy or have uneven edges.
How to check your scalp for skin cancer
Getting someone to help you check your scalp is essential because, even with a mirror, there are parts of your scalp that are difficult to see.
Queensland politician Yvette D'Ath's experience with melanoma on her scalp shows hairdressers can even be a big help when it comes to checking the skin for suspicious spots or bumps.
Otherwise, making a date with a friend or person you trust to check each other's scalp is a great idea. You might find it easier to wet your hair to examine your scalp. Or you could even try using a hairdryer to shift sections of your hair so you can see your scalp more clearly. You can have this person check other areas of your body which are also difficult to see, such as your back.
Remember the ABCDEs of melanoma
- A – Asymmetry: if the spot or lesion is divided in half, the two halves do not look the same
- B – Border: a spot with a spreading or irregular edge
- C – Colour: a spot with a number of different colours
- D – Diameter: usually over 6mm
- E – Evolving: the mole or spot is growing in size or changing in some way, eg colour or shape
Tips for the prevention of skin cancer on the scalp
- The easiest form of sun protection is to avoid sun and seek shade during the hottest part of the day
- Don't forget to protect your hair from the sun
- Hats with a broad brim will also help protect the delicate skin on your neck and ears from the sun's rays
- Wear SPF sunscreen on parts of your scalp exposed to the sun. This is especially important if you have thin or little hair covering your scalp, which is more likely to occur as we age, which is also when our skin cancer risk increases. You can even opt for a powder sunscreen to make it easier to apply.
- Avoid using tanning beds for any reason
- Wear protective clothing such as long pants and shirts and sunglasses to cover the rest of your body
Talk to a doctor if you suspect skin cancer on your scalp
It's very important to have a suspected skin cancer on your scalp examined by a doctor as soon as possible. Early detection boosts your chance of having it successfully treated and can prevent it from metastasising (spreading) to other organs, your brain or lymph nodes.
As well as self-exams, screenings with a doctor who specialises in skin cancer detection and treatment can help with the early detection of skin cancer. Often they will use a tool called a dermascope to examine your skin, checking for any signs of skin cancer. These tools may spot skin growths that the naked eye can not.
How is skin cancer on the scalp treated?
The treatment options for skin cancer on the scalp depend on what type of skin cancer is found and how advanced it is. Following an initial procedure such as a skin biopsy, doctors may recommend the following treatments:
- Mohs surgery
- Targeted therapy
- Radiation treatment
- Reconstruction surgery to repair scar tissue
What to do if you've been diagnosed with skin cancer
If you have recently been diagnosed with skin cancer on your scalp or any other area of your body, support groups can help you talk over the emotional issues associated with a cancer diagnosis. Contact your local health service to find one close to you.
Where to go if you suspect skin cancer on your scalp
Research tells us that when it comes to skin cancer, early detection can save your life. By booking a skin check with SunDoctors, you can have your entire body examined for suspicious spots or marks, including hard-to-see and high-risk areas such as your scalp.
The doctors at SunDoctors are highly trained and have access to state-of-the-art technology. Consultations take just a few minutes and our doctors have a wealth of experience in skin cancer detection and treatment and can help put your mind at ease.