All right, folks. Time for a mid-summertime PSA: Stop. Overlooking. Your scalp. Because let me tell you, the sun isn’t.
While you’ve definitely heard that you need to lather up your face and body to keep your skin safe and cancer-free from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays, you probably aren’t thinking about the top of your head. All the doctors I spoke to said the scalp was still at risk for sun exposure and UV damage — just like the rest of your skin — because it’s facing the direction of the sun.
SKIP AHEAD How to shop for scalp sunscreens
“Studies have shown that hair provides very little protection for your scalp, regardless of hair color. If there’s no hair on the scalp, it’s extra important to protect it with sunscreen or a UV-protective hat.” Dr. Michele Green, a cosmetic dermatologist, told me. Dr. Jaimie DeRosa, a board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon, emphasized the risks in not protecting a part of the body usually covered by hair — which most people don’t think about, she added.
To help you narrow in on worthwhile scalp SPF, we consulted doctors on how to shop for scalp sunscreen. Notably, their guidance depends on how much or little hair is on your head. We also asked them to share some of their favorite product recommendations.
Best scalp sunscreens
Doctors continually tell us that the best scalp sunscreen is the one that you’ll actually use and regularly reapply. While some of the sunscreens mentioned below were designed specifically for your scalp, according to the brand (see: the Coola, Banana Boat and Supergoop options), most that we’ve highlighted here are face sunscreens that can also work easily for your scalp.
That said, we’re sharing some specific recommendations that doctors gave us, which protect against both UVA and UVB rays (commonly known as “broad spectrum” sunscreen), alongside highly-rated options from stores like Nordstrom, Amazon and Walmart.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Eileen Deignan and DeRosa both suggested Elta MD. DeRosa said it’s a 100% mineral sunscreen lotion that’s great for both “face and scalp coverage and also has the added benefit of correcting sun damage, including sun spots, and contains antioxidants to help prevent free radical damage, too.” DeRosa mentioned this is a great option for those without any hair . It has a 4.5-star average rating from more than 1,600 customer reviews on Amazon.
Deignan suggested usingNeutrogena, which makes a Sheer Zinc Face Mineral Sunscreen lotion that we’ve also recommended — in stick form — for kids. The hypoallergenic mineral lotion is gentle enough for those with sensitive skin, according to the brand, and you can use it on your face as well as your scalp. It has a 4.4-star average rating from nearly 8,400 Amazon reviews.
Coola’s Scalp Spray & Hair Sunscreen Mist is a non-greasy, 30 SPF spray that protects your scalp without weighing your hair down, according to the brand. It’s water-resistant for 80 minutes, Coola says, and it helps to prevent UV-related hair color fading, if that’s important to you. It’s also reef-friendly and cruelty-free, according to Coola. It has a 4.5-star average rating from nearly 2,200 Amazon customer reviews.
If you’re looking for a spray, Banana Boat’s Hair & Scalp Sunscreen Spray offers SPF 30 and is reef-safe, Green told me. She also said that it can be used on “both dry or wet hair and dries quickly on application, without leaving the hair feeling greasy.” According to Banana Boat, the Hair & Scalp Sunscreen Spray is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and should feel lightweight on your skin. It has a 4.6-star average rating from nearly 3,000 Amazon customer reviews.
If you’re looking to protect the part in your hair and not get said hair greasy, you may prefer a powder formulation. DeRosa and Green both recommended the Supergoop Poof Part Powder. The Supergoop is a zinc oxide broad spectrum sunscreen that has silica to absorb excess oil on the scalp and vitamin C, an antioxidant that protects the skin from damage caused by UV radiation. The brand recommends spraying it about two inches away from your scalp and blending with a hairbrush or your fingertips, like you would a dry shampoo. It has a 4-star average rating from more than 100 customer reviews on Supergoop.
If sunscreens typically leave a white cast on your skin, consider this tinted powder formula from Colorscience, which earned a spot in our guide to the best sunblock for darker skin tones. A dermatologist told us that its broad-spectrum coverage can help protect against infrared and high-energy visible light. It’s available in four shades — Fair, Medium, Tan and Deep — and can be dusted over your part, or head, or used to touch-up your face makeup. This tinted powder sunscreen received a 4.6-star average rating from more than 1,100 reviews at Colorscience.
How to shop for scalp sunscreens
Scalp sunscreens are readily available at drugstores, department stores and mega retailers, but which formula is the right fit for your needs?
“The best scalp sunscreen depends on what works best for you,” Green said. But regardless of whether you choose a powder or a lotion, sunscreens should have an SPF of at least 30 and they should be “broad spectrum,” meaning they protect against UVA and UVB rays.
Which type of scalp sunscreen is best?
“Lotion [sunscreens] are the most effective coverage but they’re not practical to apply to a scalp mostly covered with hair,” Deignan said. They’re the best choice for people who are bald. Green added that a lotion sunscreen can be useful to wear if you’re going in the water, as it’s thicker and stays on the scalp longer than spray or powder sunscreens.
All of the doctors I spoke to agreed that spray sunscreens are the easiest to apply. “They can cover a larger surface area with one mist,” Green said. They tend not to leave a heavy, white residue. Deignan noted that you should be careful to close your eyes and hold your breath when applying spray sunscreens.
Powder sunscreens are the best to use if you’re worried about greasiness — each doctor I spoke to noted that powder sunscreens avoided greasiness. They absorb quickly and they can also act as a dry shampoo, noted Green.
When to wear scalp sunscreen
Though all the doctors I spoke to recommended wearing sunscreen on your scalp no matter what the hair situation is like atop your head, they really emphasized its importance if you’re bald (or don’t have dark and thick hair, said DeRosa).
“Hair provides a certain amount of baseline sun protection — the proof is to look at the scalp under the hair. There are fewer freckles and the skin doesn’t display as many signs of sun exposure,” said Deignan. If you can see the skin of your scalp, even for those with thinning hair, that skin needs to have sun protection, said DeRosa. You should protect your scalp “ideally with both a physical blocker, such as a hat, and broad-spectrum scalp sunscreen SPF 30 and above,” she said.
For those who have thicker hair, and who aren’t balding but still want to protect their scalp, you should focus your efforts on the edges of the hairline and your hair part, DeRosa said.
UPDATE (August 1, 2022, 4:15 p.m. ET): Banana Boat issued a voluntary U.S. recall of three batches of its Hair & Scalp Sunscreen Spray SPF 30 after detecting trace levels of benzene. We've kept them on the list because the brand says no batches created before or after this recall are impacted. If you recently bought the Hair & Scalp sunscreen, you can go to Banana Boat's website or the FDA's website to check whether your spray is part of the recall.