(Sun Care)

How To Protect Your Hair & Scalp From Sun Damage

UV rays can cause some serious problems.

by Natasha Marsh
Edward Berthelot / Contributor/ Getty Images
Woman wearing sunglasses and a dress in the sun

By now you know the drill: Apply sunscreen daily, whether you are indoors or outdoors. rain or shine, hot or cold. But it’s not only your skin that needs shielding from the sun — it’s all areas that are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays, including your hair and scalp.

Because the scalp is facing directly up at the sun, that makes it extremely prone to sunburns and UV damage. And with excessive sun exposure, hair can become dry, discolored, and brittle. According to Dr. Hope Mitchell, MD, FAAD board certified dermatologist, “sun damage can create hyperpigmentation, pre-cancers such as actinic keratosis, and skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma — the most common cancer and skin cancer in the nation,” which is why it’s so essential to pay attention to the skin on your head, just as much as you do the rest of your body.

Unfortunately, scalp skin cancer is more common than you think. “The scary reality is it can go undetected for a long time because it’s not an easy-to-see area,” Dr. Fatima Fahs, MD FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dermy Doc Box, tells TZR, “Scalp melanomas can be subtle pink bumps that are difficult to spot.”

With stats like these, developing a thorough hair and scalp care routine in the summer (when you’re likely outside much more often and exposed to UV rays) is essential. Find out what the experts have to say about keeping your hair and skin protected this season, and all year long.

Protect Your Scalp Like The Rest Of Your Skin

The scalp is an extension of the skin on your face and is thus susceptible to sunburns. That’s why you should apply the same SPF recommendations to your scalp. Dr. Mitchell says to apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure, especially to the hairline, and then reapply every two hours.

“It’s very important to apply sunscreen to the scalp unless you’re wearing a UPF protective hat,” says Dr. Orit Markowitz, New York City board-certified dermatologist and founder of OptiSkin. “If you’re not walking around with constant blocking of the scalp (thick hair being a good blocker), then there are areas of the scalp that are going to be exposed and can lead to sunburns, blisters, melanomas, and other skin cancers.”

And because scalp melanomas are challenging to detect, it can become a very difficult process to treat. As a preventative tactic, Dr. Markowitz recommends annual skin exams with your dermatologist. If anything unusual is found — mole, crust, or the like — they’ll be able to take swift action to keep you healthy.

Those with thin hair or less dense hair (fine hair and wide hair parts) have more exposed areas on their scalp than those with thick hair and will usually need to reapply SPF more frequently than every two hours. The good news: scalp sunscreen with little to no white residue does exist. When applying SPF to the scalp, look for a water-resistant formula that will hold up against scalp moisture and sweat, and will limit the sunscreen from running into your eyes. Dr. Fahs also suggests a scalp spray or powder instead of a traditional lotion to avoid a greasy residue.

And don’t forget about the hairline! Most people don’t have the same thickness in their hairline as they do the rest of their head and it’s the most common area that people neglect with SPF for fear that hair will become greasy, according to Dr. Markowitz.

Layering is also key when preventing sun damage. Sunscreen combined with wide-brimmed hats made with UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor, will boost your overall sun protection for your hair and scalp — and can be a chic part of your overall summer look.

Does Hair Need SPF, Too?

Technically because hair strands are made up of dead cells and don’t have cancer mutation potential, the actual strands do not need sunscreen. However, hair can become damaged from the sun and experience moisture loss, color loss, and split ends with excessive sun exposure. The sun can also damage the hair’s cuticle (outer layer) and lead to structural impairment of the hair shaft — resulting in hair protein loss, weak strands, and degradation of hair pigment.

To combat the negative side effects of the sun, Dr. Fahs recommends a weekly hydrating hair mask to replenish moisture levels. You can also opt for a leave-in conditioner with SPF to protect hair from salt, chlorine, and the sun.

If you believe your scalp or hair has experienced sun damage, Dr. Mitchell recommends steam treatments, protein treatments, and hair shaft bond strengtheners. A professional treatment or weekly maintenance at home will ensure that your hair doesn’t fall victim to the summer’s UV rays and keep your texture strong and healthy.

Adding a few SPF and preventative products to your daily beauty lineup will guarantee that your scalp and hair remain free of damage all summer long. Unsure of where to start? Check out a few cult-favorite sun care essentials below.

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