If you're like me, you take sun protection seriously. That means applying a generous layer of sunscreen each morning, reapplying every couple of hours (or sooner if I'm swimming or sweating), and seeking shade whenever possible. I make sure to put sunscreen on my neck and chest, my hands, and my ears. Like I said, I take it seriously.
Recently, though, I realized there was an area I was missing—my scalp. Sure, I wear a hat to the beach, but in everyday life, I'm rarely protecting my scalp and hair like I should be. This has resulted in more than one scalp sunburn where the skin under my hair part turned an angry red color and peeled off in dandruff-like flakes. Sorry for the visual, but yeah, it wasn't nice.
Apparently, I'm not alone in forgetting to protect my scalp (and hair) from the sun's harsh rays, because derms say it's one of the most neglected areas. Take it from board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology, Geeta Yadav, MD. "This is a commonly overlooked area. It sounds silly, but many of us forget that the scalp is skin and it goes neglected often, including when it comes to suncare. The parts of our hair leave our scalp exposed, leaving it susceptible to sunburn and sun damage."
When it comes to the scalp, there are both short-term and long-term effects from sun damage. "The most common short-term effect from sun exposure is sunburn," says double-board-certified dermatologist, Brendan Camp, MD. "Sunburns cause the skin to become red, painful, and warm to the touch."
While sunburns are certainly unpleasant, it's the long-term effects that are really scary. "Long-term effects of sun exposure include features of aging skin, such as fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots," Camp says. "Sun damage can also cause the formation of precancerous growths called actinic keratoses. Skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, are also associated with sun damage."
To make matters worse, when you fail to protect your scalp from sun damage, you're also failing to protect your hair. And Yadav says hair is just as vulnerable to UV rays. "Sun can damage the hair by leaving it brittle, discolored (lighter), and dry—and if you chemically process your hair, that damage is compounded. Furthermore, if you color treat your hair, the sun will affect the hair color that you paid for!"
So, what's the solution? Both dermatologists say the most obvious one is to wear a hat. "Wear a hat when outdoors to protect the scalp," Camp says. "Make sure the hat is opaque and not mesh since UV light can penetrate more easily through mesh material." Yadav adds that you can use hair products that have UV filters, "which act as a shield against sun damage."
What if you don't have a hat handy or you simply don't want to wear one? That's simple. Use the right scalp sunscreens (yes, they exist). Ahead, see the 10 best ones money can buy.
The 10 Best Scalp SPF Products
Yadav recommends using a powder sunscreen for the scalp, as they offer two distinct benefits. "They’re much easier to apply than traditional sunscreens and won’t leave your hair greasy," she says. "Bonus: They can also function as a makeshift dry shampoo."
I know what you're thinking, why would I use traditional spray sunscreen on my scalp? I hear you, but this one is lightweight and has a dry-touch finish, which means it won't leave your scalp and hair sticky or greasy. Plus, there's absolutely no white cast. It's also formulated with natural ingredients like jojoba and avocado for extra moisture.
Even though this isn't technically a scalp-specific SPF, Camp recommends it because of its lightweight formula. "This lightweight, liquid-formula sunscreen offers SPF 60 protection and can be used to protect parted scalp skin in a pinch," he says.
More Derm-Recommended Scalp and Hair Products
"No parabens, sulfates, or fragrances are in this peptide scalp serum that promotes thicker, fuller, healthier hair," Camp says.
As for Yadav, she recommends this scalp serum, from the dermatologist-recommended brand, SEEN. "You need to listen to your scalp! If you’re suffering from itchiness, dryness, flaking, or hair loss, your scalp may need support," she says. "It helps balance the scalp’s microbiome to help it function more efficiently without congesting the hair follicle, leaving the scalp hydrated, comfortable, and flake-free."