Sunscreen is our most important skin-care product. Our parents weren’t dabbing cream onto our under eyes or mixing serums into our baby lotions, they were slathering us in sunscreen any time the sun even thought about peaking through the clouds. And while (hopefully) this skin-protective habit followed us into adulthood, it’s time to tweak our routines. Because many of us missed a spot—our scalps.
Though your scalp is mostly covered with hair and quite literally never sees the light of day, you shouldn’t ignore it. From scrubs to serums, scalp care is on the rise, and sunscreen brands are joining the party. Preliminary research has found prolonged sun exposure may be tied to hair damage, and Dominic Burg, PhD, trichologist (read: scalp expert) and chief scientist at Évolis Professional, says UV damage on the scalp (which can happen with or without getting sunburn FWIW) can lead to inflammation. This may disrupt the hair cycle, AKA the pattern for hair growth and regeneration.
“When the hair cycle is interrupted, the main thing that happens is the growth phase is shortened,” Dr. Burg says. “A short growth phase means less hair growing, more hair resting and more falling, and as this cycle of dysfunction progresses, hair quality decreases, and follicles eventually stop being able to regenerate a new hair, resulting in hair loss and hair thinning.” Burg adds that hair that isn’t growing optimally may also lose its natural wave or curl, may appear drier, and may not hold color or treatments as well.
But before you start applying sunscreen on your scalp daily, according to derms, you only need to worry about this kind of intense sun exposure if you’re spending a ton of time in the sun, say, on a beach vacay. One reason scalps are so vulnerable to the sun is that they are usually protected from it by hair and may not have built up any tolerance. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD, a Miami-based dermatologist, says this is especially true if you’re changing your part, wearing french braids or Senegalese twists, exposing bits of scalp that are essentially virgin skin. “It’s almost like if you were tanning your bottom,” explains Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. “You’re going from zero sun exposure to full sun exposure so your scalp can definitely burn.”
To protect your scalp from sun rays, Dr. Woolery-Lloyd says donning a hat is your best bet. But, if a hat doesn’t fit into your desired beach day aesthetic, you have options. Crystal Aguh, MD, a Maryland-based dermatologist, says you can apply your normal, spray-on body sunscreen to your scalp.
Spray-on sunscreens tend to be made of chemical blockers, so they won’t leave behind the ghastly white tinge that’s common of physical blockers. The downside is that because they’re aerosols, they’ll probably contain alcohols that aren’t great for you hair. For this reason, Dr. Aguh says you should only use them when you’re getting prolonged sun exposure and to wash them out when you’re done. “Occasional use of the spray-on sunscreen so you don’t get a sunburn, which is painful, it’s okay if it means that it has some ingredients that are not necessarily super appealing for the overall quality of your hair,” says Dr. Aguh.
Dr. Woolery-Lloyd adds that for her some of those ingredients are a deal breaker. “My hair is chemically straightened,” she says. “I don’t want an alcohol-based liquid because it’s going to really dry out my hair.” She recommends an SPF product that contains oils, providing protection while also moisturizing your scalp. Here, some of the best bets in the game.
Kill two birds with one stone and spray this sunscreen on your scalp and body. It’s streak free so you won’t have to worry about spraying your hair white, but it contains alcohols, so you may want to avoid if you have dry hair. Because it wasn’t necessarily created with hair in mind, it comes out a bit thick; so if you’re worried about weighing down your hair, test out a small section first.
This spray is great because 1) it’s only $7 and 2) it comes out as a fine mist that won’t weight down your hair. But, because it comes out thin, be sure to spray liberally to get adequate protection. Again, be wary of this alcohol-based product if you’re worried about drying out your hair.
Because it’s straight zinc oxide, this powder provides great sun protection. It’s also free of damaging alcohols and silicones. It comes in a “spray” bottle that more or less shoots out a pile of product, so use a light touch or even do a trial spray before heading straight for your part. Keep in mind that this powder has a chalky beige tinge so you may want to avoid it if you’re a brunette or have a deeper complexion.
This sheer face SPF is also great for your scalp. It comes out looking like a bit like vaseline, but it isn’t greasy and disappears into your skin when you rub it in. It’s alcohol and paraben free and has a pleasantly subtle orange scent.
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