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How to treat a sunburned scalp?

Helpful tips to soothe the burn

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
Wearing a Hat Can Prevent Scalp Burn
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

After a long day out in the sun, has your scalp ever felt tender to the touch? You might have a scalp sunburn. Even if you were careful to apply sunscreen to your face and body, the top of your head is still at risk of sun damage—and hair isn’t always adequate protection against this painful condition!Luckily, there are things you can do to soothe the pain of a sunburned scalp, and ways you can prevent it from happening in the future. Allow Curology’s skincare experts to explain everything you need to know.

Symptoms of a sunburned scalp 

A scalp sunburn can cause a multitude of unpleasant symptoms. Initially, you may notice that your skin feels warm to the touch and has a red hue. This warmth may escalate into tenderness or pain, making it difficult to do simple tasks like combing your hair. If your scalp sunburn is severe, your body may exhibit more alarming responses such as nausea, fevers, chills, and blisters that might appear on your scalp.¹

Scalp sunburns can be very uncomfortable, so you should take preventative measures every time you go out to enjoy a sunny day.

Preventing a sunburned scalp 

You can prevent the peeling and discomfort that comes with getting a sunburned scalp by keeping your scalp covered and using sunscreen. 

Stay covered

Research shows that your hair offers a defense against both UVB and UVA radiation, with effectiveness increasing in relation to hair density, thickness, and the presence of melanin (the darker your hair, the better the protection).² So, your hair already acts as a physical barrier against the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. 

However, it’s not enough to protect your scalp fully. Covering your hair by wearing a hat is an excellent way to protect your scalp. Wearing a hat or hair covering can effectively shield your scalp from the sun's harmful rays, reducing the risk of sunburn and the long-term consequences of UV exposure.

Use sunscreen

Sunscreen is another highly effective solution for shielding your skin from the sun's harmful UV rays. To protect your scalp specifically, you can opt for a scalp-specific sunscreen or a facial sunscreen that suits your skin type. “A spray, mist, or even powder sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 can be helpful to cover any areas of exposed scalp,” says Donna McIntyre, a nurse practitioner at Curology.

When choosing a sunscreen, look for oil-free and water-resistant options, as these prevent the product from running and causing discomfort, especially around your eyes. Mineral formula sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are particularly beneficial due to their efficacy in providing sun protection.³

To maximize sun protection, apply sunscreen to your scalp when your hair is dry, focusing on areas where your hair parts or any thinning or balding spots.

How to apply sunscreen on your scalp 

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying sunscreen with the following instructions: 

  • Apply enough sunscreen to cover all skin not covered by clothing. 

  • Don't forget to adequately cover the tops of your feet, your neck, your ears, and the top of your head.

  • Wait for 15 minutes to allow sunscreen to dry before going outside.

  • Wear lip balm or gloss that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

  • Reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours while outdoors, or after swimming or sweating.⁴

This method is for adults; consult a medical provider before using it on children six years and under.

While prevention is key in avoiding a sunburned scalp, it's important to know how to treat it if it occurs. Despite taking precautions, sunburns can still happen, and it's essential to be equipped with the knowledge and remedies to alleviate the discomfort and promote healing. 

Treating a sunburned scalp 

Most sunburns will naturally heal over time without requiring additional measures.⁵ Nonetheless, you can undertake the following actions to address sunburns and facilitate a smoother recovery:

Cool showers or oatmeal baths

The next time you step into the shower, avoid using hot water, as it may exacerbate the sunburn. Keep your shower brief to prevent further drying of your skin. You can alternatively opt for a soothing, cool colloidal oatmeal bath to provide relief to your skin. You should also drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration and promote optimal healing.⁶

Aloe vera gel

Did you know that aloe vera is effective for treating sunburns? Research indicates that aloe vera is beneficial in promoting the healing of burns. One study demonstrated that burns treated with aloe vera gel healed more rapidly than those treated with a petroleum jelly gauze dressing.⁷ Aloe vera gel provides protection against sun radiation damage to your skin and possesses anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, making it an excellent choice for soothing sunburned areas.⁸

Over-the-counter medicine 

To alleviate the discomfort associated with sunburn, you can also consider taking over-the-counter pain medications. While these medications won't expedite the healing process of your sunburn, they can make the recovery period more tolerable by reducing pain and inflammation. 

