A trusted hairdresser may be privy to your deepest secrets -- your age, your real hair color and maybe even the name of your plastic surgeon. Your stylist also may be the first to spot the telltale signs of deadly skin cancer.

"Hairdressers and barbers can potentially play a key role in detection of early melanoma if they are trained on how to look at the skin for atypical moles and lesions while they are taking care of their customers' hair," said Alan C. Geller, a senior lecturer in Society, Human Development and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and lead researcher of a new study.

"They have a unique view of these high-risk sites," Geller said. "If they see something questionable, they can suggest their client see a primary care physician or a dermatologist."

About 6 percent of all melanomas, the deadliest type of skin cancer, are found on the scalp and neck, and these cancers accounted for 10 percent of all melanoma deaths in the United States from 1973 to 2003. With a hairdresser's help, potentially cancerous abnormalities can be detected early, when they are most treatable, the researchers said.

Already, many hair professionals say they do examine their clients' head, neck and face, according to the study, published in the October issue of the Archives of Dermatology. And many more expressed interest in doing so, the survey found.

"We don't want hairdressers diagnosing skin cancer; we want hairdressers to pay attention to their customer's scalp and behind the ears and neck, basically areas that customers cannot access easily, and point out any suspicious lesions so that customers can go to a physician," said Shasa Hu, an assistant professor in the department of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

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