Why dark hair offers better sun protection


Why dark hair offers better sun protection

If you have a full head of naturally dark hair that cascades down around your face, neck and covers your ears, consider yourself fortunate to have some built-in protection for your scalp from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.
“Hair does protect the scalp substantially, especially if you have dark, thick hair,” says Dr. William Jackson Epperson, a family medicine physician who specializes in skin lesions and skin cancer at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Prince Creek. “People with very light blond hair have less protection. They tend to have fewer and thinner hair strands, and that allows more of the sun to get through. In general, thick, dark hair is going to be more protective.”
Women’s hair tends to offer greater defense because they typically have longer and thicker strands than men. Their mane offers better coverage in those areas prone to sun damage, such as the forehead, ears, temples, neck and scalp. Men with close-cropped hair or who are bald or balding are at a much higher risk for experiencing sun damage that results in skin cancers because they have less coverage.
“I remove skin cancers off bald men probably twice a week,” Dr. Epperson says.

Eye color matters

While darker-haired women have an advantage because of the added pigmentation in their skin, light-haired women, red-headed women and older women with thinning hair are vulnerable to sunburns on their scalps. Dr. Epperson says the color of his patient’s eyes is the first thing he notes to help determine a patient’s risk level for the development of skin cancers.
“People with brown eyes have pigment that people with blue eyes do not have,” Dr. Epperson explains. “People with brown eyes are able to respond to the UV light throughout their life and lay down pigment that absorbs the UV light. They are less prone to skin cancers than somebody with blue eyes or lighter skin.”

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Dr. Epperson says he sees more cancers in redheads and blondes than darker-haired patients.
“Some redheads and blondes just don’t tan, and they go into the sun and get burnt,” Dr. Epperson says. “The most at-risk patients I see tend to be redheaded women who tan.”
While head hair does provide considerable protection for women, men with facial hair also see some protective benefits. Men with thick dark beards as opposed to close-cut light beards have some measure of protection on the face and neck. But even so, facial hair offers minimal protection, Dr. Epperson says.
A full head of hair, while somewhat protective, does not provide complete defense against sunburn. The sun’s harmful rays can still penetrate via your hair’s natural part or in parts created as the hair moves and separates when wet from swimming. Pulling the hair into a ponytail can eliminate a part and provide better scalp protection, but exposes the neck and ears.

Protection still important

Relying solely on your tresses to protect your scalp and face would be imprudent. The best ways to guard against sun damage are to use sunscreen and a wide-brimmed, tightly woven hat, Dr. Epperson says. There are sunscreen products specifically designed to protect the face and scalp.
Even if you take every precaution to protect your scalp, however, skin cancers can appear on the head whether you have a full head of hair, thinning locks or are bald. When scanning your body for skin abnormalities, don’t neglect checking your “roof,” especially if you have had a history of skin lesions.

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Use a comb to pull the hair apart as you examine the scalp under a bright light, looking for lesions or abnormalities that can hide under the hair and go undetected, Dr. Epperson says. Make examining your scalp a regular part of your skin-check routine.
“Quite often, cancers on the scalp are noticed by a hairdresser,” says Dr. Epperson. “They tend to spot something and suggest their client have it checked out. When you’re checking your scalp, it takes time to pull through the hair but it’s necessary because a melanoma can hide in there and that doesn’t require sun damage. It can just happen.”


Dr. Epperson encourages people to follow these recommendations from the Skin Cancer Foundation to help protect yourself against skin cancer:

  • Seek shade, especially during the sun’s peak hours of 10 a.m-4 p.m.
  • Avoid tanning and UV tanning beds.
  • Use a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • Apply sunscreen over entire body 30 minutes before heading outdoors and reapply every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating.
  • Examine your skin from head to toe every month.
  • See a skin doctor at least once a year or more often if there is a prior history of skin cancers.
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