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, are a particularly effective option to help decrease pain, allowing you to better cope with the discomfort as your sunburn gradually heals.⁹

Topical creams

Topical creams, like hydrocortisone cream, can effectively treat sunburns. Hydrocortisone cream is a mild steroid that can help reduce the inflammation and discomfort associated with sunburn. Using it as part of your sunburn treatment regimen can alleviate your pain and accelerate your skin's recovery process.¹⁰

Cold compresses

Cold therapy is routinely used to effectively diminish pain following injuries. Applying a cold compress to sunburned skin may offer a quick and simple method to alleviate pain, as sunburns result in skin inflammation. 

Be sure to avoid placing ice directly on your skin, which can cause further damage. Instead, place the ice in a small bag and wrap it in a soft cloth before gently applying it to the affected area.

What to avoid with a sunburned scalp

To speed up the healing process following a scalp sunburn, there are specific things you should steer clear of, such as harsh ingredients, chemical products, and heat.

Harsh ingredients

While your scalp sunburn is healing, it's important to avoid using shampoos containing sulfates, as they can make your scalp dryness and irritation worse. Studies have revealed that sulfates are associated with increased frizz, hair fragility, and scalp dryness, which can hinder the recovery process and prolong discomfort.¹¹

Chemical products

You should also minimize the use of hair products during the healing process. Many hair products contain chemicals that may further damage your scalp and aggravate sunburn.¹² By reducing the application of such products, you can prevent additional irritation and create a more conducive environment for your scalp to recover.

Heat

Make an effort to avoid sun exposure and keep yourself cool while your scalp heals.¹³ Additionally, opt for air-drying and natural styling methods for your hair. Using heat tools such as blow dryers and flat irons might worsen the dryness and damage to your healing scalp.

When you should see a doctor 

It's vital to consult your medical provider if you suffer from a severe sunburn that leads to blistering and substantial fluid loss. Timely intervention by a healthcare professional can help prevent complications, alleviate pain, and ensure you get proper treatment, ultimately promoting a smoother recovery and minimizing the risk of long-term damage to your skin.¹⁴

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FAQs

Does a sunburned scalp mean hair loss?

In some cases, yes. Repeated episodes of sunburn on the scalp may lead to increased hair loss in affected individuals.¹⁵ Sunburns can damage the hair follicles, resulting in inflammation and weakening of the hair shaft. 

Over time, the cumulative impact of UV radiation can cause hair to lose its protein, affect its growth, and even change its color.¹⁶ This highlights the importance of using sun protection for your scalp to maintain healthy hair and minimize the risk of hair loss.

Should I wash my hair if my scalp is sunburnt?

Yes, you can wash your sunburned scalp with cool water, but it's best to avoid shampoos and hair care products containing harsh chemicals and ingredients like sulfates. Such components may contribute to further drying of your scalp and make your pain and discomfort worse.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Guerra, K.C. and Crane, J.S. Sunburn. StatPearls. (2022, August 28).

  2. de Gálvez, M.V., et al. Human Hair as a Natural Sun Protection Agent: A Quantitative Study. Photochem Photobiol. (July 2015).

  3. Smijs, T.G. and Pavel, S. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens: focus on their safety and effectiveness. Nanotechnol Sci Appl. (2011, October 13).

  4. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. (February 2023).

  5. Guerra, K.C. and Crane, J.S. Sunburn. StatPearls. Ibid.

  6. Guerra, K.C. and Crane, J.S. Sunburn. StatPearls. Ibid.

  7. Hekmatpou, D., et al. The Effect of Aloe Vera Clinical Trials on Prevention and Healing of Skin Wound: A Systematic Review. Iran J Med Sci. (January 2019).

  8. Surjushe, A., et al. Aloe Vera: A Short Review. Indian Journal of Dermatology. (2008, n.d.).

  9. Guerra, K.C. and Crane, J.S. Sunburn. StatPearls. Ibid.

  10. Guerra, K.C. and Crane, J.S. Sunburn. StatPearls. Ibid.

  11. Gavazzoni Dias, M.F.R. Pro and Contra of Cleansing Conditioners. Skin Appendage Disord. (April 2019).

  12. Chiu, C.H., et al. A Review: Hair Health, Concerns of Shampoo Ingredients and Scalp Nourishing Treatments. Curr Pharm Biotechnol. (2015, n.d.).

  13. Guerra, K.C. and Crane, J.S. Sunburn. StatPearls. Ibid.

  14. Guerra, K.C. and Crane, J.S. Sunburn. StatPearls. Ibid.

  15. Gherardini, J., et al. Transepidermal UV radiation of scalp skin ex vivo induces hair follicle damage that is alleviated by the topical treatment with caffeine. Int J Cosmet Sci. (April 2019).

  16. Trüeb, R.M. Oxidative Stress in Ageing of Hair. Int J Trichology. (January-June 2009). 

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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