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Golfer Padraig Harrington of Ireland applies sunscreen – but look at all that sun on his head! (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
You’ve seen the commercials, advertising the key to beautiful hair: a healthy scalp. Yet the right shampoo and conditioner is not enough. The true culprit of many scalp issues is, in fact, the sun. Here, a Q&A guide to your best scalp care:
How much should I take care of my scalp and hair in the sun?
I can never say it often enough – sun protection is absolutely one of the most important things you can do to take care of your skin.
You may not be able to easily see the skin of your scalp and ears, but it’s there and it needs sun protection. Anyone who’s experienced sunburn along their part line knows how painful it can be and that it can burn. The same is true for the ears — especially if they have fair skin.
Remember, the skin on your scalp, neck, and ears is sensitive, much like the skin on your face (Sensitive skin is not limited to the face). So it’s important to protect it from the sun with the same effort you put into your face. But what can you do to best keep yourself from getting burned in these tricky areas?
How much does hair protect my skin from the sun?
It does offer some protection, mostly relative to the length of hair, style and density of hair on the scalp, but it’s not enough and skin cancer on the scalp and ears is more common than you’d think. I don’t just find it on bald men, I find it commonly on women who have thick heads of long hair too.
In a study published in Cancer Causes & Control that focused on how hair covering impacted the amount of sun that ears received (Hypothesis: Hair cover can protect against invasive melanoma on the head and neck). They found that hair offered up to 81 percent of coverage against the sun exposure on the ears — but take note, 81 percent is not total protection and does not mean that your skin under your hair is safe against the sun.
In this same study the authors noted that the rates of melanoma on the ears had gone up for women in Australia. They suggested the popularity of baseball caps over hats with a wide brim left ears vulnerable to the sun and contributed to higher rates of melanoma. I think this is a very plausible explanation. I see a lot more sun damage on the ears, temples, and side of the face and neck in my patients who wear baseball caps. I call baseball caps ‘job security’; I never recommend them, but sadly they’re still popular.
And remember, if your hair is thinning, it provides even less coverage, which means your scalp could end up with liver spots and dark patches. If you should decide to go completely bald, you’ll want lovely skin on your newly exposed scalp so start protecting it now.
What happens to my scalp and hair in the sun?
Even if your hair does offer some protection, it comes at the price of your hair’s health and appearance (Photoaggravation of hair aging). The pigment in your hair is used to absorb and filter radiation from sunlight that would otherwise harm the hair’s protein. In the process of doing this, the pigment becomes degraded and bleached, leading to loss of color, softness, and shine among other things. Black hair is most protected against UV light because of its high melanin content, but again, that doesn’t mean total protection. Light hair means more sensitivity. Gray hair turns yellow due to the sun (not blond but a grayish yellow color).
The more time spent unprotected in the sun, the more damage your hair and scalp receives, so it’s important that when you apply sunscreen to your face and body you also wear a hat when you’re in the sun. To ensure full protection, the hat should have a 3-5 inch brim the whole way around and completely cover your scalp. As one study from the Queensland University of Technology found, those exposed to high levels of UVA/UVB rays saw a decrease when armed with a hat (Annual reduction of solar UV exposure to the facial area of outdoor workers in Southeast Queensland by wearing a hat).
What can I do to protect myself?
On days when you just can’t wear a good sun hat, you can consider applying a hair sunscreen such as Bosley Professional Strength Suncreen with an SPF of 20 ($12.99, Amazon.com). If you use hair sunscreen, be sure to spray your roots and then rub it into your scalp so that your hair doesn’t absorb the entire product without getting any on your scalp.
My favorite, and in my opinion, the best sun protection for your scalp, hair and ears however is a really good sun hat. Clothing plays a big part in protecting skin from sun and that includes wearing a hat (Role of clothes in sun protection). This is particularly true of hats made of UV-blocking materials. To get the best protection, skip the mesh and look for a hat with a UPF of 50, like the Coolibar UPF 50+ Marina Sun Hat ($35, Amazon.com).
The Bottom Line
Your hair does offer some protection of your skin from sun damage, but gets damaged in the process and doesn’t shield you from 100 percent from the sun. The skin on your scalp, neck, and ears can and is just as sensitive as the skin on your face, and skin cancers in these areas can be particularly serious. It means that you need to be sure to sun protect your skin with either hair sunscreen and/or a sun hat.
About the author: Dr. Cynthia Bailey, M.D. is a member of our writing team. Dr. Bailey, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist based in Sebastopol, CA (the northern California wine country). Over the past twenty years, she has seen over 13,000 patients. She is the owner of Dr. Bailey Skincare and Dr. Bailey Skincare.com, where she recommends products and runs her own blog. For more, please visit our About page.