If your skin is exposed to too much of the ultraviolet (UV) light in sunlight, it burns. Any exposed skin can burn, including your scalp.
The symptoms of a sunburned scalp are basically the same as a sunburn elsewhere on your body, and include:
- feeling warm or hot to the touch
- tenderness or pain
- small, fluid-filled blisters
If your sunburn is severe, you could also experience:
It can take a few hours for the first symptoms of sunburn to appear, but it might take 24 hours or longer to determine its full extent.
You can treat your burnt scalp at home. For about a week, or until your sunburn has healed, follow these simple steps:
- Shower in cool — or at most tepid — water. Hot water will increase sunburn discomfort.
- Check the label on your shampoo and conditioner. Until the sunburn has healed, avoid shampoos with sulfates, they can dry the scalp and create more irritation. Also avoid conditioners with dimethicone, it can block pores, trapping heat, and create more damage.
- Skip using too many hair products. Many contain chemicals that can irritate your sunburn.
- Dry and style your hair naturally. The heat from blow dryers and flat irons can dry and damage your healing scalp.
- Sooth the pain with cold compresses.
- Moisturize. Rubbing coconut oil and aloe vera gel gently into the sunburned area may relieve discomfort and promote healing. Be aware that they’ll probably make your hair look greasy. Many advocates of natural healing suggest soothing sunburn with essential oils such as helichrysum or lavender.
- Stay hydrated. Along with other benefits, drinking at least eight glasses of water a day will help moisturize your skin.
- If you need pain relief, consider taking an over-the-counter (OTC) medication, such as aspirin (Bayer, Excedrin), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or naproxen (Aleve).
- Wear a hat. While your scalp is healing, stay out of the sun or keep your scalp covered.
See your doctor if your sunburn symptoms include:
- extreme pain
- high fever
Also see your doctor if you feel that your sunburned scalp has been infected. Signs of infection include:
- increasing pain
- pus draining from an open blister
- red streaks extending from an open blister
A sunburn on your scalp typically will not cause hair loss. You might lose some hairs while the skin is peeling, but they should regrow.
If you have thinning hair, you have less natural protection from the sun’s UV light. As your hair continues to thin, you’ll have to adjust the level of protection you provide for your scalp.
The best sun protection for your scalp is to cover your head. And that’s usually all you need to prevent sunburn. If, however, your chosen head covering has a loose weave — certain straw hats, mesh-backed truckers’ hats, for example — it could be allowing UV light through to your scalp. UV light is most intense between 10 am to 4 pm.
You can use a sun block lotion on your scalp. If you have hair, it can be difficult to get even coverage, and the lotion will coat your hair as well.