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Skin Cancer Explained

Is It Skin Cancer Or Just An Ingrown Hair?

Knowing the difference can help you to detect skin cancers or melanoma early
MoleMap Team
January 2, 2024
5 minutes

Are you wor­ried about a raised, ​‘boil-like’ bump that seems to have grown dark­er over time? The fact is that any unusu­al growth on your skin needs to be checked out by a pro­fes­sion­al. With approx­i­mate­ly 4,000 Kiwis diag­nosed with melanoma every year (that’s around 13 peo­ple every day), it’s vital to take any new or chang­ing spots or moles on your skin seri­ous­ly and get them checked by skin can­cer detec­tion pro­fes­sion­als.

That said, don’t pan­ic not every new lump, bump or spot is a sign of skin can­cer! In many cas­es, it could be caused by some­thing very innocu­ous: an ingrown hair.

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What is an ingrown hair?

An ingrown hair is a hair strand that has grown down­wards or side­ways into the skin. Although any­one can have ingrown hair, it’s most com­mon for peo­ple with curly or coarse hair after they shave or wax.

It can also hap­pen when a razor or tweez­er uneven­ly breaks off the hair; this leaves a sharp tip of hair so close to the skin’s sur­face that’s prone to grow sideways.

Anoth­er cause is when dead skin cells clog the hair fol­li­cle, forc­ing the hair tip to grow under­neath the skin. When this hap­pens, that area of skin can get irri­tat­ed and inflamed. Here’s what an infect­ed ingrown hair looks like…

ingrown hair
Left: this image shows the dif­fer­ence between a nor­mal hair and an ingrown hair

An ingrown hair is usu­al­ly not a big issue; most of the time, it’ll go away on its own. Even if it becomes infect­ed, this is usu­al­ly eas­i­ly treated.

Quick tip: If you’re prone to ingrown hairs, try gen­tly wash­ing and exfo­li­at­ing those areas of your skin reg­u­lar­ly – this helps slough off dead skin cells so the hairs can get to the sur­face of the skin.

Know­ing the dif­fer­ence between ingrown hairs and skin cancer

While an ingrown hair may resem­ble some types of skin can­cer at first, there are some tell­tale dif­fer­ences. For starters, ingrown hairs often appear in clus­ters of raised red bumps. They also often cause flu­id-filled cysts to appear which may fea­ture a white or yel­low head (much like an infect­ed pim­ple), plus they can become itchy and sore.

Skin can­cer lesions, on the oth­er hand, tend to appear as sin­gle moles or bumps. They are usu­al­ly pain-free dur­ing ear­ly stages, and while they may appear crusty, they usu­al­ly don’t con­tain any pus.

Some signs of an ingrown hair include:

- Small, round, sol­id bumps (often filled with pus) appear­ing on the chin, cheeks, legs, pubic area, scalp and armpits

- Dark­en­ing skin

- Embed­ded hairs beneath the skin

- Bumps that are painful, ten­der and/​or and itchy

As a com­par­i­son, here are the signs of the most com­mon forms of skin cancer:

Basal cell carcinoma:

- A pearly or waxy bump

- A flat, flesh-coloured or brown scar-like lesion

- A bleed­ing or scab­by sore that heals and keeps returning

image of Basal cell car­ci­no­ma
Above: Basal cell carcinoma

Squa­mous cell carcinoma:

- A firm, red nodule

- A flat lesion with a scaly, crust­ed surface

image of Squa­mous cell car­ci­no­ma
Above: Squamous cell carcinoma

Melanoma:

- A large brown­ish spot with dark­er speckles

- A mole that changes in colour, size, or feel; it may also bleed

- A small lesion with an irreg­u­lar bor­der and parts that appear red, pink, white, blue, or blue-black

- A painful lesion that itch­es or burns

- Dark lesions on your palms, soles, fin­ger­tips or toes, or on mucous mem­branes lin­ing your mouth, nose, vagi­na, or anus

image of Melanoma
Above: Melanoma comes in many forms

If you’ve noticed a ​‘lump’ or ​‘bump’ with any of the above fea­tures, get it checked out straight away. A MoleMap Skin Check is a good solu­tion for this – or a SpotChat , an online con­sul­ta­tion with a spe­cial­ist Melanog­ra­phers (a trained skin can­cer nurse), who can advise whether the spot has fea­tures of skin can­cer and your next steps. And she can cer­tain­ly spot if it’s just an ingrown hair!

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What’s your skin cancer risk?

Unfortunately, New Zealand has one of the highest incidences of melanoma in the world.1 That’s not great news, but on the upside, melanoma is almost always treatable if it’s detected in the early stages.

That’s why it’s good to know your personal skin cancer risk factor, so you can take the appropriate precautions to protect your skin and have it checked regularly. So why not take a minute to check your skin cancer risk now?

It also pays to self-check your skin regularly – at least every 3 months – or more often if you’re high risk. If you notice any unusual spot or growth on your skin, see your GP or your nearest skin cancer detection clinic as soon as possible.

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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