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Do You Really Need…Sunscreen For Your Scalp?

If a product is all over Instagram or in all of your friends’ medicine cabinets should you be using it too? Welcome to “Do You Really Need…”, a new series where we discuss, with the help of some experts, how to determine whether or not a trendy or divisive product really belongs in YOUR skin care routine. Today we’re discussing scalp sunscreens.

Whenever I’m vacationing somewhere warm, I like to keep my hair out of my face and free from frizz by styling it into French braids. On a recent trip to Mexico, this look kept my hair looking cute after wind-swept hours on a boat and sweltering days in the sand. Not so cute, however? How burnt my scalp was at the end of the trip.

I admit that the thought of applying sunscreen on my scalp crossed my mind throughout the vacation, but ultimately, vanity prevailed over common sense.

Since arriving home, I’ve been doing some research on how I can avoid the mess and grease that comes with applying sunscreen on my head, while also avoiding a red, itchy, and flaky scalp in the future. Clearly I’m not alone in my quest for a solution because major brands have recently come out with sunscreens formulated specifically for the scalp area and for ease of application. Coola has a Scalp & Hair Mist ($26), a spray with SPF 30 protection and plant-based antioxidants, and Supergoop! has the Poof 100% Mineral Part and Scalp Powder SPF 45 ($34). So far, the reviews are mixed; some are saying the former still makes hair greasy, and others are faulting the latter for not being blendable. Not to mention, the price tags are not cheap.

RELATED: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Protecting Those Commonly Forgotten Areas Against Sun Damage

For more insight on the topic and this new category of products, I consulted with Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist. Read on for her answers to my biggest questions, plus her tips for protecting the delicate scalp area this summer.

Why is it so important to wear sunscreen on your scalp?

“Skin cancers and melanomas of the scalp may be at higher risk for spreading and becoming fatal because the scalp skin gets thinner with age and chronic sun exposure and scalps are very vascular. Skin cancer and melanoma can potentially spread to the brain if they reach these vessels. ” says Dr. Shainhouse

But what if you always wear your hair up or your part isn’t exposed?

You may not need to apply sunscreen in your hair in the cases mentioned above, but Dr. Shainhouse warns not to forget about front and back hairlines, a thinning crown, or the edges of any receding areas. If these are exposed, it’s important to make sure they’re protected.

So do you really need a sunscreen formulated just for your scalp?

Nope – any sunscreen will get the job done. However, it’s nice to have the option. “Depending on the amount of hair you have, your styling routine and if you care if your hair gets a bit greasy, you may choose to look for a product specifically for your scalp,” says Dr. Shainhouse.

Ok, but how can you protect your scalp without messing up your hair?

The easiest option is to wear a hat, preferably a wide-brimmed style that will also protect your face and ears from the sun. Bonus: This will also protect your hair follicles and color from sun damage.

And if you’re opposed to a hat or applying your regular face or body sunscreen on your scalp, there are plenty of alternatives:

  • Dr. Shainhouse likes powder sunscreens like the Colorscience Sunforgettable Brush-On Sunscreen SPF 50, which comes in four shades. “It can help mop up grease as it protects the skin,” she says. She does note, though, that powders may be better for touch-ups than the first line of defense based on “the latest updates on sunscreen efficacy and safety.”
  • Sunscreen foams/mousses can be applied to both the scalp and hair strands to protect them from UV damage without leaving a greasy trace. Consider alcohol-based foams, rather than more moisturizing skin formulations, so as not to weigh hair down,” she says. An example is the Coppertone Defend & Care UltraHydrate Whipped.
  • Another great option for reaching the scalp area are sunscreen sprays. “They cover a large area and are light and fine enough to absorb easily without showing or gluing down the hair. Be sure to give the bottle a good shake and hold it two inches from the scalp to ensure that it hits the skin and then use your fingertips to rub the product in,” says Dr. Shainhouse.
  • A compact sunscreen stick like the Tony Moly Tako Pore Sebum Sun Stick makes it easy to apply SPF down your part on-the-go.
  • There are also plenty of shampoos and hair styling products that offer UV protection. “The amount of UV blockade is difficult to measure,” says Dr. Shainhouse, “But they will leave some UV-blocking residue on the scalp.”
How can you check your scalp for sun damage?

“Because we can’t see and examine the top of our scalps on our own, we often miss the signs of sun damage (actinic keratoses), early skin cancer or melanoma because the scalp is usually covered with hair and they are not seen,” says Dr. Shainhouse. She recommends asking your hairdresser to examine your scalp as they work and point out any irregularities during your next salon visit. And of course, you can make an appointment with your derm for a full check-up.

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