A head-to-toe look at some of the surprising places skin cancer can develop and how to protect yourself.

By Barbara Brody
May 13, 2020
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Sadly, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the country, with more than 3 million people diagnosed each year, according to the National Foundation for Cancer Research. However, the good news is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer. The best way to beat skin cancer is early detection, but that can be difficult to do if you don't know where to look. In honor of May, which is skin cancer awareness month, here are all the unexpected places where skin cancer can develop to keep in mind for your at-home cancer checks.

Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Your Scalp

Bald men are the most vulnerable here, but don't assume that your locks have you covered. The sun's rays can easily reach spots where the hair is a bit thin or areas exposed by a prominent part. And skin cancer on the scalp is rarely caught in the early, most treatable stage because it's hard to see every spot under your hair, says Deborah S. Sarnoff, M.D., president of The Skin Cancer Foundation. You have a few options as far as protection goes. The best one, by far, is to wear a hat. "Look for a wide-brim hat—at least 2 inches so it also shades your ears and face—that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 30–50," says New York City-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman, M.D. Companies selling hats with UPF include Coolibar, Wallaroo, and Outdoor Research. Not a hat person? Invest in a sunscreen designed for hair and scalp. Boston-based dermatopathologist Gretchen Frieling, M.D., is a fan of Coola Scalp & Hair Mist, $26, Ulta.

The Skin Around Your Eyes and Eyelids

Even if you dutifully apply sunscreen to your face, you're probably missing around your eyes. For those who want a little sparkle with their SPF, try Supergoop! Shimmershade Illuminating Cream Eyeshadow, $24, Sephora. If sunscreen irritates that area, or if you're looking for a kid-friendly formula, Sarnoff suggests using a product designed for sensitive skin, such as Blue Lizard Sensitive Sunscreen Lotion, $14.99, Target. Waterproof sunscreen is also a smart choice for little ones because it's less likely to run. An excellent option for kids is Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Kids Mineral Sunscreen Stick, $15.99, CVS. Sunglasses, of course, are always a must. "They'll reduce your risk of cataracts too," she says. For the best protection, choose large, wraparound sunglasses.

Your Ears

Scientists have had people apply sunscreen then stand under black lights to see where they missed. The ears were routinely neglected. "People don't want their hair to get gunked up, or they just forget," Sarnoff says. But ears get regular sun exposure, so remember to apply sunscreen to them. Also, make sure your dermatologist peeks inside the ear canal with a light during your skin check (you have one once a year, right?); skin cancer can develop there, too.

Your Lower Lip

It tends to protrude more than the upper lip, which means it catches more sunrays, says Cynthia Bailey, M.D., a California dermatologist and founder of an eponymous skincare line. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen or lip balm with SPF. (We recommend Aquaphor Lip Protectant and Sunscreen, which has SPF 30, $3.99, Target.) Or go the lipstick route: A thick, opaque formula physically blocks UV rays. Another way to lower the risk of developing skin cancer on your lips: Don't smoke. The carcinogens in smoke from cigarettes and pipes can damage the skin cells there and lead to cancer.

Your Nails and Surrounding Skin

If you've ever had warts on your hands, you may be at higher risk for squamous cell cancer, Bailey says. If you notice any new or unusual spots around your nails or a dark, vertical stripe running up the nail bed, get it checked out. Slather on some Sun Bum Original Sunscreen Lotion, $14.99, Target, and reapply often as we wash our hands frequently.

The Palms of Your Hands

Melanoma sometimes crops up here, especially in people with dark skin tones. However, cases in this area are more likely to be linked to getting older than to sun exposure, Bailey says. If you notice any new spots or pigment changes in this area, tell your dermatologist.

Your Lower Back

It's not uncommon for shirts to ride up above the waist of pants or shorts while you go about daily activities, resulting in repeated sun exposure. "I found a melanoma here on my mother, who was a gardener," Bailey says. "She often would get a sunburn on her lower back when it was exposed as she bent over to tend her plants." If you're going to be outside moving around a lot—gardening, exercising, picking up kids—make sure to cover this spot with sunscreen before getting dressed. It's also a smart idea to wear protective clothing, such as the Moisture Wicking UPF 50 Sun Tunic Top, $26.97, Lands' End.

Your Genitals

Yes, you can get skin cancer where the sun doesn't shine. "We think in some cases, but not all, it might be related to having a history of HPV (human papillomavirus)," Sarnoff says. HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus that the body's immune system usually fights off. However, recent research suggests that if HPV lingers for years, it might raise the risk of cancer. For women, the gyno should screen you for HPV during checkups; men, ask your doctor about getting tested. "I recommend people up to age 45 who are sexually active get the HPV vaccine (Gardasil)," Sarnoff says. And when you're at the dermatologist for a skin check, don't be shy: This area needs a once-over.

The Tops and Soles of Your Feet

During the summer (or if you live in a warm climate), your feet get lots of sun exposure, especially if you wear flip-flops or sandals, says Bailey, who adds that she has treated many skin cancers on the feet. So don't forget to apply sunscreen there, and make it a habit. Before you put on your shoes, spray a layer of Neutrogena Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Body Spray, $8.99, Target, all over your feet. Although it's not as common, the soles of your feet are another place where melanoma shows up; people with dark skin tones are more at risk. (Doctors aren't sure why.) When doing a self- exam (about once a month), be sure to examine your soles and the skin in between toes.

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