Does my hair need SPF? How to protect your locks in the sun

From dryness and colour-fade to scorched scalps, our hair shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to taking care in the sun.

How can you shield hair from sun damage?
An east Asian woman standing in front of a pink wall, holding her hand up to shield her face from the sun How can you shield hair from sun damage? (Alamy Stock Photo)

We all know slathering on SPF is essential for protecting our skin in the sun, but does our hair need SPF too?

Technically speaking, not in the exact same way. In sun creams and lotions, SPF – which stands for ‘sun protection factor’ – relates to how much protection the formula offers skin against UVB rays (the type mainly associated with sunburn and a raised risk of skin cancer, while UVA rays are more associated with ageing).

These risks don’t apply with hair. However, our scalps do certainly need protecting from sunburn, which is where SPF can be very important. Also, the sun can leave our locks seriously frazzled and worse for wear, so protecting it will help it stay looking and feeling its best. Here’s what you need to know…

Burn-free scalps

(Alamy Stock Photo)

Many of us have learned the hard way that it’s all too easy to scorch your scalp on a sunny day. “Any exposed area of skin is vulnerable to the sun’s rays. Whether you are wearing your hair in plaits and your parting is prevalent, or you have areas of thinning hair, you should be applying sun cream to these exposed spots,” says Laura Elliott, head stylist at haircare specialists Neal & Wolf.

“Ideally, you want to be choosing an SPF50 product and reapply every two hours. For precise and mess-free application, squeeze a pea-sized blob onto your finger, rub together as you would with any other haircare product and gently massage into the scalp.”

Concerned about greasiness? Elliott suggests: “Spray sun creams are much finer and less heavy than typical cream products, which can be thick and appear oily on the hair, especially after re-applying throughout the day.

“I recommend a mineral powder sun cream if oily hair is a concern. This can be applied easily with the product’s built-in powder brush, absorbing excess oils and leaving a matte finish. However, as many mineral powder sun protectants only go as high as SPF30, it’s important to be more vigilant with reapplication.”

Also, hats “should be non-negotiable”, particularly on sunny days and in any long stretches in the sun.

Damaged and dry locks

Suzie McGill, artistic director at Rainbow Room International and current British Hairdressing Awards colour technician of the year, says: “With too much sun exposure our hair can become dry, brittle and damaged. The sun weakens the hair structure. It also strips the hair of its natural oils, which results in it feeling and looking rougher in texture.”

(Alamy Stock Photo)

Colour fade is another concern when it comes to hair and sun exposure. McGill adds: “Prolonged sun exposure can result in hair colour fading and not being as long-lasting. For those with blonde/lightened hair, including highlights, the sun can bleach out the melanin in the hair, which can result in the hair going lighter. Although you may think this is a good thing if you are looking to lighten your hair, this will affect the appearance of your hair, leaving it drier and more damaged.”

Sun-savvy products

“It’s so important to use colour-saving products, such as colour-saving shampoos, conditioners and masks to help hair colour look its best and avoid it fading,” says McGill. “The Schwarzkopf Professional Bonacure Color Freeze [available from Sephora starting from £13.70 each] range is great and includes a shampoo, conditioner and treatment to prolong the life of your hair colour.

“Using UV/heat protection products is also essential to create a protective barrier and keep hair in the best condition possible when exposed to the sun. One of my favourite products is the Schwarzkopf Professional OSiS Super Shield which also helps tackle frizz, which is common following sun exposure, heat and humidity.”

(Alamy Stock Photo)

Elliott adds: “Look for styling products with built-in UV protection, such as colour-hold products, hair oils, or volumising mousses. These will not only give that extra bit of sun protection, but also maintain perfect-looking hair. A heat protectant can help to prevent dryness after extended sun exposure.

“Heat protectants, such as the Neäl & Wølf Guard Heat Protection, can protect the hair from temperatures of up to 220-degrees Celsius. This will help the hair to lock in moisture and remain soft, smooth and glossy. Spray directly onto hair from root to tip after every wash and brush through to spread the product evenly.”

Soothe and repair

Elliott says: “If your scalp does end up sun damaged, try taking a cool shower, avoiding products that can irritate the scalp and using soothing treatments, such as aloe vera. Hot water will further irritate the burnt area, whilst cold water will help to soothe. Aloe vera gel can also hydrate and help heal the burn without creating additional oils.

“If your scalp has badly burnt, be prepared for peeling,” she adds. “This isn’t to be confused with dandruff and can be helped by applying hydrating and moisturising scalp care.”

And if your hair does end up a bit worse for wear after a heatwave or sunshine getaway? “The main aim is to retain as much moisture in the hair as possible and keep it nourished and hydrated. Therefore, hair masks/treatments are a must, alongside other great haircare products such as oils and creams that will give hair an extra dose of hydration,” says McGill.

“As the sun has already done damage to your hair, trying to avoid using heated styling tools where possible is also beneficial, to avoid any further damage. Instead, experiment with hairstyles such as low buns, ponytails and natural waves to give your hair a break.”

5 sunshine saviours

Superdrug Vitamin E Hair and Body Oil, 75ml, £4.99

While not classed as a sunscreen, vitamin E has natural UV-protecting qualities and this lightweight oil will help keep locks soft and glossy.

Schwarzkopf Professional Bonacure Sun Protect Scalp & Hair Mist 100ml, £17.10,

Apply this SPF20 spray before heading outdoors and top up throughout the day. Silicone-free, the coconut oil nourishes hair and smells gorgeous.

Blomma Beauty Inlight Hair Elixir, 100ml, £44

With nourishing avocado oil and botanical extracts, this luxurious formula shields hair from sun damage, while also helping soothe, restore and strengthen.

Philip Kingsley Swimcap 100ml, £24

For protection from UV and chlorine/sea water damage, this water-resistant mask is ideal for days at the beach or pool.

Neäl & Wølf Guard Heat Protection Spray 150ml, £15.50 

A quality heat protectant will help limit damage during heat styling and help lock in moisture to keep hair looking healthy through summer.