Sun & Skin News

Men: What’s Under That Beard?

By Julie Bain • November 7, 2023

It could be skin cancer, says Ali Hendi, MD, a dermatologist and skin cancer specialist in the Washington, DC, area. And because they’re hidden, these skin cancers often aren’t detected early, when they have the highest chance for minimal treatment and a cure.

While a super-dark and bushy beard and/or mustache might deflect a few rays, it’s a myth to think that hair alone is adequate protection from the sun. Dr. Hendi wants to make guys more aware of their risks for skin cancer and help them do something about it.

It’s the perfect time to talk about this facial hair aspect, since the Movember movement encourages men to skip shaving in November to raise awareness of health issues that can affect them, such as prostate and testicular cancer, as well as mental health issues and suicide prevention. The campaign uses memorable catchphrases like: “Grow a mo, save a bro,” and “Mo your own way.”

Facial hair has made a huge comeback in recent years. Just hit your search engine with “beard styles” and you’ll see options you’ve never imagined. The rise of remote work gave men a chance to try new looks and test them on video calls. It’s important to know that millions of people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the U.S. each year, and significantly more than half of them are men. So November is also a good time to remind you how important it is to keep track of what’s happening on your skin under the facial hair.

Is There a Lump or a Sore That Doesn’t Heal?

“I’ve seen a number of patients who had a beard or mustache for a long time who had a skin cancer hiding underneath that the hair mostly covered up,” Dr. Hendi says. It might just seem like a little lump or sore that doesn’t heal and might bleed occasionally, he explains. Or it could be a new mole or dark spot that appears and grows. It’s especially easy to ignore it when you don’t see it most of the time, but if it’s growing or doesn’t heal within two months (without picking at it!), a dermatologist should look at it.

Skin cancers can also hide on your scalp, whether on bald spots or under your hair. Dr. Hendi suggests that once a month, using a bright light, you (or ask a partner to help) sift through your hair and facial hair, and notice by look or feel if anything is new, changing or unusual. You should check the rest of your body, too, of course, and don’t hesitate to call your dermatologist between your annual full-body skin exams if you have any concerns. (You are getting annual skin exams, right?)

Let’s Talk About Prevention

“And now, let’s talk about prevention,” Dr. Hendi says, “because it’s a lot easier to put on sunscreen every day than to have a piece of your scalp or cheek cut out and stitched up.” And yet, according to research, less than one in five men said they regularly used sunscreen on their face.

“Men just aren’t as used to putting products on their face as women are,” Dr. Hendi says. He wants this to change. “I tell men to try what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years: After washing your face and shaving each morning, instead of putting on an aftershave, which does nothing to protect your skin, apply a facial moisturizer with SPF in it instead.” (Use at least SPF 15 for everyday use and 30 or more for extended time outside). Slather it on everywhere and don’t forget your forehead, any bald spots, ears and the back of your neck, too.

Find a Product You Like

If you have a lot of facial hair, you might be reluctant to rub a thick sunscreen cream all over it, Dr. Hendi says. “The best thing is to find a lotion that is light enough and absorbs well enough so that it disappears after you rub it in. There are many innovations in products with SPF protection, and product lines created especially for men. I hear from industry folks that more products are on the market now that feel like you aren’t wearing anything.”

And Finally, Top It Off

No matter what you’re growing on your face and head, remember that hair doesn’t provide enough protection from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays, which can lead to skin cancer. Don’t forget to protect any thinning or bald spots on top of your head, and reapply sunscreen when outdoors. (The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends every two hours or after swimming or sweating.)

Even better, Dr. Hendi says: “Try a fedora. A hat with a wide brim is really the easiest and most reliable way to protect your face and scalp. It should be your first line of defense.”

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