Here’s What to Know About Scalp SPF, According to Experts

Here’s What to Know About Scalp SPF, According to Experts featured image
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe
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When Rita Hazan started doing hair at age 17, she realized pretty quickly that UV protection for both the hair and scalp was vital to the now-famous color work she was doing.

“It helps to prevent color fading and even frizz,” says the celeb hair colorist, who has a very well-known Fifth Avenue salon, an eponymous line and a client list that casually includes Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Thalía, Jessica Simpson, and Katy Perry. “I include it in all my products. It’s so important for maintaining color vibrancy and overall hair health.”

Featured Experts

  • Rita Hazan is a celebrity hair colorist
  • Kelly Dobos is a cosmetic chemist
  • Jeanine B. Downie, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in Montclair, NJ
  • Joel L. Cohen, MD is a board-certified dermatologist in Denver
  • Dr. Karan Lal is a board-certified dermatologist in Phoenix, AZ

What is scalp sunscreen?

Cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos also stresses how important scalp sun protection is, but is fast to admit it’s an area that is “hazy,” and a category that’s best described, no pun intended, in two parts.

“The use of sunscreens in hair products can go one of two ways: hair protectant or actual scalp sunscreen. There’s some evidence that UVB rays can damage proteins in the cortex of hair, especially hair that is damaged. Sunscreen actives can also act as a color protectant, but are really not drug claims [because they are related to hair fibers, not skin], so these types of products usually don’t bother with the SPF testing, labeling and requirements, but just make some sort of UV-protection claim.”

Plus, Dobos says, the formulation of sunscreen for the scalp requires the same attention to detail as the skin-saving SPFs we apply to our face and body. “Sunscreen can be applied to areas of the scalp exposed by thinning or balding, and to the part. Avoiding peak hours of sun and wearing a hat are probably smarter ideas than buying a specific scalp sunscreen. Either way, it is always key to read the directions on sunscreens, no matter the formulation.”

Another important note: The FDA has actually not authorized sunscreen products in the form of wipes, towelettes, body washes or shampoos, which is why you don’t see SPF splashed all over hair products—at least in the U.S. “Powders are proposed to be eligible, but more data has been requested,” Dobos says. “In my opinion, it is unlikely a consumer will apply enough powdered sunscreen to achieve proper protection, whether the product is designed for the body or scalp. Powders may be useful for a touch-up, but I personally would not rely solely on them for sun protection.”

Who is scalp sunscreen good for?

Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine B. Downie, MD also points to some not-so-concrete regulation when it comes to sun protection for the scalp, and on a more serious note, says it’s a spot where skin cancer can most certainly happen. “I tell a lot of my patients to put a little bit of cream sunblock in their part area, and if they are bald, I have them use spray sunblock over their whole scalp.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) also stands by this one. The society’s hard-and-fast rule: “Apply sunscreen to all skin not covered by clothing. Remember your neck, face, ears, tops of your feet, and legs. For hard‐to‐reach areas like your back, ask someone to help you or use a spray sunscreen. If you have thinning hair, either apply sunscreen to your scalp or wear a wide‐brimmed hat. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm with an SPF of at least 30.”

Every single skin color needs sun protection—that’s not up for debate.

—Dr. Downie

How do you apply scalp sunscreen?

Likewise, Denver dermatologist Joel L. Cohen, MD says he, sadly, sees so many skin cancers on the scalp and ears every week.

“The concern with applying sunscreen to the scalp is always the inability to get good coverage in the area of hair,” Dr. Cohen explains. “Sometimes, people apply it to just the part line, but it’s still not consistent. Because of these reasons, it’s hard to do an actual clinical trial on scalp coverage—except in people who don’t have much hair, like men who may be quite bald.”

And, while so much is stressed about SPF, both the AAD and Dr. Cohen say it’s actually UPF that’s going to truly protect.

“Folks need to realize that they need protection on their scalp and ears on a daily basis—and better protection than simply trying to get a bit of sunscreen in their part,” Dr. Cohen adds. “As a dermatologist and skin-cancer Mohs surgeon, I recommend UPF [ultraviolet protection factor] for clothing and hats, not visors, which don’t protect the scalp. When it comes to the head, wearing actual hats—and preferably wide-brim hats that protect the ears, lateral cheeks and neck—is smart sun protection.

What SPF should you look for in a scalp sunscreen?

As a bald man, Phoenix, AZ dermatologist Dr. Karan Lal says protecting the scalp is “huge and necessary,” and adds that, like Drs. Downie and Cohen, he is seeing a lot of patients in their 50s and beyond with some “nasty” skin cancers. “Scalp burns are common in the clinic and each burn multiplicatively increases the risk of skin cancers and development of abnormal moles.”

“But, if people have very dense hair with minimal to no scalp showing, SPF may not be necessary,” he says. “Personally, UPF hats are more practical. And I don’t think you need a special ‘scalp SPF.’ For women with a visible part, I’d just recommend a spray sunscreen.”

Dr. Lal also says he “loves powdered sunscreen sticks,” because they are great for the hair part and for the much-needed facial reapplication. “I also like dry shampoos that have added UV protection.”

“But if I had to choose one product, I’d recommend buying a UPF hat if you plan of being outside for long periods of time.”

Scalp Save

From UV filters and color shields to actual SPF and functional fashion, these solutions provide various levels of protection.

1 / 6

COOLA Organic Scalp & Hair Mist ($28)

COOLA Organic Scalp & Hair Mist nourishes, strengthens and delivers SPF 30 protection, all with a quick spritz.

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2 / 6

Kérastase Soleil Huile Sirene ($20)

Now available stateside, this texturizing spray–slash–oil guards against humidity and UV rays.

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3 / 6

Maria Nila Volume Spray ($34.50)

Maria Nila Volume Spray’s Colour Guard Complex protects hair from UV radiation while fighting free radicals.

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4 / 6

Poppy Chinstrap Sunhat ($149)

It’s always hat season at Hat Attack, and this summer the brand says the Poppy Chinstrap is especially popular.

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Hat Attack
5 / 6

iS Clinical PerfecTint Powder SPF 40 ($78)

Available in five shades, iS Clinical PerfecTint Powder SPF 40 delivers brush-on scalp, face, neck and ears insurance.

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6 / 6

Sun Bum Scalp & Hair Mist ($17.50)

A trusted standard for protecting the hair and scalp, Sun Bum Scalp & Hair Mist makes it easy to remember to apply (and reapply).

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