Does Your Hair Protect You From Skin Cancer?

Health Writer

Every morning you put on sunscreen before leaving the house. You are careful not to spend too much time in the sun. You reapply your sunscreen every few hours. You are sure you are doing everything to protect yourself from skin cancer. But have you considered your scalp? Or, if you have a beard, do you assume that your hair protects you from the sun’s rays?

Your hair, both on your face and on the top of your head, probably offers some protection, but you shouldn’t rely on hair alone. Longer and thicker hair offers the most protection according to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Researchers looked at the location of head and neck skin cancers and found that women had significantly less skin cancer on the scalp, forehead, temples, ears, and neck because they had longer hair that covered those areas. Men, on the other hand, had the majority of the skin cancers in those areas. A previous study, completed in Australia in 2006, found that when hair covered the ears, UVB exposure was reduced by 81 percent.

Another study looked specifically at how much UV protection beards offer, and the answer was some, but not nearly as much as a full head of hair. According to the researchers, facial hair reduced UV exposure by about one-third.

However, effectiveness in reducing exposure depended greatly on the length and thickness of the beard. The longer and thicker the beard, the more protection it provides. Even so, it isn’t enough. Men still need to take steps to protect their faces from exposure to the sun.

Before you rely on a head of hair, there are some other things to consider. If you always part your hair in the same place, for example, that area is more vulnerable to sun exposure. And when you swim or your hair is wet, it can leave unprotected areas, such as the ears, more susceptible to sunburn. Light and red hair might not provide as much protection as darker hair. And, as you age, your hair thins, leaving you more vulnerable to the sun’s rays.

Commenting in an article for the Skin Cancer Foundation, Ali Hendi, M.D., reminds people that skin cancer can also hide under your hair, where you might not notice a new mole or growth. Dr. Hendi suggests that during skin self-checks, you sift through your scalp using a bright light to check for any signs of skin cancer. If you have a lump or a sore that doesn’t heal, you should have it checked by a dermatologist.

So, what should you do to protect your head and under your beard?

Dr. Hendi suggests using a facial moisturizer with a built-in SPF all over your face, including your ears, forehead, and neck. There are also products specifically for use in hair, such as Banana Boat Quik Dri Sport Scalp Spray Suncreen with SPF 30. And, of course, you should wear a hat when out in the sun. The tighter the weave, the more protection.

See more helpful articles:

Free Mobile App to Help with Skin Self-Checks

Don't Forget to Check Your Scalp for Skin Cancer

Choosing the Best Sunscreen