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Why using Sunscreen on your Scalp is Crucial for Thinning Hair

Having fun on a sunny day

Everyone knows sunscreen is an essential part of a healthy skincare regimen. You’re probably diligent about applying sunscreen on your arms and face, probably even the tops of your ears! As awesome as you are at applying sunscreen, you might be missing one crucial area – your scalp.

Sun Protection for Your Scalp

There are three ways you can shield your scalp from the sun. 

  1. Have thick hair. 
  2. Wear a hat. 
  3. Use sunscreen. 

An article published in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology found that your hair acts like natural sun protection, called hair ultraviolet protection factor (HUPF). (01) HUPF works as a sun barrier and helps to prevent skin cancers caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. 

So, if you have lots of hair or intend to wear a fedora whenever you’re in the sun, then you’ve got it all covered. If your hair is thinning, cut very short, or if you’re without any hair, however, then your scalp is vulnerable. Unlike the skin on your face, your scalp lacks the same barrier strength, which makes your scalp sensitive to UV radiation and environmental toxins. Because your scalp’s skin barrier is thinner than the barrier on your body, safeguarding your scalp should be an important part of your skincare routine. (01)

Do people with hair loss conditions need sunscreen?

Hair loss affects a larger portion of the population than most people realize. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 25% of men experience their first signs of hair loss by the age of 21. And roughly 50% of all the men undergo some level of hair loss by age 50. 

However, it’s not just men who are affected by hair loss. About 30 million women have a condition called female pattern hair loss (FPHL). It could happen to anyone. In many cases, people may have hair loss only in very specific areas on their scalp, while other parts remain flush with hair. Hair loss varies from person to person, and it’s the exposed scalp areas that need sun protection the most. (02, 03) 

Sunscreen for the scalp is a relevant consideration for all people, but especially for people with hair loss conditions. The following are few examples of hair conditions that may benefit from sunscreen use.

  • Androgenetic alopecia
  • Alopecia areata
  • Cicatricial alopecia
  • Folliculitis Decalvans
  • Frontal fibrosing alopecia 
  • Central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia
  • Discoid Lupus erythematosus
  • Male pattern baldness 
  • Loose anagen syndrome
  • Hypotrichosis
  • Lichen planopilaris
  • Anagen effluvium
  • Telogen effluvium

Even people who don’t have a hair loss condition may need to use sunscreen on their scalp. Most people are unaware that they have sections of their scalp showing. For example, people have a whorl of hair at the crown, often showing a bit of exposed scalp. Spend enough time outdoors without sun protection, and this small patch of unshielded scalp can become sunburnt. 

Can your scalp get a sunburn?

Just like the rest of the skin on your body, your scalp can burn from too much sunlight. For this reason, protecting your scalp from the sun is crucial to reducing skin damage, lowering your risk of developing skin cancer, and preventing painful sunburns.

Sunburns and Your Hair Follicles

In general, if you’re already dealing with hair loss, injury from the sun can create more challenges. Third and fourth-degree sunburns, for instance, may damage and physically stress hair follicles, causing a temporary condition of hair loss called telogen effluvium. Maintaining your scalp health means potentially keeping more of your hair, which makes sun protection paramount. (03)

Sunburns and Skin Cancer

Sun damage may cause further hair loss, but it can also lead to something life threatening — skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) reports that about one in five people will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. (04) Out of that population, about 2% to 18% affect the scalp. (05) Furthermore, cases of skin cancer continue to rise each year. Keeping this information in mind, your scalp should receive the same – if not more – sun protection as the rest of the skin on your body. 

What is a Sunburn?

Environmental pollutants and UV radiation accelerate the signs of aging, injure cells, and damage DNA within the skin barrier and deeper tissues. Sunburns are an inflammatory response to excessive UV radiation, which destroys the upper layers of skin. (06) Melanin, which darkens skin with exposure to sunlight, helps to protect your skin cells from the sun’s damage. Contrary to popular belief, a glowing tan doesn’t indicate healthy skin. A tan means that your skin cells have reacted to the sun’s radiation!

How your skin reacts to UV radiation is primarily based on your genetic makeup. Some people undergo gradual skin darkening, while others immediately experience a sunburn. While both are signs of skin damage, people with sunburns experience more pain and visible skin cell injury. Repeated sunburns or exposure to UV radiation can place individuals at a higher risk of skin cancers like squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanomas. (07)

What does a scalp sunburn feel like?

