Could Your Hairdresser Save Your Life?

Hair pros aren't just good at cuts, blowouts and dispensing life advice; they can also serve as the first line of defense against skin cancer by checking their customers' heads for suspicious moles that might otherwise go unnoticed.

In what authors believe is the first study of its kind, researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health asked some 200 hair professionals in the greater Houston area a series of questions about their skin cancer-related observation and recommendation practices.

They found approximately 40 percent of the respondents said they'd looked at least half of their customers' scalps for suspicious moles and lesions in the last month, and nearly 70 percent said they were likely to give customers a skin cancer pamphlet during an appointment.

"People go to see hair professionals frequently," said Allan Geller, MPH, one of the study's authors, who explained how this frequency puts hairdressers in a unique position to detect skin cancers on the head, neck and scalp -- particularly as those areas are sometimes overlooked in routine check-ups.

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is among the most common cancer types, accounting for nearly half of cancers in the U.S. The study's authors further explain that between 1973 and 2003, melanoma of the scalp and neck constituted 6 percent of all melanomas and 10 percent of all melanoma deaths in this country.

The new study, published Monday in the Archives of Dermatology, found that while many hair professionals already demonstrated a strong knowledge of basic skin cancer issues, like looking for moles that change in size or regularly bleed, many said they would welcome further instruction. Nearly half said they were "very" or "extremely" interested in participating in a skin cancer education program.

According to Geller, researchers are currently looking into pilot programs that would help hair pros become almost a first line of defense against skin cancer in tough-to-see spots. He said such programs should focus not only on what to look out for, but also on how to make customers aware of potential concerns in a way that encourages them to seek medical help without frightening them.

Other experts agreed.

"I regularly tell patients to have their hairdressers check their scalps," Dr. Carolyn Jacob, director at the Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology facility and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology, who has given lectures to instruct hairdressers on what to look for.

"I think it should be part of cosmetology training, and I do believe they're doing more of that now," Jacob continued.

Dr. Andrew Alexis, director of the Skin of Color Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital and a spokesperson for the AAD, said he didn't necessarily see this as a trend, but rather as an "ongoing phenomenon" of hairdressers being willing and able to spot certain conditions on the scalp, which their clients and their doctors might otherwise miss.

He said many of his patients come in after being told by a hairdresser to see a dermatologist, whether for certain types of hair loss, moles or any number of inflammatory skin disorders.

"While I have not yet had any skin cancers diagnosed this way," Alexis told HuffPost, "This is always a possibility."