You’ve likely mastered the practice of applying sunscreen to your face and body daily — after all, it’s one of the most important things you can do to safeguard your skin from both skin cancer and premature signs of aging. But even if you’re diligent about shielding your face and the skin below your chin, if you’re like us, we’re willing to bet there’s one spot that gets overlooked: your scalp.
According to Seattle-based dermatologist Heather D. Rogers, MD, founder and CEO of Doctor Rogers Skin Care, many people simply tend to forget about the importance of sun protection in this area. Many of us assume that our hair acts a shield, and while it does offer some protection, your part is still exposed. And if you’re dealing with thinning hair, then even more of the scalp is susceptible, she points out.
Another issue: Applying traditional sunscreens on your head can be difficult and leave your hair feeling sticky and greasy (no, thanks!). Still, this spot is just as susceptible to sunburn as every other part of your body and requires a dedicated sun protection strategy. Here, expert-backed advice for how to prevent a sunburned scalp — and the best ways to soothe an already burned one, too.
The downsides of a sunburned scalp
A sunburned scalp is caused by too much sun exposure, more specifically to the UVB rays that are responsible for burning. As far as the skin itself goes, redness — as you’d expect with any sunburn — is one of the biggest signs, but so is itching, tenderness and peeling, says Dr. Rogers.
Skin cancer is another potential concern. Skin cancers in this area often go undetected since many people aren’t paying attention to or can even see their own scalp, Jeremey Brauer, MD, a dermatologist in Purchase, New York, points out. His advice: Ask your hairstylist, partner or friend to be on the lookout for any new or changing moles or spots on your scalp.
The post-scalp sunburn effects on your hair can also be long-lasting. “Even a single bad sunburn can traumatize the hair follicle, potentially resulting in a form of hair loss known as telogen effluvium,” explains Dr. Rogers. This is a type of temporary shedding that starts a few months after the burn itself. And while it eventually will stop and the hair will grow normally again, it can take months for this to happen, she explains.
How to prevent a sunburned scalp
As the saying goes, the best offense is a good defense. In other words, the ideal scenario is to stop a sunburn from happening in the first place. Here, a few good sun protection strategies that will help safeguard your scalp:
The best way to prevent a sunburned scalp: Toss on a protective sun hat
Just keep in mind that not all hats are created equal. Trucker hats and visors don’t provide adequate protection, says Dr. Rogers. She recommends looking for one that has a tight weave, which won’t allow rays to pass through, and/or is made from a sun-protective fabric. You’ll also want to consider finding a hat that has a wide brim so that it pulls double-duty and protects your face, as well.
One to try: ZD Z-Dear Straw Panama Hat UPF 50+ (Buy on Amazon, $26).
Not a hat lover? Use a scalp-specific sunscreen
If you’re like us, the thought of slathering a thick sunscreen lotion onto your scalp sounds messy and unappealing. Thankfully, there are plenty of formulas made specifically for the scalp. Dr. Rogers says a powder option is easy to apply and won’t feel heavy or greasy.
Her top pick: Supergoop! Poof 100% Mineral Part Powder (Buy on Amazon, $34). The powder seamlessly blends in with hair and contains SPF 35 to thwart a sunburned scalp.
There are also dedicated SPF spray options that will protect both your scalp and your hair. Ones to try: Sun Bum Sunscreen Scalp Spray SPF 30 (Buy from Ulta, $17.49) and Not Your Mother’s Beach Babe Sunscreen Scalp and Hair Mist (Buy from Ulta, $13.49).
To protect everything at once: Take an antioxidant-powered supplement
While sun-protective supplements are not a direct substitute for sunscreen, they can improve your body’s tolerance to UV rays and act as an extra way to help prevent sun damage, says Dr. Rogers. She suggests looking for one that contains antioxidant-rich polypodium leucotomos extract, which is derived from a tropical fern, and has been shown to reduce the damaging effect of UV light.
Two options that contain this extract and are favored by Dr. Rodgers: Heliocare Skin Care Dietary Supplement (Buy on Amazon, $28.49) and ISDIN SunISDIN Daily Antioxidant Skin Supplement (Buy from Dermstore, $50). These supplements can be taken daily, although she says they can be especially helpful to start taking two weeks before and then during periods of high sun exposure, like a beach vacation.
Easy remedies to soothe a sunburned scalp
Despite our best protective efforts, sunburns can still happen. If that’s the case, try these simple tricks to get relief fast:
Opt for *this* shampoo
First and foremost, try to keep the water cool or lukewarm, suggests Dr. Brauer. That’s because hot water will only make your skin feel more tender and dry it out even further. You’ll also want to make sure you’re using an ultra-gentle shampoo so as to not cause additional irritation or dryness. Dr. Rogers advises using a formula that’s fragrance-free and geared toward sensitive skin, such as Vanicream Free & Clear Shampoo (Buy from Target, $11.79).
Slather on some castor oil
Dr. Rogers says this oil not only helps moisturize dry, sunburned skin, it also promotes healing and has anti-inflammatory properties that can quell redness and swelling. (Click through to learn how castor oil improves scalp health and promotes hair growth).
To use, simply add two drops onto your fingers, then apply on any sunburned spots along the scalp. Use twice a day until the burn is healed.
Give your scalp an aloe vera ‘mask’
Aloe has been lauded as a wonder solution for sunburned skin, and Dr. Brauer says it works just as well on the scalp as it does anywhere else. That’s because the plant is loaded with moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties that help cut down on the dryness and irritation that accompany a sunburn.
To reap the benefits, skip aloe-infused lotions and use a pure aloe vera gel (or buy fresh leaves from a health food store and apply the pulp) which will feel less greasy and heavy. Simply apply a pea-size amount of the gel onto a sunburned scalp twice a day until the redness subsides. (Click through for even more ways aloe can help skin and hair.)
Still in pain? Try ibuprofen
Dr. Rogers says inflammation (aka redness and tenderness) will be the worst in the first 48 hours after sun exposure. So taking an OTC anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen, during this time period can be helpful, she says. (As always, check with your doctor before doing so.)
Remove pesky flakes and peeling with a chemical exfoliant
“Once the redness and tenderness have resolved, which typically takes three to five days, use a gentle chemical exfoliator to help get rid of any peeling skin,” Dr. Rogers advises. Products with glycolic or salicylic acid that are used on the face are a great option, she adds. These acids work by breaking the bonds that hold dead, dry skin cells together so they can be sloughed off.
Her pick: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant (Buy from Paula’s Choice, $34). Or she suggests trying a scalp-specific product, like Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Happi Scalp Scrub (Buy from Sephora, $38).
For more ways to heal a sunburn, click through to these stories:
Melanie Rud is a freelance beauty writer, editor, and expert living in Chicago. She holds a BA in Journalism and English from New York University. Prior to moving to Chicago, Melanie held beauty editorial positions at Shape, Good Housekeeping, and Health. Today, she is a contributing writer for a variety of print and digital outlets covering skincare, makeup, haircare, as well as fashion, wellness, and other lifestyle topics.
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This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
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