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Is your summertime fun in the sun taking a toll on your hair? From color fading to turning once-healthy hair into a dull, dry mess, too much sun leads to lots of bad hair days. Add in exposure to chlorine and saltwater and your hair needs some rehab, stat! We’ve got the solutions to bring your hair back from the brink!
Few things can be as enjoyable as a warm, sunny summer day spent outdoors. But as nice as a sunny day makes us feel, too much sun exposure can be nearly as bad for hair as it is for skin!
When sunlight hits hair, it immediately begins breaking down hair’s protective layer, the cuticle. Think of this layer like shingles on a roof; what happens when the shingles degrade? Your roof lets unwanted substances (like water) in, and damage occurs.
As the sun breaks down hair’s cuticle layer, it exposes the more delicate inner portion of the hair, which is even more vulnerable to damage, including protein breakdown (hair is mostly composed of dead proteins) and color loss, whether hair is dyed or not.
With repeated, ongoing exposure to UVA and UVB radiation from the sun, your hair gradually becomes weaker, breaks easily, and its texture changes from silky-smooth to dry and rough.
It’s even worse if you dye or highlight your hair! Hair color fades due to oxidation brought on by sun exposure, so gray hair can become “bleached”, silver-white hair can take on a brassy or yellowish tinge, reds lose their vibrancy, brunette hair goes drab, and hair becomes dry, frizzy, and generally a lot less manageable from the cascade of damage. A hat is looking pretty good right about now!
Chlorine is an effective disinfectant necessary to keep swimming pool water clean, but it does a number on skin, eyes, and especially hair that’s not protected by a silicone-based product (see recommended options below) or a swim cap.
A swim cap isn’t the most attractive option nor is it a bulletproof shield against chlorinated water, but can significantly protect hair from the ravages of chlorine.
One other thing you can do before putting on a swim cap and silicone serum is to wet your hair with fresh tap water. Hair can only take on so much water at once, so it’s best to have most of that water be from the tap, not the pool!
What about blonde hair turning green from chlorine? Actually, that’s a myth. According to chemistry expert Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D, “It isn't the chlorine that turns blonde hair green. Oxidized metals in the water bind to the protein in the hair shaft and deposit their color. The metal that produces the green tint is copper. The bleach that is added to a pool may be responsible for oxidizing the metal, but it's not the cause of the color.”
So what can you do if your hair turns green after a swim? Simple: Use a shampoo that chelates (binds with) the metallic elements, allowing them to be rinsed away, taking the green tinge with it! A great example of an inexpensive chelating shampoo is Suave Daily Clarifying Shampoo, sold in most drugstores.
Most would agree that saltwater exposure doesn’t take the same toll on hair as chlorine does, but that doesn’t mean saltwater is off the hook! True to its name, saltwater contains salt along with other minerals (like chloride and magnesium) that can rough up the cuticle layer and cause the hair shaft to swell and feel dry.
It’s the swelling and resulting roughening of hair’s texture that makes all of those “beach” or “surf” sprays work when used to create textured, tousled-looking waves or to add a feeling of thickness to fine hair. On the ingredient list for almost all of these products you’ll see a high amount of either sodium chloride or magnesium chloride to approximate what hair is exposed to when its wet (or damp) from saltwater.
You can reduce the damage from saltwater exposure much the same way you reduce hair damage from chlorine in pools: Protect your hair with a bathing cap, drench it in silicone serum (or a good leave-in conditioner) and, as soon as you exit the ocean, make a beeline to a shower so you can thoroughly rinse your hair with tap water.
Tip: Do NOT let saltwater-drenched hair dry naturally in sunlight. Doing so gives already compromised hair a double dose of damage that can lead to hair breakage and tangles.
Some hair-care products advertise that they contain UV filters to protect hair from sun damage. Unlike sunscreens for skin, hair-care products are not permitted by the United States FDA to list SPF ratings, as there’s no reliable way to measure how much sun protection such products would provide. They likely provide some protection, but likely not enough to rely on them; after all, how long would they really hold up with all hair goes through, and that’s assuming the sunscreen ingredients can deposit and uniformly hold to the length of each hair!
There are studies in which a swatch of dyed hair is covered with sunscreen ingredients, then placed under UVA/UVB light, and after a period of time measured for deterioration and color fading. The sunscreen ingredients absolutely prevented damage. But that kind of study doesn't reflect how the product is actually used by consumers. Who is going to slather sunscreen on their hair then just leave it, doing nothing else to their hair afterward?
What you can do to help reduce the damage is get into the habit of wearing stylish, vented hats on long days outdoors when you know you’ll be in direct sunlight. Not a hair person? We suggest misting your hair with any of the alcohol-based spray-on sunscreens rated SPF 30 or greater. Although it’s true the alcohol isn’t the best for hair, it evaporates quickly and keeps the active sunscreen ingredients from weighing hair down. Do this as the last step once your hair is styled, just like applying hairspray, and reapply throughout the day when you know you’ll be in the sun for long periods.
Surprisingly, research has shown that using leave-on products that contain various silicones (such as dimethicone or trimethylsiloxysilicate) can help reduce fading of dyes hair due to sun exposure. So, by all means slick a silicone serum or spray through hair before hitting the beach. A few we like:
As for shampoos, even if your hair isn’t normally dry, switch to conditioning formulas instead of those that are more designed to remove buildup. Exception: If you routinely expose your hair to chlorine (and, as mentioned above, you can prevent this by donning a swim cap before getting in the pool) be sure to wash with a shampoo that can remove the chlorine buildup. We like Triswim Shampoo, as it’s a gentle, non-stripping formula that also helps remove chlorine odor.
Conditioning shampoos to try include Garnier Fructis Hydra Recharge Fortifying Shampoo for Dry Hair, Redken All Soft Shampoo, and Desert Essence Coconut Shampoo Nourishing for Dry Hair.
Turning to conditioners, weather-beaten hair needs pampering formulas appropriate for your hair type. Here are some great options, all of which detangle and work for color-treated hair, too:
For fine hair:
For thick, coarse hair:
Leave-in conditioners for days in the sun:
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Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:
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