Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/28/2021
Sun exposure is inevitable. While you may be diligent about applying sunscreen to your face and body, you might forget one very important place — your scalp.
If you’re a guy with thinning hair, your scalp is extra vulnerable to sunburn and UV damage.
Luckily, with some proper planning, diligence and the right tools, keeping your scalp from getting scorched isn’t too difficult a task.
Yes, you can get a sunburned scalp. Your scalp is just like any other part of your skin and is subject to sun burns and sun damage.
If your hair has been looking a little sparse lately, you need to be extra careful about sun exposure on your scalp. For most people, hair acts as a natural protectant from harmful UV rays.
But for guys who don’t have a thick head of hair anymore, it means being susceptible to burning more easily.
Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and air pollution have been identified by researchers as aggressors to human skin and deeper skin tissues. Beyond the cancer-causing effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR), sun exposure is also responsible for skin aging and hair damage.
So, in short, frequent burns to your scalp may actually increase your risk of cancer. You can also get skin damage and aging from UV exposure. Keep in mind that everyone’s skin reacts differently, and some people are more prone to getting skin cancer than others.
It’s unlikely that one scalp sunburn will cause skin cancer. Rather, the repeated exposure of UVR to the scalp over a period of time can cause damage.
In one study, a 65-year-old balding Caucasian man presented with a well-demarcated semicircle of skin damage on the back of his scalp. It was concluded that this was the result of years of wearing a snapback baseball hat — you know, the kind with the semicircle window in the back.
Because he had balding hair, that area of his scalp had no protection from UVR, while the rest of his scalp was protected by the hat. While this may be an extreme case, it still offers an important lesson: sun damage can happen even when you’re wearing a hat.
That brings us to our next subject: what type of SPF should you use on your scalp? Traditional sunscreen lotions are known to be somewhat oily and can leave a greasy residue.
If you already have thinning hair, the last thing you want to do is add more oil to your scalp to make it look even thinner.
Thankfully, there are other options out there that provide the same level of SPF without the greasiness.
Powder sunscreen is an option for the scalp because it blends in naturally with your hair and can even have a mattifying effect. Think dry shampoo, but for your scalp health.
Sunscreen spray or sunscreen mist is another option that is specifically created to protect your hair and scalp from UVR, and is probably your best bet.
There’s also stick sunscreen, a third option because of its convenient packaging and easy application. However, we should note it’s really only useful on hairlines or parts, and isn’t really practical for applying to the scalp skin under your hair.
It’s also important to note that the two most common types of sunscreen chemical and physical — and each protect you differently.
Chemical sunscreens’ mechanism of action involves absorbing the sun’s rays. They usually contain one or more of the following: avobenzone, octisalate, oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate or homosalate. Chemical sunscreens tend to be easier to rub into your skin without the white residue often found in more typical sunscreens.
Physical blocker sunscreen, or mineral sunscreen, acts like a shield against UVR. They work by sitting on the surface of your skin and deflecting the sun’s rays. They contain the active ingredients titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both. Physical sunscreen is the better choice if you have sensitive skin, as it’s less irritating.
Sunscreen filters are also added to hair care products, such as shampoo, to protect your scalp and hair from sun damage.
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According to research, men have a higher incidence of skin cancers in the scalp, ears and other chronically sun-exposed areas of the head and neck than women. This has been hypothesized to be attributable to differences in hair coverage.
Many dermatologists recommend that guys with thinning hair should use at least SPF 50. Why? Because when a sunscreen with SPF 50 is applied, it will protect the skin until it is exposed to 50 times more UV radiation than that is required to burn the unprotected skin.
Guys with male pattern hair loss, especially, should use extra protection by:
Wearing hats with complete coverage of the scalp
Applying SPF sunscreen lotion, spray, stick or powder
Using umbrellas to further minimize exposure to UV radiation
Another good rule of thumb is to avoid exposure to sunlight during the time of day when UV radiation is at its highest — between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
To apply scalp sunscreen, follow the instructions on the packaging and spray, squeeze or brush on the recommended amount. Rub into the scalp thoroughly.
Remember that sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, as well as after sweating, toweling off, bathing and swimming — even if it’s advertised as water resistant.
As we mentioned, having more hair is another form of UV protection. If you’re looking for ways to regrow your hair or fill in the places that are looking a little sparse, here are some totally legit (and FDA-approved) ways to do it.
Minoxidil is an FDA-approved topical medication used for guys with androgenic alopecia, or male pattern baldness.
The active ingredient in minoxidil relaxes the blood vessels in the scalp, making it easier for blood to flow to your follicles. When your follicles are getting the oxygen and nutrients they need, they’ll begin to regrow hair — at least, that’s the theory.
Used in conjunction with other hair growth treatments and remedies, minoxidil helps improve the volume of hair on your head over time.
Topical minoxidil is considered safe to use. However, some people experience side effects after application. The most common side effect of minoxidil on scalps is irritant contact dermatitis. Typical symptoms include itchy and scaly skin.
Finasteride is an FDA-approved medication for the treatment of hair loss in men, and belongs to a class of drugs called 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors.
According to a clinical study, at two years, an increase in hair growth was demonstrated in 66 percent of men treated with finasteride, compared with seven percent of men treated with placebo.
It is important to note, however, that this medication needs to be taken on a continuous basis, or else new hair will be lost about a year after you stop taking finasteride.
Platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP) is a male pattern hair loss treatment that involves drawing your blood and separating the platelet-rich plasma from the other blood components.
This plasma is then injected into your scalp to improve the supply of nutrients and stimulate hair growth.
A 2019 review concluded that current studies show “promising” results for platelet-rich plasma as a potential hair loss treatment, but research is still in the early stages.
Read about PRP in more detail in our guide to PRP treatments for hair loss.
Hair transplantation involves taking hair from a healthier part of your body and physically transplanting them onto a thinner, balding part of the scalp.
They’re effective and generally safe, but the main drawback of hair transplants is that they are expensive and can usually cost thousands of dollars. And because these are generally considered an elective surgery, many health companies won’t cover them.
If your hair is thinning and you’re spending time outside this summer, a snapback cap won’t cut it. It’s important to apply SPF to the oft-neglected part of your body — your scalp.
There are many forms of SPF nowadays, including powdered SPF, hair and scalp protectant sprays and more.
Having more hair is another way you can protect your scalp from UV exposure. Certain hair growth medications are FDA-approved and can have you well on your way to a thicker head of hair.
If you’re concerned about UV damage to your scalp this summer, or would like to grow thicker hair, speak with a dermatologist or healthcare provider about the best options for you.