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Experts say excessive sunlight exposure is a major reason for melanoma cases in younger people. Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk. Getty Images
  • Researchers say the number of head and neck melanoma cases among people under 40 has increased 51 percent over the past two decades.
  • Experts say tanning beds and excessive exposure to sunlight are two of the main causes.
  • Experts say you can reduce your risk of skin cancer by limiting your exposure to the sun during peak daylight hours and wearing sunscreen as well as protective clothing while outdoors.

Despite all the warnings, dangerous head and neck skin cancer is on the rise among young people, especially boys and young men.

And it turns out, your barber or hairstylist could be your best chance at early detection.

That’s according to a new study recently published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery. The research was conducted by a team from the Saint Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri.

“I first got interested in looking into this when I learned there was a 10-year-old girl at my church who had been diagnosed with melanoma,” said Dr. Haley Bray, lead author of the study and a fourth-year resident in otolaryngology at the medical school.

“That story was shocking to people because she was so young, but there are numbers of patients that are young who have melanoma,” Bray told Healthline.

The team of researchers analyzed data from the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries that includes both Canada and the United States.

They studied infants to 39-year-olds who had been diagnosed with head and neck melanomas between 1995 and 2014.

When they crunched the numbers, they found that the incidence of head and neck melanoma had increased 51 percent over the past two decades. That increase was most substantial in white males in the United States ages 15 to 39.

“This was surprising because most of the literature we had seen up to this point focused on females being the ones to have the higher numbers,” Bray said.

The scientists looked at incidence trends year to year. Bray said the rate of increase was higher in the beginning of the period they studied. But it began to slow around 2003.

The researchers believe that may be tied to a spike in awareness about the dangers of using tanning beds, in part because of warnings like those issued by the World Health Organization.

But Bray says the messages were mostly targeted at young women, and that may have affected the numbers.

“Young females are the ones more likely using tanning beds. There was less focus on males,” she said. “So I think there is still an increase because maybe we’re not giving the information to the right people.”

“Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and from indoor tanning devices, so UV exposure likely plays a role in the increases we are seeing,” said Dawn Holman, MPH, a behavioral scientist in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control’s Epidemiology and Applied Research Branch.

“An estimated 900,000 high school students and 7.8 million adults continue to put themselves at risk by using indoor tanning devices” she told Healthline.

“About one-third of adults and more than half of high school students get sunburned each year,” she added. “Without future decreases in sunburn, skin cancer rates will likely continue to increase in the decades to come.”

“Melanoma risk depends on factors you can change and factors you cannot. Risk factors like hair or eye color, fair complexion, and genetic predispositions are not modifiable,” said Dr. Trevan D. Fischer, a surgical oncologist and assistant professor of surgical oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

“However, all young people can decrease their risk of developing melanoma by limiting their exposure to UV radiation from sunlight or tanning beds,” Fischer told Healthline.

Fischer outlined these specific tips for decreasing melanoma risk:

  • Avoid blistering sunburns.
  • Avoid the sun during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear and reapply sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30.
  • Wear protective clothing when you’re out in the sun.

Fischer added that women may already be getting some additional protection from their makeup.

“Beauty products now have SPF as a part of their foundation, and women are routinely putting some UV protection on each day when they apply their makeup,” he explained.

“We know that the prognosis of head and neck melanoma is worse than other areas of the body, and we think that may be due to later diagnosis,” Bray said. “Perhaps because it’s not as visible or not recognized.”

That’s why researchers say it may be a good idea to recruit your barber or hairstylist as your first line of defense.

“You can’t see the top of your head easily, so if someone else knows what to look for, it could help people have an earlier diagnosis,” Bray said.

What should your stylist be looking for? Experts say it’s as easy as ABCDE.

They recommended looking for a growth that:

  • A: has an asymmetrical shape
  • B: has an irregular or jagged border
  • C: has an uneven color
  • D: has a diameter larger than the size of a pea
  • E: is evolving or changing

The experts say if you have any of these signs, you should see your doctor.