Those passionate about skincare will tell you that no morning routine is complete without SPF. Between the risk of premature aging and the far more serious risk of skin cancer, wearing a daily SPF is a nonnegotiable. But as we apply our morning sunscreen to our faces, should we be pushing beyond our hairline? Understanding the amount of sun exposure the face receives each day, it seems likely that the skin on the scalp is facing down the sun's rays too.
Most skincare routines contain many steps, including toners, moisturizers, serums, and more, but often little attention is paid to the skin of the scalp. Understanding that the scalp is skin is the next frontier of beauty, and providing SPF protection to that skin is crucial to maintaining its health. To help us understand if you need to wear SPF on your scalp, we turned to two dermatologists for answers.
Meet the Expert
Can Your Scalp Become Sunburned?
The short answer? A resounding yes from both of our experts. The skin on your scalp is just as susceptible to burning as skin elsewhere on the body. "Any part of your exposed skin can become sunburnt," Markowitz shares. Gee explains that scalps can get very severe sunburns. "Areas that are especially vulnerable to sunburns are areas with less dense hair coverage, the back of the scalp/neck, and the juncture between the forehead and scalp. Scalp sunburns are especially common in people who have red hair and freckles, who have autoimmune diseases such as lupus, who are taking certain medications (for example: St John's Wort, particular high blood pressure medications, or particular antibiotics), and who have various forms of hair loss," she explains.
In general, wherever your scalp has the least amount of physical protection from your hair, you are likely to have sun damage. For most women, this is the hairline and where the hair is parted. Those who have thin hair are more likely to experience burning due to the lack of protection provided by the hair. Additionally, since many do not think to apply SPF to the scalp, there is no protection provided to exposed areas.
Skin Cancer Risk on the Scalp
Skin cancers on the exposed parts of the scalp are common. Markowitz shares that "80% of annual skin cancers occur on the head and neck—that includes exposed areas on the scalp (hairline and part line)." Gee adds that most skin cancers are due to chronic sun exposure and the DNA mutations that can arise. "These can present as scaly, sore, or non-healing spots. For many patients without hair who have had long and repeated sun exposure, skin cancers are often much more likely on the scalp compared with the rest of the body," Gee explains. Gee also warns that melanomas that are detected on the scalp are more deadly compared to melanomas detected on other body parts.
What makes scalp skin cancers so dangerous is that they are overlooked. Markowitz says that scalps are often overlooked in self-exams and even at the dermatologist's office. She explains that at home, when people are giving themselves an exam, the scalp can get overlooked because people oftentimes forget to that the skin on our scalp is exposed to the sun and it is a difficult place to self-examine. "Secondly, unfortunately many dermatologists don't do thorough skin exams. I find that far too many take a twirl and look approach versus actually taking the time to examine your skin and scalp properly with a dermatoscope. A dermatoscope is a hand-held microscope that has double the magnification and uses polarized lighting that allows us to look at your skin more clarity. You’d be shocked to hear that only 50% of dermatologists use this," Markowitz explains.
Both experts share that hairdressers are their greatest allies when it comes to scalp skin cancers. "Studies show that educating hairdressers can be lifesaving. The skin cancer foundation actually started an educational program called 'Heads Up!' to provide dermatology education to beauty professionals, including hairstylists," Gee explains. Markowitz says you can ask your hairstylist or even a friend to look at your scalp as they do your hair and ask them to point out anything that might be suspicious, and then you can follow up with a visit to your dermatologist. "I have seen several patients where their haircut has saved their life," Gee cautions.
Do You Need to Wear SPF on Your Scalp?
Yes, you 100% need to wear SPF on your scalp if you are going to be outdoors for a long time, Markowitz cautions. While your hair, especially if it is thick, does provide coverage to protect your scalp, the parts of your scalp that are exposed like your hairline and part line are at an increased risk for developing cancer, which is why wearing sun protection is critical. Gee adds that it is especially important to cover babies’ and kids’ scalps because their hair is fine and their skin is vulnerable.
"A full head of hair can somewhat block the sun’s rays from directly hitting the scalp, but UV radiation is powerful and often finds a way on there," Gee explains. Studies have shown that the color of hair does not make a huge difference, but the thickness and caliber of the hair might. Markowitz also cautions that it is still important for those with thick hair to get their scalp checked during skin exams, because melanoma isn't always linked directly to sun exposure.
How to Apply Scalp SPF
The thought of applying sunscreen to your scalp may not seem pleasant, but luckily our experts have several recommendations to make sure you're left feeling protected and not greasy. "I always say the best SPF is the one you're going to use, and most people are not inclined to use a cream or lotion on their head. This is why for the scalp I recommend powdered sunscreens. They offer great protection for the scalp and act like a dry shampoo, leaving no greasy residue in the hair, making it a great option. Another great alternative if you don't like the powder formulas are scalp sprays like Scalp & Hair Mist from Coola. You can spray this on your hairline, part line, and all over your hair without leaving behind a greasy residue," Markowitz shares. Gee agrees with this recommendation and adds that Supergoop! Poof 100% Mineral Part Powder is another great option.
To protect yourself using an SPF on the scalp, both experts recommend making sure to apply it to your hairline and part line. You can also use regular sunscreen to do this, but you may find it feels greasy and heavy on the hair. SPF only needs to be applied to the whole scalp if your hair is thin or if you have bald patches. Gee recommends that patients with little hair and who are at high risk for skin cancers use a zinc- or titanium-based sunscreen that is meant for the body on their scalp, such as Elta MD UV Aero Spray.
Not keen on applying sunscreen to your scalp? Both experts share that hats are a great alternative, as long as you ensure they provide adequate “UPF” or “Ultraviolet Protection Factor." While baseball hats can protect the scalp, they can have many pitfalls including mesh or areas that allow airflow, and they do not protect many parts of the face. Gee says a wide-brimmed hat is the best form of sun protection.
Scalp skin is especially vulnerable to dangerous forms of melanoma, so applying SPF to your scalp is an absolute must. While traditional sunscreen may be unpleasant to apply, there are mist and powder formulations that are designed for use on the hairline and part line.