Q: I use sunscreen religiously on my face but never really thought about my scalp till I realized I had some painful sunburned spots up there. How can I protect my scalp better?
As a physical blocker, hair does help shield the scalp from some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can lead to skin cancer. However, you need more protection than that — especially where you part your hair and if your hair is thin or you have bald spots. I often see skin cancers on my patients’ scalps, and I tell them how important it is to take extra precautions.
Wearing a hat, especially if it is labeled with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 50+, is probably the best protection for your scalp. Hats can look fab, too, in any season. I love wearing them! They look chic, are great for extended time outside and, if you find one that fits well, it won’t give you “hat hair.”
That said, I know that a hat isn’t possible for every moment you’re in the sun. Luckily, there are sunscreen products specially formulated for the hair, part and scalp that will protect this vulnerable area of your body from UV rays without leaving residue on your hair. You can also apply any type of sunscreen to your scalp that works for your face.
Look for oil-free and water-resistant products. These limit the sunscreen from running, especially into your eyes. Stick sunscreens are helpful for easy application. The balm will absorb easily and not leave hair white or chalky. Mineral formula sunscreens (those containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) work well for people with sensitive skin. Apply when hair is dry to wherever your hair parts, any thinning or balding spots and all around the hairline. You can also layer on cosmetic foundations and powders that are SPF 15 and higher, like you do on your face.
You may have seen UV-protection products you spray on wet hair before styling. I don’t feel they are as effective as applying sunscreen after your hair is dry. But using these in tandem with traditional sunscreen may add extra protection.
Make it a habit to protect your scalp every day — just like you do for your face! And remember, it can be hard to detect skin cancer on areas of the body that you don’t see all the time. Be sure to include your scalp in your monthly skin self-exams when you look for anything new, changing or unusual on your skin. If you see something that concerns you, see a dermatologist as soon as possible.
About the Expert:
Dendy Engelman, MD, is a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery and director of dermatologic surgery at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatologic Surgery and American College of Mohs Surgery.
This article was published in the 2020 Skin Cancer Foundation Journal