Hair Care Tips & Styling Ideas

Here’s Everything You Need to Protect Your Hair and Scalp from the Sun

Blonde hair blowing in the wind

You may already be an expert on SPF, from understanding the difference between chemical and physical formulationsto knowing the importance of wearing sunscreen every single day. Still, we’re willing to bet you’re missing one key area when slathering on your daily dose. Just like your face and body, your hair and scalp need sun protection, too. Hair care with UV protection can help preserve your color and prevent damage, but it works differently than sunscreen for your skin.

To get the scoop on scalp-and-hair sun protection, we talked to the experts. Below, Dr. Ava Shamban, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles, and Graham Nation, UNITE Hair ambassador and celebrity hairstylist, get you up to speed on sun-safe hair care.

What exactly is the sun doing to your hair?

UV rays can affect your hair in two ways: impacting color and health. “UV rays can be responsible for taking out toner and fading root color, while simultaneously speeding up the process of hair loss,” says Nation.

Here’s how it works: According to Dr. Shamban, the high porosity of your hair means it easily absorbs UV rays. These rays then react with the melanin in your hair, causing a chemical reaction that breaks down your natural or salon-deposited hair pigments. As you absorb more radiation, your cells develop free radicals that cause protein loss and structural damage to the hair shaft.

“It becomes a vicious cycle,” explains Shamban. “The more fragile your hair, the more vulnerable it is to UV absorption, therefore resulting in even more damage—like dryness, breakage, split ends, frizzing, thinning or discoloration.”

Remember that just like your skin, your hair is also exposed to UV rays when you’re inside. “You can be exposed to UVA rays when rays come through a window while driving,” says Nation.

So can you use sunscreen for your hair and scalp?

Before you reach for that bottle of everyday SPF, let’s break down the difference between hair and scalp sun protection. Studies have found that skin cancer also occurs on the scalp, and these lesions tend to be more easily overlooked when covered by hair. In other words, your scalp is still skin and needs the same type of sunscreen ingredients you’d apply to your face or body. The difference lies in the formulas, since creams and runny liquids aren’t the best delivery system for the top of your head.

Hair products don’t use the same ingredients you’d find in your favorite SPF, which is why they can’t be called sunscreen. “Products like hair shields, protectant boosters and filters are good to help our natural defenses, protect against environmental aggressors and repair your hair and scalp,” says Dr. Shamban. These tend to include ingredients like antioxidants, vitamins B, C and E, glutathione, buckthorn and propolis.

Good for hair health and color maintenance? Check. A replacement for the sun-protective properties of zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or chemical sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone? Nope. So, remember to treat your scalp and hair separately.

What’s the best way to make sure you’re protected?

Wear a hat, especially if you’re hitting the beach. Dr. Shamban recommends picking a style with a wide brim and high UPF rating (a number that measures the amount of UV radiation blocked from fabric penetration). Seeking shade and avoiding sun at peak times will also help decrease your UV exposure.

Next step: Pick your hero products. Brands like Supergoop! have invented genius formulas that are easy (and non-goopy!) to use on the scalp, allowing you to coat your part or any thinning areas in extra protection. To keep your color looking fresh and your hair feeling nourished, Dr. Shamban also emphasizes the importance of intensely moisturizing ingredients like lipids and fatty acids. Use this list as your ultimate reference, and you’ll be covered all year round.

  1. Oribe Invisible Defense Universal Protection Spray (5.9 fl. oz.)
    Buy now with Dermstore

    Oribe Invisible Defense Universal Protection Spray (5.9 fl. oz.)

    A Spray-On Shield That’s Totally Clear

    Ready to keep dryness, color fading and frizz at bay with a quick spritz? This spray provides an invisible layer of protection against thermal damage, UV rays and pollution. Botanical extracts, plant-based collagen and vitamin B impart gentle moisture without weighing hair down.

    Buy now with free delivery
  2. VIRTUE Healing Oil (1.7 fl. oz.)
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    VIRTUE Healing Oil (1.7 fl. oz.)

    A Smoothing Oil That Repairs Damage

    If you want your hair to feel amazing, reach for this serum-like oil that boosts moisture and shine. Tocopherol (a natural form of vitamin E) provides antioxidant benefits, while kalahari melon-seed oil gives a luxuriously smooth finish.

    Buy now with free delivery
  3. Rahua Hydration Detangler UV Barrier (6.5 fl. oz.)
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    Rahua Hydration Detangler UV Barrier (6.5 fl. oz.)

    A Leave-In That Protects as It Detangles

    A true overachiever, this spray is packed with antioxidant and emollient benefits to protect against color fading and breakage. Bonus: It smells like vacation in a bottle.

    Buy now with free delivery
  4. R+Co SUN CATCHER Power C Boosting Leave-In Conditioner (4.2 fl. oz.)
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    R+Co SUN CATCHER Power C Boosting Leave-In Conditioner (4.2 fl. oz.)

    A Mending Conditioner That Helps Your Products Work Better

    Yes, it’s a leave-in conditioner that does everything you’d expect, like mending damage and detangling. It also fights free radical damage with vitamin C. But the real reason we can’t stop reaching for this bottle? It layers well under every styling product to make it even more effective.

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  5. UNITE Hair 7SECONDS Detangler (8 oz.)
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    UNITE Hair 7SECONDS Detangler (8 oz.)

    A Detangler for Strengthening (and Shielding!) Damp Hair

    This superstar detangler is one of Nation’s favorite products. “It goes on first before you blow-dry or air-dry to penetrate the cuticle for maximum heat and UV protection,” he says. Hydrolyzed rice protein further fortifies the hair shaft.

    Buy now with free delivery
  6. Supergoop!® Poof 100 Mineral Part Powder SPF 35 0.71 oz.
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    Supergoop!® Poof 100 Mineral Part Powder SPF 35 0.71 oz.

    A Seriously Genius Scalp SPF

    Scalp SPF doesn’t get any easier than this translucent powder formula that gives broad-spectrum SPF 35 protection with zinc oxide. The formula features silica to absorb excess oils (just like dry shampoo) and doesn’t irritate sensitive scalps. Brush on, massage in and reapply every two hours.

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  7. COOLA Scalp Hair Mist Organic Sunscreen SPF 30 2 fl. oz.
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    COOLA Scalp Hair Mist Organic Sunscreen SPF 30 2 fl. oz.

    A Sunscreen Spray That Couldn’t Be Easier to Apply

    “Sunscreen spray or mist is a good protective measure,” says Dr. Shamban. This water-resistant chemical SPF comes in a mistable formula that makes it easy to get every single inch of your scalp. No residue, no heaviness—just broad-spectrum protection for your scalp, antioxidant benefits for your hair health and a beachy scent that drifts alluringly behind you.

    Buy now with free delivery


Sarah Y. Wu

Sarah Y. Wu is a freelance writer, copywriter and digital consultant based in Berlin, Germany. When she’s not buried in a pile of the latest skin care innovations, she’s busy testing the butter content of her favorite baked goods. Sarah has a decade of experience in the beauty industry and has worked with companies including Forbes, Teen Vogue, Glamour, Byrdie, Glow Recipe and Interparfums. See more of her work at sarahywu.com or connect with her on Instagram.