Looking after your scalp and hair in the sunshine
As we get older, it’s perfectly normal for our hair to thin. For some people – men in particular – hair loss begins at a younger age, and results in baldness across the top of the head. This is known as male pattern baldness, and it’s thought to affect about 50% of all men over the age of 50.
Losing your hair in this way is nothing to worry about from a health perspective, but it can certainly cause confidence issues. Another aspect of hair loss considered less often is the potential for the sun to damage to the scalp.
Protecting the skin on your head
If you’re bald or you have significantly thinning hair, it’s really important to make sure you protect your head on sunny days.
Over the course of the day, the skin on your scalp is going to be exposed to direct sunlight more than any other part of your body. Because you can’t see the top of your head – and because you’re less likely to touch it throughout the day – you may not realise that it’s getting burned until it’s too late.
The sun can affect your scalp in a number of ways: it can cause harmless "age spots" which look a bit like large brown freckles. It can also cause sun or liver spots (known as actinic keratoses). Unfortunately, skin cancer can also develop on the scalp, so it's super important to protect it.
To avoid sunburn on your head, remember the following:
- Avoid direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day (11am-3pm).
- When you’re in direct sunlight, wear a hat – preferably one with a wide brim that shades your face and neck.
- Put plenty of sunscreen onto any areas of skin that will be exposed to sun – if you plan on taking your hat off, make sure you’ve put sunscreen across all bald areas, as well as your ears, forehead, and neck.
- Reapply sunscreen regularly, especially if you’re going in the water and wetting your head.
It's recommended you use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, and a star rating of at least four. This will ensure that you’re protected from both UVA and UVB rays.
To cover the average adults body, you'll need around 35ml of sunscreen.
Soothe sunburn on the scalp
Sunburn on the scalp should be treated in the same way as sunburn on any other area of the body.
The first thing to do is get out of the sun. Then, gently cool the skin on your scalp by sponging it with water. After this you can pat the skin dry and apply some after sun or a moisturiser containing aloe vera. If you’re experiencing any discomfort or pain, try taking paracetamol or ibuprofen.
And remember: try to stay out of the sun until the redness has faded.
Hair and sun damage
When you’re out in the sun, your priority should be protecting your skin and eyes. However, it’s also a good idea to take care of your hair.
The hair on our head can be damaged by intense sunlight – and it’s particularly vulnerable if it’s finer and lighter in colour. Sun-damaged hair might appear discoloured and frizzy, and feel dry and brittle with split ends.
To avoid damaging your hair in the sun, try the following:
- Avoid direct sunlight in the hottest part of the day
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat or wrap your hair in a scarf
- Use hair products with SPF
Skin cancer on a bald head
People who are bald or who have shaved heads are more likely to develop certain types of skin cancer, which is why it’s so important to take good care of your scalp.
This is especially the case if your hair loss is fairly recent, or if you’ve only recently decided to shave your head. There may be a period where you have to adjust to taking care of your scalp, simply because it’s a new habit!
The most common types of skin cancer on the scalp are basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). These cancers don't look like the dark or brown spots we all know to look out for; they tend to look like a sore that's not healing or keeps crusting over. They are often confused with an insect bite or cut or graze. If you have a sore on your head that's simply "not healing", please get this checked out.
If you notice any new moles, or changes to existing ones, ask your doctor if this could be a melanoma, particularly if the colour or shape is irregular.
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