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What's the Skinny On Skin?

By Robin Travers, MD

September 1, 2016

With Labor Day Weekend summer officially winds down. Despite the approach of crisp fall days and cooling off temperatures, it is still vital to take proper sun safety precautions all year round. Skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer around the world, and most (but not all) skin cancers are related to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. Guest blogger dermatologist Robin Travers, MD, shares a unique community outreach program that other cancer programs can adapt to their community’s skin cancer prevention needs.

A Unique Opportunity

Estheticians and other salon professionals are in a unique position to take note of unusual growths on their client’s skin and initiate an important conversation that may ultimately save a patient’s life! These warning signs sit right on the skin’s surface, and using a few simple rules, a beauty professional is in a terrific position to be able to recognize them and save a life.

Estheticians, hair stylists, nail technicians, and massage therapists can play an important role in recognizing all three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Which is why the Melanoma Foundation of New England’s Skinny on Skin program is a critical education tool for beauty industry professionals.

The Skinny on Skin program is offered as an on-site educational session to groups of salon professionals who take advantage of the MFNE’s commitment to free professional skin cancer education. New England-based hair stylists are invited to register for local Skinny on Skin training events online. In addition, Skinny on Skin has developed a web-based training platform, allowing salon professionals across the United States to take advantage of this proven educational program without geographic, time, or financial barriers.

If caught in its early stages, melanoma is highly curable and salon professionals can play an important role in making this a reality.  The comfortable, friendly relationship a salon professional frequently has with a client offers the perfect setting for an alert esthetician or massage therapist to encourage the client to seek further medical attention for a potentially deadly skin cancer.

In fact, a 2011 study published in JAMA Dermatology,1 showed that, even though very few hair professionals had received any formal skin cancer education, many stylists already informally examine the skin of the head and neck and offer skin care advice as part of their profession. This study showed that salon professionals could be armed with confidence from a skin cancer educational session.


Knowing a few simple warning signs of melanoma allows salon professionals to be instrumental in finding early skin cancers and helping clients get help early. The Skinny on Skin program asks salon professionals to look for these “ABCDEs” of melanoma.

  1. Asymmetry. Benign, normal moles should be symmetric. If you mentally draw a line through the middle of a mole, the two sides should match. If they do not, this asymmetry may be an early warning sign for melanoma.
  2. Border irregularity. Benign moles have a smooth, even border.
  3. Color. There is no single color that is worrisome. The key is that a mole should be evenly colored throughout.
  4. Diameter. Benign moles are usually less than 6 mm in size. Moles that are larger moles than a pencil eraser size are thought to be more worrisome for melanoma.
  5. Evolution. Benign moles tend to look the same over time. If a mole starts to evolve or change in size, shape, symptoms, color, or elevation, this may be an early sign of melanoma.

Far more people visit their estheticians, hair stylists, and other salon professionals on a regular basis than their dermatologist. Salon professionals see their clients every few months and build a trusting relationship over time.  This puts them in a unique position to save their client’s life by spotting any unusual spots on their skin that may be early skin cancers and directing them to the appropriate professional for treatment. As part of their community outreach and prevention efforts, cancer programs may want to consider reaching out to salon professionals in their community with education similar to what the Melanoma Foundation of New England has done with its Skinny on the Skin program. Learn more at: mfne.org/prevent-melanoma/the-skinny-on-skin.


  1. Bailey EE, Marghoob AA, Orengo IF, Testa MA, White VR, Geller AC. Skin cancer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors in the salon: a survey of working hair professionals in Houston, TexasArch Dermatol. 2011;147(10):1159-1165.

Dr. Robin Travers is a dermatologist at SkinCare Physicians in the Boston, Mass., area. She writes a monthly column in JAMA Dermatology summarizing the most relevant and exciting recent dermatology research. Dr. Travers serves on the Medical Advisory Board of the MFNE and coaches MFNE’s Marathon Team for the Boston Marathon every year.

A longer version of this blog was published in the July/August 2016 Oncology Issues.


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