Among the skeletons in the beauty closet of many who came of age in the late 1980s and ’90s, you will likely find a bottle of Sun-In. This drugstore elixir promised to transform us into highlight-streaked California girls, but it didn’t quite work on brunettes (think: orange), and the spray compromised our tresses just as the era’s tanning beds and oils harmed our skin. Yet unlike the tanning salon, the idea of inviting the sun’s rays into our hair (literally) hasn’t been completely banished from our collective beauty psyche.
“Hair can burn, just like skin; we simply can’t feel it,” explains Anabel Kingsley, trichologist (hair and scalp specialist) at New York’s Philip Kingsley Clinic. “UV rays act on the hair in a similar way to bleach; they oxidize strands and weaken their protein structure.” That means prolonged sun exposure can cause hair to get lighter and lose shine; develop a rougher, drier texture; and lose elasticity and become more porous and prone to breakage and split ends.
Color-treated hair can be especially susceptible to the sun’s most villainous tendencies. London-based hair colorist Nicola Clarke, whose client list includes a roster of A-list blondes (Cate Blanchett, Kate Moss, Kate Winslet), suggests slathering hair with a dense mask to moisturize and create a protective coating against the sun (and the sea). Meanwhile, Kingsley advocates for a water-resistant moisturizing cream with UV filters (like Philip Kingsley Citrus Sunshine Swimcap cream, which was originally formulated for the U.S. Olympic Synchronized Swimming Team) or a scarf or wide-brimmed hat for maximum coverage.
Virgin hair will take less of a beating than its colored counterparts. “Hair that is processed is more vulnerable to the sun because the structure is already weaker,” says Kingsley. However, white and gray hair types are quite vulnerable “because they don’t contain melanin, the pigment cells that give hair its color but also protect it from UV damage,” she adds. When you’re not beach-bound, Clarke says hair protection should still be top of mind: use color-protectant cleansers and an SPF spray like Phytoplage as a safeguard, and reach for deeply moisturizing masks often—or, as she says, “the same way you would treat your skin.”
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