Nothing kills the highs of summer like a bad sunburn. And though we try to be meticulous when it comes to our SPF habits, we’re not perfect. At some point sunburn is practically inevitable. However, with proper after-sun care, the damage and cringeworthy aftermath of a bad burn can usually be contained. But when said burn is on your scalp and not, say, your shoulders, proper care and damage control can get a lot trickier—and wreak havoc on your hair. Even worse? Some store-bought remedies (we see you, dandruff shampoo) may do more harm than good in terms of calming that irritated and flaky skin.
In order to avoid getting sunburned on top of your head in the first place, dermatologist Marie Hayag, MD, says, "You should minimize your exposure to sun during the hours of 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. If you are out in the sun, make sure you apply a broad-spectrum sunblock at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure and apply every two hours." She recommends La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Mineral Sunscreen ($34) and MD Solar Sciences Mineral Creme SPF 50 ($30). David Lortscher, MD, suggests a scalp-specific formula, such as Supergoop! Poof 100% Mineral Part and Scalp Powder SPF 45 ($34). Both doctors also note that the supplement Heliocare can boost skin's protection against UV rays, though it's not a replacement for sunscreen.
Meet the Expert
Read on for our top expert-approved tips for taking care of a sunburned scalp at home.
Do a Green Tea Rinse
It’s no coincidence that green tea can often be found in top-of-the-line skincare products. Loaded with beautifying and soothing antioxidants and tannins, tea naturally and effectively reduces inflammation, which makes it perfect for soothing an angry and itchy scalp. When applied in the form of a compress or rinse, green tea can help heal the irritated skin and also expedite recovery. Hayag also approves of this method.
For a rinse, you need to first brew green tea. If you've never done this, just pour boiling water over a green tea bag and let steep for about 10 minutes. Next, you're going to want to remove the bag and place the tea in the refrigerator to let it cool all the way down. When you get in the shower, wash your hair as usual, making sure to cleanse and condition with an ultra-gentle shampoo and conditioner (we like Living Proof's Restore line). Once you've towel-dried your hair, pour the lukewarm tea over it and lightly massage it into your scalp. Don't rinse, and let your hair air-dry—you shouldn't be using heat styling tools on burnt skin anyway.
Use Aloe Vera
"Aloe is well known for its skin-soothing and skin-healing properties," says Lortscher. He suggests looking for a moisturizer that features aloe vera as an ingredient. There are also aloe vera gels on the market that often have the added benefit of providing cooling relief to inflamed skin.
But choose your formula wisely and avoid added fragrance. "Scented products, including scented aloe vera, should be avoided since the fragrances may irritate the sunburned skin," says Lortscher. Hayag likes the Seven Minerals Aloe Vera Gel ($20).
Try a Milk Dip
Milk contains essential enzymes that may bond to skin and speed up your skin’s ability to heal. We recommend 2 percent or whole for this treatment because the fat, protein, and pH have anti-inflammatory properties that help calm the skin. Hayag approves of milk as an at-home sunscreen treatment, though Lortscher notes, "Although cold substances such as milk may provide some temporary relief, there is no known benefit beyond the soothing cool temperature."
Be sure to use cool milk to try to help restrict the blood vessels in the scalp and reduce any swelling.
Utilizing the soothing powers of milk is pretty simple: dip a clean washcloth into cool milk, then gently press the milk-drenched cloth against your scalp for roughly five minutes. You can repeat this up to three times in a session, but any more is overkill.
Avoid Harsh Exfoliants
It's probably best to skip your scalp scrub for a couple of weeks; both Hayag and Lortscher caution against using abrasive or harsh products on your scalp while healing from a sunburn. "I would stay away from products with acids and fragrances as they have a potential of further irritating compromised sunburned skin," says Hayag. "Try to stay away from exfoliating products and products that contain alcohol. The alcohol can further dry out skin that is already damaged," adds Lortscher.
Get a Double-Oil Treatment
We here at Byrdie love our essential oils. How could we not? Oils are known for their miraculous skin-saving, youth-preserving, all-around amazingness; thus, their ability to calm an inflamed and irritated scalp shouldn’t come as any big surprise. Our preference, validated by Hayag, is tea tree. This is the remedy you’ll want to turn to if your burn is inducing serious flaking and itching. Not only is tea tree oil anti-inflammatory, but it’s also antibacterial, antifungal, and a natural antiseptic—so basically an elixir of the gods. Use it to tame your screaming head while simultaneously curing any and all pre-burn scalp woes (and yes, you’re welcome).
In order to do a tea tree oil treatment, you should first fill a container three-quarters full with any oil other than tea tree (jojoba, coconut, olive, and almond are all great options). Tea tree oil is strong, so add 10-15 drops to the container and mix it well. Gently massage the mixture into your hair until it's totally saturated—a tingling sensation is normal—and leave it in overnight. In the morning, shampoo and condition your hair thoroughly.
Cool the Area Down
You'll notice that a common denominator in a lot of these tips is cooling. You can get fast relief from an uncomfortable sunburn and cut down on inflammation with this method. "You want to try to reduce the inflammation of a sunburn right away," says Hayag. "One way you can do this is by cooling the area down with an ice pack wrapped in a damp cloth and apply it to the burn. It will cause blood vessel constriction and reduce swelling. A bag of frozen vegetables (like peas) works well also. You should apply ice packs or cool compresses no longer than 15 minutes at a time."
Take a Painkiller
When in doubt, there's always good old-fashioned Ibuprofen. If your sunburn is feeling itchy, Hayag suggests applying an OTC hydrocortisone like Cortizone-10 ($4). Both doctors say it's best to steer clear of lidocaine and benzocaine, which can cause further irritation. And isn't that the last thing you need when you've already got an itchy, red, inflamed scalp?
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Pazyar N, Yaghoobi R, Bagherani N, Kazerouni A. A review of applications of tea tree oil in dermatology. Int J Dermatol. 2013;52(7):784-790. doi:10.1111/j.1365-4632.2012.05654.x