Those of us with complexions to rival Snow White’s know proper sun protection can mean the difference between a human or a, well, tomato-like appearance. Yet there is one tiny patch of skin that when overlooked — as it often is — can cause a huge amount of pain: the scalp.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the face and neck receive the most sun exposure and are particularly susceptible to the two most common forms of skin cancer: basal and squamous cell carcinoma. Furthermore, a 2008 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that people with melanoma on the scalp or neck died at nearly twice the rate of those with melanoma elsewhere on the body. So that bright red hair part can have much uglier consequences than temporary, dandruff-like dead skin flakes.
Despite the serious risks and the obvious discomfort of a sunburned scalp, who really wants to massage greasy sunscreen into their roots?
Fortunately, today’s sunscreen options have come a long way from the days of the clown-worthy zinc-oxide nose. There are a number of mineral-based powder sunscreens, such as Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF45 ($30), which provides a layer of residue-free protection from the sun’s harmful UVA, UVB and infrared rays. The product boasts a matte effect for your face, but that also means it can provide mess-free coverage for your sensitive scalp. Just brush on a thin layer of the protective powder with the makeup applicator and go!
Another option is a nongreasy, fast-absorbing liquid sunscreen, like Shiseido’s Urban Environment Oil-Free UV Protector Broad Spectrum SPF 42 for Face ($30). Such a light sunscreen, designed for oily skin types, should spread smoothly with a shine-free finish.
A more affordable option is Banana Boat’s Quik Dri Sport Body & Scalp Spray Sunscreen SPF 30 ($6.47), which dries quickly after application so it doesn’t need to be rubbed in. The oil-free, unscented formula won’t leave a greasy residue, and better yet, it remains water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.
Products designed specifically for swimmers, such as Philip Kingsley’s Swimcap ($32) can protect your scalp from those burning sun rays and keep your strands silky smooth despite the drying, damaging effects of both chlorinated and salt water. This leave-in conditioning cream was actually first developed for the U.S. Olympic synchronized swimming team and is meant to be used on wet hair, so it’s the perfect beach or poolside companion.
Of course, one tried-and-true method for protecting your sensitive scalp — and face — is a wide-brimmed hat. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a brim that extends 3 inches or more all the way around to keep sunburn at bay.
The foundation gives its seal of approval to certain hats that provide the most effective UV protection, such as those made by brand Coolibar, which provide UPF 50+ while remaining breathable. In general, the tighter the weave of your hat’s material, the greater protection from the sun it will provide.
Heading to a backyard barbecue or an afternoon lounging at the beach? The Mayo Clinic warns that the sun’s rays are at its strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so if staying indoors isn’t possible, seek shade and cover up. As with sunscreen anywhere on your body, remember to apply sunscreen products to your scalp 15 minutes prior to going outdoors and re-apply every two hours or after swimming or sweating heavily, as per the American Academy of Dermatology’s recommendations.
Sun hats, headscarves and even a simple ponytail can be both stylish and protective, but a painfully pink scalp is an unhealthy fashion faux pas you don’t want to commit. Remember: Sunburn flatters no complexions. Do yourself and your scalp a favor, and slather — or swipe or spray — on that sunscreen.