When we think about protection from the sun’s rays we think of our skin. Our skin is very important, and deserves thorough daily sunscreen application. There is another part of our bodies that is exposed to the sun every day, and yet we don’t even think about protecting it… our hair.
We may not think much about protecting our hair from sun damage because it’s not living and therefore, can’t get sunburned or develop life-threatening diseases like cancer. Also, if our hair becomes damaged we can just cut it off, and new healthy hair will grow in its place. Can our hair even be damaged from the sun, and if so, why do we care?
First, yes our hair can be damaged by the sun. Our hair contains natural oils that make it shiny and easier to style. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun damages those natural oils (also called lipids) causing the hair to be dull, dry, frizzy, and prone to static electricity and breakage. Our hair also has proteins and disulfide bonds which help to keep it strong. They exist to protect the hair shaft from breaking when we brush or comb it. UV damage can disrupt the proteins and disulfide bonds, which then makes the hair weak and brittle.
Our bodies know that we need protection from the sun so it produces melanin. Melanin is the pigment we have in our skin that causes it to darken when we tan. Our hair also contains melanin. Very black hair has more melanin than blond hair. This means that light hair is more susceptible to UV damage than dark hair. That doesn’t mean that dark hair can’t be damaged, it can; it just takes longer exposure time for that to happen. This also means that the sun’s rays will cause all hair colors to lighten. If you color your hair, it’s in your best interest to keep it protected from the sun so that expensive color doesn’t fade.
There are ways to protect our hair (and scalp) from the damaging effects of the sun. We can stay inside (boo), stay in the shade (boo again), wear hats, and/or put UV protecting products on our hair.
We use hair care products in a couple of different ways: in the shower or bath for shampooing and conditioning, or spray-on products like hairspray and heat protectant. For a sunscreen to do its job it has to adhere to the surface of the hair for a long period of time. Shampoos and conditioners are applied for a short period of time and then washed away. It is likely any photo-protection that existed would be washed away as well.
We also wouldn’t want to think that if we applied shampoos and conditioners with sunscreen to our hair and let it wash over our bodies, that would be adequate sun protection for our skin. If it washes out of our hair it washes off our bodies.
For a spray sunscreen to be effective, it would have to evenly coat every square inch of hair. Since we don’t have beehive hairdos anymore, most people don’t use that much hairspray. A spray sunscreen will be more effective at protecting your scalp which, unlike our hair, is susceptible to sunburn and carcinomas like the rest of the skin on our bodies.
If you are looking for the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) rating on your favorite hair care products, you won’t find it. That’s because the US FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) prohibits SPF ratings on any hair care products in the United States. It is permitted, however, to state a product will provide UV protection. It just won’t say how much.
There are several manufacturers out there that have UV protection in their products. It will likely state it right on the front of the product but it’s important to read the list of ingredients. Some products will say they are UV protecting but they don’t contain any sunscreens. They will probably have all kinds of great conditioning agents in them that are great for keeping your hair hydrated, but they won’t block any UV rays.
Below is a list of FDA acceptable active ingredients in products that are labeled as sunscreens.
- Aminobenzoic acid
- Menthyl anthranilate
- Octyl methoxycinnamate/Octyl salicylate
- Padimate O
- Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
- Titanium dioxide
- Trolamine salicylate
- Zinc oxide
Look for these ingredients in your hair care products. Also, be aware that some ingredients have more than one name. For example, octyl methoxycinnamate is also known as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate or octinoxate. If you would like to see a complete list of FDA approved sunscreens with all of their glorious chemical names, then go here.
Products with sunscreens:
Coola Organic Scalp & Hair Mist SPF 30. This one states an SPF because it is for the scalp.
Clarins Sunscreen Care Oil Spray SPF 30. This one also states an SPF because it is for the skin but can be used on your hair.
The ultimate protection for your scalp and hair is to stay in the shade away from reflective surfaces like sand, water, and cement but what fun is that? The second-best option is to wear a hat. There are a lot of fun hats out there and you can find one to go with pretty much any outfit. Coolibar has some great hats that are all rated UPF 50 (Ultraviolet Protection Factor).
If you don’t want to wear a hat then you can always apply sunscreen directly to your scalp. This is where the spray sunscreens come in handy. Trader Joe’s has an inexpensive spray sunscreen that was highly-rated by Consumer Reports. Dr. Cynthia Bailey offers a mineral spray sunscreen with micro-sized zinc particles so it’s not so white.
Although there isn’t a product out there that will effectively provide UV protection for your hair, there is always hope. Advancements happen every day. So, until that day arrives protect your strands with a spray like any of the ones listed above, wear a hat, and seek shade when you can.