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The Basics of Skin Cancer




Skin cancer. No one really wants to talk about it, but it’s so important. Especially during the summer when we’re typically exposed to the sun more often, you need to know what to look for and how best to prevent it.


As an esthetician, you’re used to analyzing your clients’ skin so it’s essential to have a solid understanding of the signs of skin cancer so you can refer them to a dermatologist.


What Are the Main Types of Skin Cancer?


Skin cancer is caused by mutations in skin cells that cause the cells to grow rapidly and form a mass. It can affect all skin tones and often affects areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun, but not always.


Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer and accounts for about 90% of cases. It’s usually found in areas that see a lot of sunlight, such as the neck and face. 


Squamous cell carcinoma affects cells on the outer layers of the epidermis and is more aggressive than basal cell carcinoma. It may spread to other areas of the skin if not treated.

Melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer, but the most dangerous, accounting for about 73% of all skin cancer deaths. It can occur on skin that isn’t exposed to sunlight and can affect an existing mole or otherwise healthy skin. 


In men, melanoma is often found on the face or trunk. In women, melanoma often affects the lower legs. For people with darker skin tones, melanoma is often found on the palms or soles of the feet or under fingernails and toenails. 


Causes of Skin Cancer


All three main types of skin cancer can be caused by UV rays from the sun or tanning beds. The UV rays damage the DNA in skin cells, leading to unusually rapid growth.


Squamous cell carcinoma can also be caused by long-term exposure to cancer-causing chemicals or develop within a burn scar or ulcer. It can also be caused by some forms of the human papilloma virus (HPV).


Because melanoma can be found on skin that isn’t in the sun, there is some question about whether genetics or exposure to toxic environmental factors also play a role.


Symptoms of Skin Cancer


Early detection is always best when it comes to skin cancer. Knowing what to look for is one of the key ways to catch skin cancer early.


When analyzing your clients skin, keep an eye out for any of the following:

  • Skin lesions - a mole or unusual growth, bump, sore, or scaly spot

  • Color - any spot that has an unusual color, such as white, black, pink, or red

  • Asymmetry - when two halves of a mole are uneven or not identical

  • Border - a lesion has ragged, uneven edges

  • Diameter or size - any spot larger than ¼ inch or about the size of a pencil eraser

  • Evolving - a mole or spot is changing in appearance or texture


Basal cell carcinoma often shows up as a pearly, white bump, a flat scar-like lesion, or a bleeding or scabbing sore that heals and returns.


Squamous cell carcinoma typically looks like a firm, red nodule or a flat, red, scaly lesion and is found on sun-exposed parts of the body like neck, face, hands, and scalp.


Melanoma takes many forms. It can be a large dark spot with smaller speckles, a mole that bleeds or changes in size, color, or texture, a painful lesion that itches or burns, a small lesion with an unusual color or irregular borders, or dark spots on the palms, fingertips, soles of the feet or toes.


What To Do if a Client Shows a Possible Symptom


As an esthetician, you can best serve your clients as an advocate for healthy skin. When examining your clients’ skin, be sure to ask about any spot or lesion that meets any of the criteria above.


While you shouldn’t try to diagnose anything, you should always make your client aware of a suspicious spot and suggest they see a dermatologist. You can say something like, “Megan, I'm analyzing your skin and this spot seems concerning to me. I think you should make an appointment with your dermatologist as soon as possible."


You’ll also want to make a note in their client file about the location and characteristics of the spot. Note that referral was recommended and check back with your client after two weeks to follow up. 


Skin Cancer Prevention


The best way to help reduce the chances of skin cancer is sun protection. You should always recommend sunscreen to your clients. Here’s a helpful guide to the different types of sunscreen and tips for avoiding sun damage.

Skin cancer can be scary, but remember that early detection can make a big difference. By paying attention to your clients’ skin and promoting sun protection, you’re doing your part to help reduce the risk.

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