Scalp Sunburns Are No Joke — But Here's How to Deal

For starters, stay clear of alcohol-infused styling products.

Surprising Things That Can Happen To Your Scalp/Hair If You Get a Sunburn
Photo: Getty Images

By now, you know the importance of using SPF every day. Slathering yourself head-to-toe in your favorite sunscreen is key to preventing skin cancer, sunburns, and early signs of aging, but there's a section most people tend to forget about that is equally as important as the rest of your skin: your scalp.

"The scalp is typically over-exposed to the sun as it has little or no protection which results in an uncomfortable and painful sunburn," says Chuck Hezekiah, an educator and brand ambassador at René Furterer.

Dr. Rachel Maiman, a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical in Manhattan, adds that people who are either bald or have thinning hair are especially prone to scalp sunburns. And the worst part is, this type of sun damage has the potential to be much more than just a temporary discomfort.

To learn more about how sunburned scalps can affect our skin and hair, we tapped three skin and hair experts. Read on to find out more.

How Does a Sunburn Affect the Hair?

Considering that sunburns can cause inflammation and irritation, thank God a sunburned scalp doesn't affect the hair that much. And Hezekiah assures that if there is an impact, it'll only be temporary. "While there may be shedding of the skin that occurs, it's typically not enough to notice but it does impact the skin's microbiome which affects the hair," he explains.

Dr. Maiman further explains that as sunburns are limited to the epidermis, they're not capable of affecting the hair in a detrimental fashion since the hair bulbs are located deep in the fatty layer.

How Does a Sunburn Affect The Scalp?

A sunburned scalp presents similar side effects as it does to the rest of the body. You can expect discomfort, a bit of pain, and if it's severe enough, some skin shedding after about a week or so. As such, the after-sun care is similar — we'll get to that in a moment.

VIDEO: Your Scalp Ages Faster Than the Skin on Your Face, So What Does That Mean for Your Hair?

What's the Best Way to Prevent a Sunburned Scalp?

Hezekiah says the best way is to keep the scalp covered, whether that be by using a UV-protective hat or scarf, or using sunscreen, as you would on the rest of your body.

Using regular sunscreen is easier for those with bald heads, but sunscreen mists and powders are a solid option for those with more hair. Options we like are the Sunbum Scalp & Hair Mist SPF 30, which won't weigh your hair down or make it look greasy, and the Supergoop! (Re)setting 100% Mineral Powder SPF 35, which comes in four different shades and easily blends into the hair.

What's the Best Way to Treat a Sunburned Scalp?

If the damage is done, fear not — there are several ways you can speed up recovery. For starters, Hezekiah recommends swapping your shampoo and conditioner for gentler and soothing formulas, washing your hair with cool water, and decreasing how often you blowdry your hair. He recommends using the René Furterer Astera Fresh Soothing Concentrate pre-shampoo treatment, as it's made with peppermint, eucalyptus, and Asteraceae (echinacea) extract, which he says will soothe irritated scalps.

Additionally, Fabian Lliguin, a New York-based hairstylist and co-founder of Rahua, suggests the same when it comes to styling products as well. He explains that many hair styling products use a combination of chemicals and alcohol to adhere to the hair, dry down quickly, and maintain a style's shape. However, when that cocktail warms up on an already irritated scalp, it can further exacerbate existing damage. As such, he recommends using styling products with soothing ingredients, such as Rahua's Aloe Vera Hair Gel.

Dr. Maiman says that doing cool compresses a few times per day can help relieve the pain of the burn. To further manage the pain, she typically recommends two things. "The first is an over-the-counter strength hydrocortisone 0.1% cream, which can be applied twice daily in the first few days after a burn to suppress inflammation. I also really like aloe vera," she says. "The combination of hydration and anti-inflammatory properties makes it excellent in treating a sunburn."

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