Any derm will tell you that slathering antioxidants (and of course, SPF) on your skin is a must during the spring and summer months. Spending more time outside means more exposure to UV rays and pollution, so extra protection is key for keeping your complexion healthy. But what about your hair?
As it turns out, these environmental stressors create the same type of free radical damage in your scalp and strands as they do in your skin, which means they may be the culprit behind your most frustrating hair concerns. Because of this, pros say antioxidant protection on your scalp and strands is just as important as it is on your face. Keep reading to learn more.
How UV and pollution damage shows up in your hair
In simplest terms, free radicals are molecules that have unpaired electrons, which makes them unstable. In an attempt to stabilize themselves, they scavenge healthy cells and snatch up their electrons. As a result, those initially healthy cells become unstable and stop functioning the way they're supposed to. There are a number of different types of free radicals, but we're most commonly exposed to reactive oxygen species (ROS) free radicals. "The oxygen atoms with the unpaired electrons move around looking for electrons to pair with, and this process of scavenging is what causes all sorts of DNA, cell, and protein damage," Mark Gray, MD, a New Zealand-based dermatologist and founder of Ao Skincare, previously told Well+Good.
While your skin is particularly susceptible to this type of damage (it shows up in the form of wrinkles, sagging, and discoloration), your hair isn't immune. “2019 studies found that exposure to air pollution and UV exposure impacts both the physical appearance and chemical composition of the hair fiber,” says certified trichologist Bridgette Hill. Pollution and UV damage causes the hair fibers to become frizzy, dry, brittle, and rough-textured, resulting in a loss of color and shine. What's more, UV damage and pollution can cause chemical changes to the hair fiber that decrease the levels of protein required for growth and can even destroy the lipid bonds that keep hair strong, shiny, and healthy.
Though you'll see these effects on the surface of your hair, the damage actually goes much deeper than that. “Direct damage is not only done to the cuticle, or the outer layer of hair, but more importantly to the matrix cells themselves, which permanently reduces hair quality," says Dr. Macrene Alexiades, MD, associate professor of dermatology and director of cosmetic & clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.
In addition, sun damage and pollution might just be the trigger to your lack of volume or even hair loss. “Recent studies suggest that pollution and UV radiation can disrupt the hair cycle by triggering the hair cycle into the shedding phase, or exogen phase, prematurely. There is more evidence that excessive UV exposure may be a trigger to an underlying cause of androgenic hair loss,” says Hill.
The importance of antioxidants
In skin care, antioxidants are your first line of defense against free radicals, and that same principle applies to the hair and scalp. “Some reports suggest antioxidants can help fight the sun damage by protecting the cuticles, improve the hair growth in case of alopecia, which is a form of hair fall.” In fact, in a 24-week clinical trial, there was a statistically significant reduction in hair shedding and an increased total hair count in those who used antioxidant hair products compared to a placebo group.
How to use antioxidants for hair
Now, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have to start applying your antioxidant skin serum to your scalp and strands—there are a plethora of hair products with antioxidants inside that are ready to wreak havoc on those pesky free radicals. Firstly, you’ll want to look for the proper antioxidants to protect your hair against free radical damage: Hill calls out enzymes, catalase, superoxide dismutase, Vitamins E, C, and A, and selenium as the best ingredients to build into your protective hair routine.
Because of antioxidants' water-based molecular structure, they bind to the scalp and strands to create a protective layer. This, says Hill, improves moisture retention, reduces inflammation, and stimulates cellular regeneration. To reap these benefits, Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in NYC, recommends using “shampoos, conditions, and hair masks [that] deliver antioxidants to help preserve the integrity of the hair.”
For additional protection, Hill recommends applying a hair oil or a serum after you get out of the shower. However, keep in mind that these types of heavier products may mess with your style—especially when applied to your scalp. “One of the big issues that we face when it comes to oils we put in our hair is that sometimes it can weigh hair down and be too much for our tresses,” explains Drew Schaefering, a hairstylist at Rob Petoom Salon in Brooklyn. “Hair is like a sponge: When it’s wet, the water distributes the product throughout, and when it’s dry, it absorbs in the areas of contact more aggressively.” So, when looking to maintain volume at the roots, use a shampoo and conditioner duo that will deposit antioxidants onto the scalp and hair roots, and apply a hair oil or serum to the mid-lengths and the ends of dry hair.
Additional Forms of Protection
As with most things in the beauty industry, real care comes from within, and both Hill and Dr. Alexiades note that although the idea of applying antioxidants to the hair and scalp is valid, the science is still relatively new. An abundance of research reports that ingesting foods high in antioxidants and taking oral supplements can be the key to protecting your hair and scalp from oxidative stress. So, while you’re styling your blowout with antioxidant products, make sure to also incorporate antioxidant-rich foods like citrus, bell peppers, tomatoes, and cruciferous vegetables into your diet.
And always remember—when it comes to the sun and pollution (especially for those of you living in cities), there is no such thing as too much protection. Wear hats and scarves as you go about your summer activities, and you’ll be well on your way to a full, healthy, and shiny head of hair.
Shop antioxidant-rich hair products
If you suffer from dry, damaged hair, you might want to consider this moisturizing shampoo. It contains biotin to repair the strands and maracuja oil to replenish moisture from root to tip, plus antioxidant-rich argan oil for added protection.
Consider this conditioner a vitamin C serum for your strands. Its hero ingredient (vitamin C) protects the hair from free radical damage, while ingredients like kale introduce omega fatty acids to strengthen the roots and hair shaft.
If you’re after an all-natural oil, this is the one for you. It contains a slew of moisturizing ingredients, like prickly pear and baobab oils, which are packed with antioxidants. And the best part? The Y oil smells like what happens when you bring a bouquet of fresh flowers to the beach: floral yet still warm and woody.
If you’re still on the fence about applying oil to your fine, oily scalp, try this water-based hair serum by Olaplex. It contains red algae extract that protects the hair from environmental damage for up to 48 hours.
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