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Is It Dandruff or Skin Cancer? Checking Your Scalp

Posted on: February 8th, 2024 by Dr. Christopher Crosby

Over 10% of skin cancer cases are located on the scalp. This is not particularly surprising to doctors because the top of your head receives a lot of ultraviolet ray exposure from the sun. By the same token, because the scalp is covered by hair, it can be more difficult for you to catch a cancerous growth in this area. Here, our dermatologists explain what you need to know about signs of skin cancer on your scalp.

Why Skin Cancer Is Sometimes Mistaken for Dandruff

Squamous cell carcinoma is a common form of skin cancer; doctors diagnose nearly 2 million new cases in the United States each year. It is most likely to develop in areas that receive a lot of sun exposure, especially the scalp. In later stages, squamous cell carcinoma usually looks like a red bump, but early on it appears crusty and makes your skin feel dry. Unfortunately, these are similar symptoms to dandruff.

How to Tell Whether You Have Dandruff or Skin Cancer

Since early detection is the best way to protect yourself from skin cancer, knowing whether your flaky skin is real dandruff or potentially cancerous is important. The main thing to look for is the size of the flakes. Dandruff is tiny and white (or sometimes slightly yellowish), whereas squamous cell carcinoma has larger scaly bits that flake off. If you also notice discoloration on your scalp or bleeding, then it’s probably time to seek the opinion of a dermatologist. The same applies when you notice a persistent sore that does not clear up within a few weeks.

Other Potential Scalp Cancers

Not all skin cancer on the scalp is squamous cell carcinoma. Basal cell carcinoma and melanoma can also form, though these types would probably not be mistaken for dandruff. Melanoma, a more deadly type of skin cancer, usually presents as a brown or pinkish mole. Take notice of any growths you feel when brushing your hair or can spot in the mirror.

Protecting Your Scalp from Skin Cancer

Although hair offers some protection from the sun, it may not provide enough to prevent skin cancer on your scalp. Consider wearing a hat when you are out in the sun for an extended period. This is even more important if you have thinning hair, a receding hairline, a bald spot, or insufficient coverage at the center of the scalp.

While signs of skin cancer are usually plain to see, hair coverage can allow scalp skin cancer to go unnoticed. It may be worthwhile to self-examine your scalp on occasion so that if there are signs underneath your hair you can have it examined.

Make an Appointment with a Dermatologist

Our team of skin cancer doctors are among the best in their field. To ask our experts a question or have your skin examined/treated, please schedule an appointment by calling (619) 462-1670 today.

Coastal Skin & Eye Institute/Grossmont Dermatology