Do you actually need sunscreen for your scalp?
It’s an area of your skin you’ve probably overlooked.
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Someone, be it a parent or a doctor, probably drilled into your head that you must wear sunscreen while roaming about outside. If you live in a cooler climate, this may have been most emphasized during the warmer months when your skin is more exposed and the daylight hours are longer. What may not have been pointed out to you: You need sunscreen for your scalp, too, and not only in summer or if you have a bald head.
To explain the purpose of applying SPF to your scalp, we spoke with Denise Gallo, APRN, board-certified nurse practitioner with SkinCare Physicians of Fairfield County, Connecticut, a division of New York’s Advanced Dermatology, PC. Plus, we’ll help you choose the right products for protecting this area.
Why do you need scalp sunscreen?
First off: Your scalp is skin, and any part of it that is exposed can be just as susceptible to sun damage as the rest of you. “Skin cancers that occur on other areas of the body can develop on the scalp, making it an important area to protect from the sun,” Gallo says.
In addition to skin cancer, you can experience more immediate discomforts if you don’t protect the scalp, such as dryness that leads to itching and flaking—not to be confused with dandruff—or a sunburn, which “can present with redness, warmth, and even blisters eventually leading to peeling,” Gallo says.
Who needs to worry about protecting their scalp from the sun?
If you’re thinking to yourself, “but I have a full head of hair to protect my scalp,” you’re not excluded from the need for scalp protection (though you’ll have less to do). If you part your hair or it falls with a cowlick, or you don’t fully coat your face up into your hairline, those areas are exposed to potential sun damage.
People with very light skin tones or with light hair and eyes are more at risk for sunburns, Gallo says, but anyone can develop skin cancer. And naturally, if your hair is thinning, you have bald patches, or you choose to shave part or all of your head, you’re putting your scalp skin at greater risk.
How can you prevent a scalp sunburn?
Wear a hat for all-over coverage
You cover at least some of the skin on your body with clothing—UPF clothing for surer protection—to shield it from the sun’s UV rays. And the same is true for your scalp: “The best sun protection for your scalp is to cover your head,” Gallo says. “Hats offer the most protection, especially with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) 50+.” What’s more, if you opt for a wider brim, you’ll get bonus face and neck coverage.
To go the hat route, take your pick from dozens of stylish options at REI that can suit your style or outdoor activity. The Sunday Afternoons Havana Hat offers a beachy option or the Columbia Bora Bora Booney II Hat secures to your head with a chin strap for hiking or biking.
Use sunscreen on exposed scalp
If you prefer to go hat-free, choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, as you would for your body, to adequately protect your scalp. You can use any product you’d use for the rest of you, providing it has a high enough SPF. “Sprays are easy to apply. Sticks are also helpful for easy application,” Gallo says. “Choose a form that will work for you.”
But if you’re concerned about making your hair look oily or otherwise prefer not to put body products on or in your hair, go with a spray that’s formulated for the head, like the Coola Scalp & Hair Mist. While protecting your scalp with chemical-based SPF, it claims to be non-greasy, safe for color-treated hair, and water-resistant for 80 minutes. Spritz it on your hair from root to tip, focusing on the exposed skin, to protect your scalp and moisturize your strands.
For a stick formula that you can glide onto your part or around your hairline, try the mineral-based Aveeno Positively Mineral SPF 50 Sunscreen Stick, which claims to be non-sticky, non-greasy, suitable for sensitive skin, and sweat- and water-resistant for 80 minutes.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.