How to protect the scalp from skin cancer

Special to the Los Angeles Times

As summer heats up, we’ve learned to slather SPF 15 or higher all over our bodies and faces in an effort to prevent sun damage and skin cancer. We’ve also been told to recite our ABCs when checking for unusual moles: asymmetry, border irregularity and uneven color. Unfortunately, our scalps are often neglected. Sunscreen is transparent on skin, but who wants to go to work with greasy roots? How many people wear a hat during their lunch break? And who can see a mole on top of her own head?

Skin cancer of the scalp is not as common as on other areas of the body. But it poses its own set of challenges. “The problem is that the hair can obscure a skin cancer so that the diagnosis is delayed,” says Dr. Ronald Moy, president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Although those with thick hair have less to worry about — the hair acts as a barrier to the sun and protects the scalp — those with balding or thinning hair are more susceptible to developing skin cancer. “Skin cancer is very common on the scalp in thinning individuals — males and females — since it usually stands out to get direct sun exposure,” says Dr. Paul McAndrews, clinical professor at the USC School of Medicine.


Lighter skin and the total accumulation of sun exposure to the scalp pose the biggest risk factors. “Fairer individuals have less melanin in their skin to block UV rays,” McAndrews says. “Balding persons will have less hair to block the UV rays, which leads to more exposure to the damaging effects of UV rays.”

Using a zinc oxide or titanium oxide sunblock, such as Blue Lizard Australian Suncream ($11.99 for 3 ounces; or a sunscreen that absorbs both UV-A and UV-B rays — and reapplying every few hours — can reduce sun exposure and reduce risk. Balding individuals can easily apply sunscreen to their scalps, but those with hair find it trickier to protect the scalp without resorting to a greasy style. “The problem with sunscreens for the scalp is they tend to leave hair a little on the lank side,” says Philip Kingsley, founder of the Philip Kingsley Trichological Centre in New York.

Many hair-care manufactures offer SPF products specially formulated to help protect scalps from the sun. For daily use, Kingsley recommends a lighter spray formula. “Spray at the roots, and then smooth fingers over the scalp,” he says. The key is to lightly rub the product into the scalp because if you just spray it over the hair it will absorb into the follicle and offer little protection to the skin. Try Phyto Plage Protective Beach Spray ($22; or Smart Girls Who Surf Care for Hair Sun Protector ($8.50;

Also, change your part often so one area of the scalp is not consistently exposed to the sun: “I have removed skin cancers on the part-line and the ‘cow-lick’ area of people’s scalps,” McAndrews says.

If you’re at the pool or beach, Kingsley recommends a cream formula such as his Kingsley Swim Cap Cream (which he developed for the 1984 Olympic synchronized swimming team). Slather it over hair and into scalp, then style hair back into a slick ponytail.

In 1999, Scottsdale, Ariz., hair colorist Monica May Sanders lost her mother, Chloe, to skin cancer that had originated on the scalp. “I had noticed she had a mole on the top of her head, but I had no idea it was even possible to have melanoma on the scalp. Looking back, that was pretty ignorant,” she says. The diagnosis led her to pay closer attention to her clients, taking notice of unusual-looking moles.


Sanders also embarked on developing a multipurpose product to protect the scalp while addressing other style needs too. She worked with Amour Cosmetic to develop a product called Hair Shadz. The powder formula contains zinc oxide and comes in eight shades to blend root regrowth in those who color their hair, to act as a dry shampoo and to protect the scalp. Sun Shadz is a translucent version of the product for those who seek only scalp protection. The products offer an SPF 15 protection, according to AMA Laboratories, a clinical testing facility.

One caveat: Zinc oxide is an effective sunblock, but its efficacy in a powder form is unknown, McAndrews says.

Of course, a hat offers the best protection against skin cancer of the scalp. Pay attention to the weave — the tighter the weave, the less exposure to damaging UV-A and UV-B rays.

Also, hats with ultraviolet protection can offer additional coverage, such as Coolibar hats (starting at $18, made out of Suntect fabric, rated as UPF of 50+ and recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation.