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It makes sense that skin cancer is most likely to crop up on areas of the body that get the most sun exposure, such as your face, chest, arms, and legs. But that doesn’t mean the rest of you should get a pass when it comes to checking for suspicious spots or growths.
“Skin cancers can essentially form anywhere we have skin,” says Purvisha Patel, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Memphis. While exposure to the sun’s UV rays is a major skin cancer driver, it’s far from the only factor. Age, genetics and family history, immune system health, environmental factors, and even just having a lot of moles can all play a role, according to the Mayo Clinic.
That means even areas of your body that don’t see much (or any) sun can still be at risk. Ahead, dermatologists break down eight areas that most of us don’t pay enough attention to, plus the simple steps you can take to protect them.
Why it’s at risk: Even if you’re diligent about slathering sunscreen all over your face, unless you’re bald, you’re probably not slicking the stuff on top of your head. But hair alone won’t block the sun’s UV rays, Dr. Patel notes. That’s especially true if you have light-colored locks or your hair’s on the thinner side. “In fact, part lines on the scalp are one of the most common places for skin cancer,” she says.
How to protect it: A wide-brimmed hat is your best bet. Not only will it keep UV rays from reaching your scalp, it’ll also give your face some extra protection. Just make sure the hat doesn’t have any holes or vents where light can sneak through, Dr. Patel says.
If you’re not wearing a hat, it’s really worth putting some sunscreen up there. “Spray sunscreen is a good choice, as it can penetrate the hairs and actually get on the scalp,” says Dr. Patel. If you’re bald, a lotion or sunscreen stick is a more effective option. There are also sunscreens that are specifically formulated for the scalp.
Palms of the hands and soles of the feet
Why they’re at risk: It’s no secret that the tops of our hands and feet get a ton of sun. (Hello, age spots!) But the bottoms aren’t immune to risk. “They’re an area that’s definitely overlooked. I find in my office when I ask people to remove their socks, they’re often surprised,” says Marisa Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
In fact, there’s a specific type of skin cancer that forms just on the palms, soles, and under the nail beds called acral lentiginous melanoma. It’s relatively rare, accounting for less than 3% of melanomas overall, according to the National Library of Medicine. But it’s the most common type of melanoma in people of color. And even if your skin is light, rare doesn’t mean nonexistent.
How to protect them: Experts don’t fully understand what causes acral letiginous melanoma, but it’s thought that genetics or past trauma or injury to the area could be culprits. “Because the exact cause is unknown, it can be hard to know exactly what to do to prevent it,” Dr. Garshick says. But you can still be vigilant by scrutinizing your palms and soles regularly. “Pay attention to any new, changing, bleeding, or painful spots, even if it’s not a dark spot specifically, and see your dermatologist,” recommends Dr. Garshick.
Finger and toenails
Why they’re at risk: The nail beds are another possible place where acral lentiginous melanoma can form. They can also be a hiding spot for squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer that often shows up as red, rough, or thick patches on the skin.
How to protect them: Like the palms and soles of the feet, sun exposure isn’t the main cause of skin cancer in nail beds. While genetics or an injury could contribute to the development of acral letiginous melanoma, it’s possible that a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection might be behind squamous cell carcinoma, research shows.
You can minimize your risk for HPV-related cancers (skin and others, like cervical cancer) by practicing safe sex and talking with your doctor about getting the HPV vaccine if you aren’t already immunized, says Dr. Garshick.
Check your naked nails regularly for anything new or unusual too. (If you’re a devoted nail polish wearer, try checking whenever you change your color.) “Cancer in the nail beds can sometimes appear as a dark line,” Dr. Garshick says. “If you notice a new dark band or one that seems like it’s changing, see a dermatologist for an evaluation.”
Why they’re at risk: Up to 10% of skin cancers form on our lids, according to estimates from the British Journal of Opthalmology. They’re on your face after all, so they get a lot of sun! Plus, it’s one of the most overlooked areas when it comes to slathering on the sunscreen, one study found. (No one wants to get that goop in their eyes.)
How to protect them: For starters, don’t skimp around your eyes when you’re applying sunscreen. (If the stuff feels too greasy, opt for a dedicated eye cream with SPF like the SkinCeuticals Physical Eye UV Defense SPF 50.)
Also, make like paparazzi-dodging celeb and wear sunglasses and a hat whenever you’re outside. Pick specs with broad spectrum protection that block out 99% to 100% of the sun’s UV rays, Dr. Patel recommends. “They won’t just protect against skin cancer, but also against cataract formation,” she says.
Between your toes
Why it’s at risk: When’s the last time you scrutinized (or heck, even glanced!) at the skin between each digit? Exactly. “The area is just often overlooked,” Dr. Patel says. “When we find skin cancers on the feet or between the toes, they’re sometimes larger, deeper, or more aggressive, as they may have been there for a while.”
How to protect it: Let’s assume you’re already sunscreening the tops of your feet when you know they’ll be exposed to the sun. (And if you’re not, please start!) While you’re at it, make sure to get in between those piggies so they’re fully protected, Dr. Patel recommends. Check each one when you’re doing your at-home skin self-exams too. It’ll take an extra minute, but it’s worth it.
Why they’re at risk: Unless you’re a regular at a nude beach, sun exposure likely isn’t a huge concern when it comes to your nether region. But squamous cell carcinomas, which can sometimes pop up near the genitals, is thought to be related exposure to HPV, Dr. Garshick notes. And if you’re not regularly checking the area for any new developments, a growth or spot could go unnoticed for a while.
How to protect them: Again, reduce your risk for HPV-related cancers by practicing safe sex and, if needed, talking with your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Of course, check your genitals carefully when performing skin self-exams—a hand mirror can help you get a thorough view.
Talk with your doctor, too, if you have a family or personal history of melanoma or large, irregularly shaped moles. “Those groups should be especially careful in monitoring for spots in the genitals,” says Dr. Garshick, “given that these are risk factors for melanoma in general.”
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