Hair Sunscreen 101: Do You Really Need It? Experts Explain + Best Products
Dryness, split ends, and fading color—these common hair concerns can be attributed to a plethora of different causes, such as excessive heat styling, color treatments, etc. However, you may be surprised to learn about this unexpected contributing factor: sun exposure.
That's right, your hair can become damaged from UV rays as well. However, it's extremely different from sun damage you might see on the skin and requires different care. For example: You might see the phrase "hair sunscreen" slapped onto labels, but these protective formulas aren't really SPF products at all (or, well, they don't have to be). Allow us to explain.
What is hair sunscreen?
Hair sunscreen is pretty much what it sounds like: a product to buffer your strands from UV damage. Depending on which product you select, some of the products can double as scalp sunscreen as well (more on that in a moment).
But hair sunscreens are very different from their skin-focused counterparts. Sunscreen used on the face and body is regulated by the FDA, whereas hair sunscreen isn't. This is because your hair calls for different protection than the skin, and the end goal with hair sunscreen is a bit nuanced.
See, you apply daily SPF on the skin to protect from sun damage and sunburn, but your strands themselves don't exactly turn red, itchy, or tender. Rather, hair sunscreen helps protect those strands from UV damage that may contribute to physical signs of hair aging—like dryness, loss of pigment, and loss of density. Think antioxidants to disarm free radicals and serve as a UV barrier, as well as moisturizing butters and oils to nourish parched strands.
Texturally, hair sunscreen tends to be less greasy and comes in a spray-on or powder product, instead of a lotion or balm. What's more, "It doubles as a heat-styling product for beach waves," hairstylist Amy Abramite of Maxine Salon in Chicago tells mbg.
Why you need to protect your hair against UV damage.
As we mentioned, protecting the strands versus the scalp and skin looks very different. After all, you're not risking sunburn to your strands, so why do you need to protect them from the sun? Here, a few good reasons:
When the hair is dry, brittleness will likely follow suit. This means your hair will potentially break easier when being brushed, secured with a hair tie or elastic, or styled using heat. Just as the sun can dry out your skin, it can do the same thing to your strands.
In this scientific review of UV damage on the hair1, it's reported that UVB radiation is responsible for hair protein loss, while UVA radiation is responsible for the color changes. And when the hair shaft is weakened, it will not be as resilient to things like heat styling, physical styling, and future UV exposure.
Especially if you're coupling time in the sun with time in the water (whether it be salt, fresh, or chlorinated), your hair will be even more susceptible to dryness. That's why experts recommend coating your tresses with some sort of buffer (like hair sunscreen!) before your dip, and if you're a frequent swimmer, you may consider adopting a post-swim hair care routine to help mitigate the increased dryness.
While you may think sun-induced color changes are only a risk for those with color-treated hair, that's not actually the case. One study investigated the physical effects of UVA and UVB rays on undyed (i.e., virgin) hair in each color and reached a rather surprising result: "Significant color changes were observed in every hair type, after lamp and sun irradiation, being more pronounced for the light-colored hairs," when focusing on UVA rays, the report reads.
So if you're looking to keep your color vibrant, whether it be your natural hue or a dyed shade, it's best to protect your strands from the sun.
The aging process is a beautiful, natural thing—graying hair included. That being said, some may want to avoid going gray prematurely. If this sounds like you, then you may want to consider protecting your scalp and strands.
Research shows that UV rays from the sun can trigger oxidative stress2 in the skin (scalp included), and a prolonged state of oxidative stress can lead to premature graying. Thus, protecting the scalp from the sun is essential in mitigating that loss of pigment.
Increased split ends
If you go a few months without cutting your hair, you'll likely face a few split ends (or more). While this is nothing to sound the alarm over, it's safe to say most people would rather not speed this process up. Enter, sun protection. According to Abramite, "UV damage stresses the hair cuticle, causing dry, frizzy split ends."
Aesthetically, this can prove challenging. When the ends of the hair are frayed, creating a smooth, sleek style is a way bigger lift. What's more, those split ends are even more susceptible to further damage because they are thinner and weaker than a healthy strand.
The 5 best UV protection products for the hair:
- Helps manage damaged hair
- Not fit for the scalp
This bonding oil does much more than protect the hair from UV rays. The unique bond-building technology helps to increase shine, softness, and color vibrancy. If you're looking for a UV protectant that doubles at heat protectant and provides a hefty dose of nutrients, look no further.
Best for tangles: Rahua Hydration Detangler + UV Barrier
- Melts tangles away
- Scent may not be for everyone
If you struggle to brush through your strands, this product will create a smooth pathway while providing an antioxidant boost that will buffer UV rays. Morete oil helps provide a UV defense barrier, which provides color-treated hair with photoprotection. Organic mango sugars add a divine scent that will transport you from your room to a tropical island in seconds.
- Helps retain style
- Extra-dry hair may need another boost of hydration
If this was a skin care product, it would be a moisturizer, primer, and sunscreen all in one. Aloe vera juice and panthenol deeply hydrate strands while a blend of botanical extracts and seed oils pack an antioxidant punch, providing UV protection.
Best for smoothing: Ceramonia Guava Rescue Heat Protectant Spray
- Helps manage flyaways
- Dry hair may need something thicker
Struggling with frizz? This leave-in treatment will help smooth flyaways and nourish dry, damaged hair. All the while, guava fruit extract serves as a natural UV barrier, shielding the strands from damage. Avocado oil helps to maintain shine and strengthen the hair shaft, thus reducing the chance of future damage.
- Filled with antioxidants
- Dry hair may need an extra boost of hydration
This blend is like a fruit smoothie for your hair. Savono chinnoto fruit extract is just one of the antioxidant-rich fruits in this blend. Together, citrus botanicals help to protect the hair from free radical damage, while panthenol works to deeply hydrate thirsty strands.
Scalp sunscreen vs. hair sunscreen
It's important to note that hair sunscreen is starkly different from scalp sunscreen. While hair products, like those listed above, will help protect the strands from UV damage, they are not regulated products like face and body sunscreen.
Your skin cells (which are not found in the hair) need protection from UV rays; otherwise, the exposure can damage the cell DNA. Given that your hair is already dead, the goal is not to protect it from DNA damage but rather to buffer it against aesthetic and functional damage, like color changes, dryness, and the rest listed above.
Because healthy hair starts with a healthy scalp, you should be protecting the skin from UV rays first and foremost. Check out our top picks for scalp sunscreen, as well as a deeper dive into why it's so necessary.
If you're dealing with dry, damaged hair, consider the sun your No. 1 suspect. Hair sunscreen essentially buffers your strands from UV damage that can lead to increased dryness, color changes, etc. However, your hair is technically dead, so these products are not working to prevent any cell damage like a scalp and skin sunscreen. Finally, know that there's much more to hair care than a quality hair sunscreen—check out these 22 quick tips from the pros to get started on the road to healthy hair.