Health Beat: Aestheticians learn to be on the look out for melanoma

Last modified: Monday, August 05, 2013
There are some hairstylists who can change a life with a cut, a color or a chat.

And then there are the hairstylists who have saved lives. The Melanoma Foundation of New England is hoping to increase the ranks of stylists with the skills and the confidence to speak up when they suspect a client is at risk for skin cancer.

The group has held a number of training sessions for stylists and other aestheticians in New England, including one earlier this month in Manchester. Let’s face it, who puts sunblock on their scalp? And is there anyone else in a better position to examine the top of your head, or behind your ears?

At the training, stylists learned how to examine the scalp by separating layers of hair in small sections. They also learned what exactly to look for, and some scary statistics to share with clients who might be resistant to a skin warning. Here are some of the basics:

To evaluate a mole or other skin abnormalities, use the abcde method

Dangerous moles are Asymmetrical, with irregular Borders, Color variations and a Diameter of more than 6 mm. They also change, or Evolve, over time.

When Massachusetts-based dermatologist Robin Travers asked if any of the stylists in the room had ever used a tanning bed, most hands went up. That’s bad news, Travers said.

Monthly use of tanning beds before age 35 increases a person’s risk of skin cancer 75 percent, she said, and melanoma is the second-most common form of cancer in people ages 15 to 29.

The foundation estimates 63,000 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed annually, causing approximately 8,000 deaths every year.

For most people, 5 to 10 minutes of unprotected sun a few times each week is enough to help your skin make Vitamin D. Very few people are at risk for a Vitamin D deficiency, Travers said, and the foundation points to other sources, too: orange juice, milk, fish and supplements.

A lot of that was news to Jessie St. Clair, 23, of Nashua. The 23-year-old has just started buying sunscreen for herself that’s stronger than SPF 4 and said after the training she’ll be looking for something even stronger.

“I used to use baby oil. . . . I tanned this spring. I lay out as often as I can. I don’t burn, and if I don’t burn I think I’m fine. I’ve been getting more and more moles and freckles but I didn’t know what to look for,” she said.

A hair stylist in Boston, she said when she went through beauty school five years ago, the lessons on skin cancer were thin.

“In school, they don’t go into how to look for something like that on a client, they don’t tell you how to determine if something is wrong,” she said.

A friend of St. Clair who attended the session with her, Melanie Kuchinski of Nashua, said schools sometimes “tell you a bunch of myths, too. With tanning, they preach that it’s okay if you wear (sunscreen). No one wears (sunscreen). That would be ridiculous.”

Kuchinski works mostly in skin treatments, and said she’ll be working the scalp inspection technique she learned at the session into her regular facial routines, asking clients if they would like her to check while they relax with a mask or steam.

Christine Leonard is already a life saver. She told a client once that she didn’t like the look of a mole.

“She never took the time to take care of herself. It grew by the next time I saw her, and it was irregular. It just didn’t look right, ” she said.

Some stylists worried that clients would get defensive, or even angry if they pointed out concerning areas. Leonard said they need to develop thicker skin: “We just have to tell clients, you spend a lot of money to keep yourself beautiful. You need to keep yourself healthy.”

For more information on skin cancer and the Melanoma Foundation of New England, visit mfne.org.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)