Most of us can relate to the sinking feeling you get when you realize you missed a spot with your SPF. Usually, you notice the abstract red splotch as you pass the mirror after showering and before the pain of the burn sets in. Some of the most commonly forgotten areas are the scalp and hairline—usually discovered when you attempt to brush your hair only to find it too painful to detangle.
While it is essential to try to avoid burning your scalp and hairline, we wanted to get advice from the experts on what to do in the event these areas get sunburned. The scalp and hairline are more complicated to treat due to the hair follicles present there. It is easy to see why someone might hesitate to apply the same thick aloe vera gel they use for a body burn to the center-part of their hair.
Below, two dermatologists provide 10 remedies for treating a sunburned scalp and hairline.
Meet the Expert
Shower in Cool Water
The first thing to do in the event of a sunburn on the scalp or anywhere on the body is to attempt to halt the inflammatory process that is occurring on the cellular level, Collins explains. She recommends that you cool down the affected area with cool water, but avoid ice, which can actually worsen the damage from a burn. "If the burn is on the scalp, let cool water from the shower run over it until the sting is relieved (usually about 5 to 20 minutes depending on severity)." Weinstein Velez also encourages a cool shower to soothe the scalp and hairline.
Take Over-the-Counter Pain Medications
Over-the-counter medications can help treat both the pain and inflammation of a sunburn. "NSAIDS (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help reduce the pain associated with sunburn, but typically oral medications are not required to speed up healing time," Weinstein Velez explains. Collins also recommends over the counter anti-inflammatory medications to slow the inflammation of the sunburn. Most people have these medications at home, and they can make sleeping with a sunburn of the scalp and hairline more comfortable.
Use Cold Compresses
Help relieve the pain of the burn with cool compresses a couple of times a day. Applying ice directly to the skin can do more harm than good, but cold compresses made with ice water can provide strong relief. Collins adds that you can also spray on soy milk using a spray bottle, or add soy milk to the cool compresses for added benefit.
To make an effective cool compress, Collins provided the following recipe:
- Add ice, water, and if desired, aloe or soy to a large bowl.
- Place several soft cloths into the bowl to cool and soak.
- Apply these to the skin for about 20 minutes. Repeat as needed.
Soy protein can help hydrate skin and has even been found to enhance wound healing.
Treat With Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera gel is a must-have for burns all over the body. Aloe vera gel is moisturizing and helps to reduce inflammation, Weinstein Velez explains. The combination of hydration and anti-inflammatory properties makes aloe vera gel the perfect treatment for a sunburn. Collins shares that unlike some other treatments, aloe vera gel can be used several times per day after a burn.
In the first few days after a sunburn to the scalp and hairline, treatment of the burn should be your top priority. After your scalp has had time to heal, you can continue to apply aloe vera gel after diluting it with water to avoid weighing the hair down. "A messy bun or ponytail with a cloth headband can be a cute way to style while hiding emollients," Collins recommends.
Apply Hydrocortisone Cream
Both experts recommend applying a 1% or over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream once a day as a remedy for a sunburn of the scalp and hairline. Hydrocortisone is typically used to treat swelling, itching, and irritation. Hydrocortisone should never be used for more than seven days without consulting a doctor. Weinstein Velez says that if you do not see an improvement in your burn in 24–48 hours, call a board-certified dermatologist for a stronger prescription treatment option.
Cover With Occlusive Topicals
After applying hydrocortisone cream, it is important to keep an emollient on the skin for hydration and to aid in recovery and reepithelialization, Collins explains. "Gentle skin moisturizers like Aquaphor Healing Ointment or CeraVe Healing Ointment can help lock in moisture if skin is peeling," she advises. Weinstein Velez agrees with both of these suggestions: "Use lotions containing ceramides, and if possible, apply to the scalp. More occlusive topicals like Aquaphor (now comes in a spray that can be easily applied to the scalp), and Vaseline can also be used to lock in the moisture to help your skin heal." Occlusives aid in the healing process because they lock in moisture, and moist skin heals better.
Both experts also stress that peeling the sunburned skin should be avoided at all costs. When the skin is forcibly peeled, surrounding skin can be damaged and raw and healing skin can be exposed, Collins explains.
Avoid Heat Styling
It is important to avoid any heat-styling tools while your scalp is healing, including hot rollers, curling irons, straighteners, and blowdryers. Weinstein Velez also says to avoid hot showers during this time, as they will increase discomfort related to the sunburn and potentially cause further damage. Try to avoid complicated styling as well, as you may accidentally peel or irritate the burned skin when combing or brushing the hair.
Stick With Gentle Cleansers
Stick to gentle cleansers and skincare products while your skin is healing. Weinstein Velez recommends that you avoid retinoids, acids, and any medicated topicals for acne (for example, a benzoyl peroxide wash or spot treatment). She also recommends avoiding highly fragranced or medicated shampoos and leave-in haircare products, which could potentially lead to more irritation.
Stay Out of the Sun
If you are already burned, staying in the shade is an essential remedy to your recovery. "It's mandatory that you wear a wide-brimmed hat or one containing a UPF of 50 or higher while your skin and scalp are healing from sunburn," Weinstein Velez says. Further sun exposure will only exacerbate burn symptoms and prolong the healing time.
Don’t forget that the easiest and best thing to do is to prevent getting burned in the first place. "Heliocare supplements and sun-protective hats can help prevent sunburn in areas of the scalp that are hard to protect with typical sunscreen application," Collins says.
Increase Your Water Intake
The skin heals from the inside out, so rehydrating a sunburned scalp and hairline starts with hydrating your body. The entire body becomes dehydrated during a burn, so you will need to drink extra daily water and electrolytes, Collins explains. Weinstein Velez also encourages those suffering from sunburn to increase their daily water intake.
The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) a day for men and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) a day for women.