Whether or not a person feels pain with a scalp sunburn depends on the severity of the burn. Most sunburns are first or second-degree burns, but they can still cause some discomfort. With a first or second-degree sunburn, you might experience signs and symptoms like: 

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Irritation
  • Flaking
  • Itching
  • Burning 

Pain from a sunburn is typically at its worst 6 to 48 hours after exposure to the sun. (07) Severe cases of scalp sunburn may result in significant pain and blistering, which may take longer to heal. Fortunately, most sunburn symptoms are temporary and go away after three days to a week. The damage to cells and DNA, however, can remain for decades.

Treating a Scalp Sunburn

Caring for sunburn on the scalp takes a little TLC. To encourage healing, moisturize the area while the scalp is damp. Keeping the scalp moisturized cuts down on unsightly peeling and flaking. If you’re searching for sunburn medication, products that contain aloe vera may help to reduce inflammation and soothe irritation. 

  • Avoid oil or petroleum-based products because their ingredients can aggravate the scalp and cause more pain. 
  • Use shampoos that are sulfate-free and gentle on the scalp. 
  • Instead of hot water, run cool water over your scalp to cleanse the area. 
  • Stay hydrated and well-nourished to prevent further water loss and promote wound healing. 

Choosing the Right Sun Protection for Your Scalp

Fortunately, you have a variety of options when it comes to shielding your scalp from the sun. It may take some trial and error to find what suits your needs and lifestyle the best, but the effort is worthwhile.

Hats and Hair Loss

If you’re using headwear to protect your scalp, then you’ve got an array of style choices. From beanies to cowboy hats, your options are endless. However, wearing hats do come with a few drawbacks. 

Here are a few things to consider before you start your hat collection.

  • Remember that hats with openings in them, like snapback and trucker caps, allow sunlight to penetrate through parts of the hat.
  • Hats retain heat, and your head is one of the primary ways your body regulates its temperature. Wearing a hat in the sun may make you feel excessively warm. 
  • Hats that are hot or are too tight may reduce blood to hair follicles, depriving them of nutrients and causing stress — which can encourage further hair loss! (08)
  • Be wary of developing traction alopecia when choosing a hat. Constant pulling or tension of hair can lead to traction alopecia hair loss, so choose a loose-fitting hat. (08)

Don’t like hats? Don’t want to risk any more hair loss? Then you’ll need sunscreen. 

Helpful Hints for Choosing a Sunscreen for Your Scalp

Keep in mind that finding the right sunscreen for your scalp can be tricky. If you have thinning hair, you’ll want a formula that’s thick enough to protect your delicate scalp but won’t cake into your strands of hair. Finding the right sunscreen for your scalp is a bit like Goldilocks looking for the happy medium – you want something “just right.” 

Here are a few factors to think about when you’re on the lookout for a good scalp sunscreen: (09)

  • Sunscreens for the skin on the body tend to be oily. You may not want an oily sheen covering your scalp and hair. 
  • Stick sunscreen is excellent for small areas (like your crown or part) but not ideal for use over large areas with thinning hair. 
  • Powder sunscreen options for the hair are convenient and can make hair appear thicker. However, powder sunscreen can be twice the price of other types of sunscreen. 
  • Sunscreen sprays or mist are practical and are reasonably priced, though they can sometimes weigh hair down. 
  • Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays and prevent radiation from reaching your scalp and skin. These kinds of sunscreen don’t typically leave that white cast on the skin that sunscreen is known for.  

A few ingredients found in chemical sunscreens are: 

  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octocrylene
  • Octinoxate
  • Homosalate
  • Mineral sunscreen physically blocks or shields UV radiation. This sunscreen blocks the rays of the sun and deflects them back out. People with sensitive scalps or chemical sensitivities may find mineral sunscreen less irritating. 

A few ingredients found in mineral sunscreens are: 

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

What is the best sunscreen?

According to the AADA, the sunscreen that’s best for you is the one you will use consistently. Whatever sunscreen you choose, make sure it meets the following criteria: (09)

  • Broad-spectrum for both UVA and UVB rays
  • Consists of an SPF of 30 or higher
  • Water-resistant

In short, if you have thinning hair, you need sun protection for your scalp. Whether you’re looking for some fun in the summer sun or you’re working outdoors, remember that you – quite literally – have skin in the game. Protect it! 

Resources

(01) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25682789/

(02) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25682789/

(03) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7320655/

(04) https://www.aad.org/media/stats-skin-cancer

(05) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ddg.13546

(06) http://skincancer.org/risk-factors/uv-radiation/

(07) https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2383280

(08) https://health.clevelandclinic.org/can-wearing-a-hat-make-you-go-bald/

(09) https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen-patients/sunscreen-faqs