Published Sep 23, 2021
When it comes to examining yourself for skin cancer, it’s natural (and obvious) to check your skin and moles. But check your nails for signs of skin cancer too.
While rare, skin cancer, including melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — can develop under and around your fingernails and toenails. (Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers; melanoma accounts for only about 1% of skin cancers but causes a large number of skin cancer deaths.)
In the United States this year, it’s estimated that about 106,110 new melanoma cases will be diagnosed, and about 7,180 people will die of melanoma.
“While anyone can develop melanoma on their nails, it’s more common in older individuals and people with skin of color. A personal or family history of melanoma or previous nail trauma may also be risk factors,” according to American Academy of Dermatology.
While checking your nails for melanoma skin cancer, look for the following indicators:
Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified dermatologic surgeon and associate at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, tells SurvivorNet it’s also possible that getting your nails done at the salon could increase skin cancer risk.
“The reality is, if we have our hands or feet under these ultraviolet lamps without protection, we’re exposing the dorsum of the hands or foot, the skin around the nails, to this UV light,” she says. “That, over time, can increase our risk of skin cancer.”
But hang on, there’s a catch.
If you see one or any of these indications of skin cancer when examining your nails, don’t jump to the conclusion that you have cancer. (But Engelman does note that any pigmented streaking of the fingernail should be evaluated by a doctor.)
“Subungual melanoma is a rare and often deadly type of melanoma,” Engelman says. “This specific type of melanoma that occurs under the nail has fairly classic clinical findings — with linear, darkly pigmented streaking of the nail and involvement of proximal nail fold or cuticle.”
However, Engelman continues, nail color is not itself an indication of subungual melanoma, nor a reason to believe you may have other types of melanoma.
“Determining one’s risk factor for melanoma solely on the color of the nail plate is neither helpful nor vetted in science,” she adds. “There are many causative factors that can lead to discoloration in the nail. Melanoma of the nail does not mean nor predict that you will have melanoma elsewhere on the body, either.”
So, while some fingernails streaks may be a sign of this one specific type of melanoma, fingernails are not an indicator of overall skin health; so it’s important to be alert for other signs and symptoms, too, and get regular checks by your dermatologist.
Engelman says that protecting your skin is easy with these simple steps:
Contributing: Daisy Melamed Sanders