Why melanoma may have more to do with your hair than skin

Sun causes skin cancer. It’s a fact that’s been hammered into your brain for decades now. And it’s why so many of us (myself included) slather on sunscreen daily.

Skin cancer, after all, is the most common cancer in the U.S. And it can easily turn deadly if it isn’t caught early enough — especially melanoma.

Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer that’s caused when UV rays damage pigment cells in the skin called melanocytes. When melanocytes are damaged, they mutate and start growing rapidly. Or at least that’s been the prevailing theory up until recently.

But “sunlight + skin cells = skin cancer” may not be the whole story when it comes to skin cancer in general and melanoma specifically.

In fact, a new study shows the root of skin cancer may be hiding somewhere other than your skin cells — in your hair follicles.

How hair follicles factor into melanoma

A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications found that melanoma can start in your hair follicles and spread to the skin from there.

Researchers studied mice and human tissue samples to confirm that melanoma can start in hair follicle pigment cells without the added factor of UV exposure. According to their findings, melanoma development in hair follicles occurs in three stages:

  • First, the pigment stem cells in your hair follicles (known as melanocytes, just like the pigment cells in your skin) go through genetic changes that turn them from healthy cells to cancerous ones.
  • Next, these cancerous cells receive growth signals that are meant to make your hair grow. Unfortunately, these growth signals also make cancerous cells grow.
  • Finally, the cancerous melanocytes move out of the hair follicle and spread to the skin around it — and potentially even further.

So, skin cancer doesn’t necessarily need UV exposure from the sun to grow. Everything it needs is hiding right in your own hair follicles.

3 lesser-known secrets for reducing skin cancer risk

Now, I want to mention an important fact here…

Even though melanoma can develop without the help of the sun in some cases, UV damage still contributes to skin cancer in many cases. So, I’m not telling you to chuck your sunscreen and take up tanning. I am telling you to consider skin cancer prevention that extends beyond sun protection.

Follow the same cancer prevention tactics you use to reduce your risk of other types of cancer, like eating a healthy diet, exercising and managing your stress levels. You may also want to try a few lesser-known secrets for reducing skin cancer risk, like:

  • Eating more tomatoes. A 2017 study found that feeding mice tomato powder cut the development of skin cancer tumors in half.
  • Taking nicotinamide. Nicotinamide is a form of B3 that reduced the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer in people who took a 500 mg dose two times per day.
  • Never mixing citrus fruits and sun exposure. This sounds like strange advice. But a 2015 study found that people who eat the most oranges and grapefruits have a 36 percent higher risk of melanoma. Apparently, there’s something in these fruits that makes your skin more sensitive to UV radiation. So, save your citrus fruit snacking for days you plan on being indoors.

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  1. Some skin cancers may start in hair follicles — MedicalXpress
  2. Hair follicles can be a site of origin for melanoma — Medical News Today
  3. Melanoma Overview — Skin Cancer Foundation
  4. Skin cancer — Mayo Clinic

Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.