Do You Need SPF for Your Scalp? Here's Everything You Should Know

Experts break down whether you should be putting extra sun protection on your head.

Do You Need SPF for Your Scalp? Here's Everything You Should Know

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We all know that sunscreen is non-negotiable: applying SPF every single day is one of the best things you can do for your skin. Sunscreen, after all, is your first line of protection against getting skin cancer. But what about putting SPF on your scalp? How necessary is it to have sun protection on an area that can be covered by hair or a hat?

While it's an often-forgotten area, the truth is that your scalp is still skin, and you need to pay the same attention as you would any part of your body — especially when it comes to sun exposure. But don't just take our word for it. To settle the debate of whether you actually need SPF on your scalp or not, we turned to the experts. See what they had to say below.

Do You Need SPF on Your Scalp?

The short answer to this is yes, you need SPF on your scalp. "You should absolutely be applying SPF to your scalp if you will be in the sun for an extended time period; often more than 15 minutes can start causing a sunburn in many people," explains Christine Shaver, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Bernstein Medical Center for Hair Restoration in New York City. "The scalp skin needs to be protected just like the skin on any other body region. Hair is not sufficient protection from the sun’s harmful rays."

"All horizontal body surfaces ([areas that are]perpendicular to the rays of the sun) receive a particularly strong dose of sun exposure, and scalps are a very common site of sunburn, sun damage, and sun-related skin cancers," adds Hadley King, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist.

What Happens When You Don't Use SPF on Your Scalp?

Dr. Shaver explains that the scalp is just as likely as any part of our body to get sunburned. Because it often gets overlooked due to the presence of hair, some skin cancers on the scalp can go undetected. "Since hair often hides the ability for many people to clearly see their scalp and monitor for new moles or scabbing areas, sometimes skin cancers that appear on the scalp can go unnoticed for a long period of time," she says. "This means changing lesions may be diagnosed at a later stage when they are bigger and more advanced. You should use the help of your local board-certified dermatologist to carefully examine and monitor for any changing spots on your scalp since it can be quite difficult to do on your own."

Dr. King explains that the thinner the hair, the higher the risk you'll have of burning and to pay special attention to where you part your hair as that is also a high-risk area for developing skin cancer. Dr. Shaver adds that frequent sun exposure can slowly cause the quality of the scalp to change and lead to decreased blood flow and hair thinning. The best way to avoid all these is to wear a hat when outside or use SPF on your scalp.

How Do You Put SPF on Your Scalp?

If you're worried about the mess of liquid sunscreen getting on your scalp, don't worry. Both Dr. Shaver and Dr. King say powder and spray formulations are your best bet here. "Powder and spray formulations are easy to apply," says Dr. King. "I particularly like powder formulations for the scalp because they don't leave the hair greasy."

She recommends using something like the Brush On Block Mineral Powder Sunscreen, which she loves because it's easy to apply, portable, and won't leave residue on your hair. She also likes ColoreScience's Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush. If you have a bald scalp, she says to use Isdin's Eryfotona Actinica, which she says gives you SPF 50 protection and has DNA repair enzymes to address previous sun damage.

For application, Dr. Shaver says to focus on areas with the least amount of coverage, like the hairline, where you normally part your hair, or the crown. If you have a shaved or bald head, be sure to cover all the areas of potential sun exposure.

Shaver also says to employ the help of your hairstylist and dermatologist to help catch any suspicious moles or changes on the scalp for your skin. "Hairdressers can be helpful to keep a close eye on the scalp in times between dermatologist visits and can help alert someone about a new or changing lesion," she says. "See the dermatologist for evaluation and possibly a biopsy."

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