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Published January 20, 2013, 11:40 PM

Hairstylists play important role in spotting skin issues on clients’ scalps

FARGO - When Erin Hafliger was at the Aveda Institute learning how to cut and color hair, she also learned some potentially lifesaving information.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO - When Erin Hafliger was at the Aveda Institute learning how to cut and color hair, she also learned some potentially lifesaving information.

At the cosmetology school in Minneapolis, the 26-year-old Fargo woman was taught to look for discoloration, moles, bumps or any other changes in the scalp.

“We aren’t meant to be dermatologists, but since we see our clients at least every six weeks, we’re able to point out if there are any concerns or changes and tell our clients to go see their doctor,” she says.

Hafliger, who now works at Bucci Salon on South University, has a few times in her six years as a hairstylist asked clients about something she saw.

“When you go to hair school, you just think you’re going to be making people look pretty every day, but you don’t realize you could actually save someone’s life, too,” she says.

Although she hasn’t yet spotted any signs of skin cancer on her clients’ heads, she did help one woman get diagnosed with another scalp problem: psoriasis.

“Her scalp was really scaly, and I asked her if she noticed anything, and she thought she just had really bad dandruff, and then she found out that she had psoriasis,” Hafliger says.

Dr. Nor Chiao of Fargo’s Catalyst Medical Center says psoriasis is a chronic, long-term medical condition characterized by psoriatic plaques on the scalp and other part of the body, sometimes accompanied by psoriatic arthritis.

“For some people, the itching on their scalp really bothers them to such an extent that they are unable to sleep well at night,” she says.

However, the dermatologist says other scalp conditions such as seborrhea, seborrheic dermatitis and seborrheic keratosis are much more common and can usually be successfully treated with shampoos and topical steroids.

“There are a wide range of treatment options for psoriatic plaques on the scalp, but we do have to take into consideration the chronic nature of the psoriasis,” Chiao says.

If stylist Hafliger hadn’t brought the plaques to her client’s attention, she might not have known she had treatment options other than over-the-counter dandruff shampoos.

Dr. Yulia Khan, a dermatologist with Sanford Dermatology & Laser Clinic in Fargo, says patients should be seen if they have visible, red, scaly patches on their scalps.

“The most common mistake people make is thinking the scaliness is because of dry skin and backing off from washing their scalps, which is actually the opposite of what needs to be done,” she says.

Both dermatologists recognize the importance of hairstylists’ role in early detection of scalp health issues.

“Hairdressers do play an important role because a lot of women and men do go to hairdressers every two or three months and get their hair colored or trimmed,” Khan says.

Since we can’t see the skin on our own scalps, we have to rely on those who can – and do on a regular basis.

“When they have the hair up in clips, that’s when they can get a really good look at the scalp,” Khan adds.

In her practice, Chiao has seen several cases of squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common type of skin cancer, on the scalp, but any type of skin cancer can occur there.

“Unfortunately, things that grow on the scalp tend to go on longer because most people aren’t aware of the fact that bad things can grow on the scalp,” she says.

Hairstylists like Hafliger know to look for discoloration, moles, bumps or any others changes elsewhere, too.

“It could even be behind their ear or on their neck; it doesn’t have to be right on the scalp. We obviously see every part of their head,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590