How to Reverse Sun Damage to Your Hair

Caucasian surfer with wet hair at beach
 Peathegee Inc/Getty Images

When people talk about sun protection, they often focus on skincare, but almost totally ignore hair care. But it turns out that your hair suffers just as much in the sun—it just doesn’t have the same nerve endings to signal the alarm.

You might recognize the “symptoms” of sun-damaged hair: “The easiest way to tell is if it’s become dry or brittle after exposure,” says Alan J. Parks, M.D., a dermatologist and founder of skincare shop DermWarehouse. (Dermatologists are also experts on hair and scalp health.) “You might notice that the sun-exposed hair is breaking easily.” Alternatively, it might be so poofy from being parched that it’s practically un-stylable.

Often, dark hair becomes lighter in the sun. Society has deemed this a good thing, aesthetically, like getting a tan. However, it’s actually more like a burn—it’s a sign of discoloration and dehydration from overexposure. (The same thing happens when you dye or bleach the hair.)

But worry not: You can reverse sun damage to hair relatively easily. For a month or so after any sun damage, the hair needs added attention—primarily in the form of added conditioner. Luckily, the hair follicle itself is deep enough under the surface of the skin that it won’t be damaged by a sunburn to the scalp, says Parks. Ditto if the strand gets frayed by UV rays—the follicle will still produce healthy hair cells. As for the hair, though, here are the ways you can first prevent any damage from the sun, and a few steps to restore it to its healthy, stylable state.

How to Prevent Sun Damage to Your Hair (and Scalp, too)

1. Use a UV-filtering Styler

A few products double as styling cream and a shield from UV rays. Sachajuan Hair in the Sun is the best of them. It’s like sunscreen for your hair—it blocks UV rays while giving you light, sea-breezy hold—and acts as a color sealant if you’ve got dyed hair.

2. Wear a Hat

No surprises here: Dr. Parks confirms that the best defense against damaged hair and a dry scalp is to shield it under a hat altogether. It’s best to go with a wider, 360-degree brim if you want to shield everything.

3. Use a Sunscreen Spray

If you have medium-length or long hair and your scalp is at all exposed to the sun—like if it’s thinning—then you still need to layer sunscreen atop it. You can minimize the mess of sunblock-lathered hair by targeting spots of the scalp with a sunscreen spray, then massaging it in at the root like you would with a dry shampoo. This should help you avoid getting any excess into your coif. Dr. Parks likes COOLA’s SPF 50 Sport Sunscreen for this task, which is also one of our favorite sunscreens for athletes.

How to Repair Sun-damaged Hair

1. Use a Hair Mask

You know how people do a face mask to deep clean the pores and clear their complexions? You can similarly use a hair mask to put nutrients and moisture back into each strand—thus restoring natural shine and stylability. Dr. Parks’ favorite is Elon’s Moisture Therapy Replenishing Masque, which is cycled into rotation twice a week during your shower. Just shampoo or rinse your sun-damaged hair thoroughly, apply the mask for 2-3 minutes instead of using a conditioner, and then rinse it out. It’s a good habit to be in if you’re growing your hair out, too, since it prevents the ends from splitting apart and acts like a mega-conditioner.

2. Double Down on Conditioner

On the topic of mega conditioners, you need to be one yourself. No day should pass where you aren’t conditioning your hair, unless you’re substituting it with a hair mask. Your hair needs moisture and nutrients, and the sun—as well as most shampoos—will strip it of those things. That’s why the last thing you do in the shower should always be conditioning your hair, since it allows the hair to retain the vitamins and proteins you just fed it. (This is the same reason you should never mix shampoo and conditioner; the former should always preceded the latter, or you should just rinse and use conditioner on its own, if you’re skipping a wash.) Check out our favorite conditioners here.

3. Dial Down the Shampoo

One takeaway from the conditioning tip is that you should shampoo less. Your hair doesn’t get so dirty on the daily. You can probably get by with rinses and conditioners most of the time. You can definitely cut your shampoo use in half, if not a third or a quarter of your current usage. By doing this with sun-damaged hair, you’ll better preserve the natural oils that nourish the hair throughout the day, which would otherwise be stripped away.

Using too much shampoo also increases the risk of further drying out your irritated (and probably peeling) scalp. That’s why it’s best for guys with sunburnt heads and sun-dried hair to use a specialized shampoo—one full of vitamin B5 like Kérastase’ Bain Aprés Soleil. It’s also effective for chlorine-damaged hair that might result from too much pool time.

4. Again: Wear a Hat

If your hair is already damaged, and you plan to go outside in the sun again, then you’re just aggravating the situation. Grab that hat that you should have grabbed in the first place, and right your wrong by shielding your hair from even more disrepair.