Helping Your Hair Survive Shampoo and Sunlight

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California blondes. That’s all I need to say for you to get a picture of a nearly-mythical, natural, golden beauty with shiny, sun-streaked, beach-waved hair, a person who glows with good health. There’s a mythically gorgeous male surfer dude counterpart as well. Brazilian blondes of the female variety are all that Californians are, with perfect makeup.   

Mythic is the operative word here. We already know that unfettered time in the sun is bad for your skin. Scientists in Brazil just proved it’s not good for your hair, either. It doesn’t matter whether that hair is still a natural color or already gray. Sunlight causes morphological (structural) changes.

The outer part of the hair shaft, the cuticle, is where most of the damage happens. When the cuticle’s structure changes, the result is hair that is rough, dull, frizzy and rife with split ends.

Sun alone is damaging, but lots of men and women spritz their locks with salt to encourage waviness or lemon juice to lighten them. In the short run, these home-style treatments work. In the longer run, they can do so much damage the only solution is a shave to the scalp and starting over.   

So if you omit the salt and lemon juice abuse, then a nice gentle shampoo and conditioner after sunning restores your hair to glory, right?

Actually, shampoos tend to make the sun problem worse.

In an experiment to find out how sun and shampoo impact hair health, the Brazilian researchers literally split hairs. They kept half of each hair as a control then tested what happened with the other half. Some hairs got irradiation (light) from mercury lamps that mimicked sunlight. Some got light followed by hand washing. And some were only washed.

And the verdict? Sun does more damage than shampooing.  It causes fracturing and cavities in the hair shaft and cell lifting on the cuticle. But the combination of light and suds was the worst.

The interesting thing, however, is that while mainstream scientists have spent some time investigating what damages hair, they don’t report any cures. Published research on how to fix the damage is nearly nonexistent.  That work is done at cosmetic companies, and the likes of L’Oreal and Estee Lauder aren’t about to share their formulas.  

So what can you do to protect your hair in the sun? You can hardly smear it with a gob of zinc oxide. But some skin products are suitable for hair. Clarins makes a sun care spray-on oil that claims to work from head to toe. Opinions vary on whether it’s nice or gross on hair, however. Those who have very fine hair seem to object. Those with thicker, wavy hair love it. People with fine or colored hair seem to prefer Drybar’s Hot Toddy product. That one also includes protection from chlorine if you are a pool person.

It may take some trial and error to find a sunscreen for your hair that you like, but for most of us, it takes some experimentation to find a sunscreen that feels good on our skin, too, and this is no different. If you spend time in the sun and still want to have healthy looking hair, the search is worth it.

The alternative, if you hate hair products, of course, is to keep your hair covered with a hat or scarf. If that’s your option, you are in luck because you have thousands of variations to choose from.  Any hat will physically block at least some sunlight, but some hats and scarves are made with sunscreen-infused fibers for extra protection.

If you are fortunate enough to have a good head of hair, give it some protection.

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