You may already be an expert on SPF, from understanding the difference between chemical and physical formulations to 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.