Sun Damaged Hair 101: How to Protect Your Hair in the Sun

Most of us are pretty good at using sunscreen everyday to protect our skin. But the truth is, not many people are aware that their hair *also* needs daily protection from harmful UV rays.

It’s not like you’ll notice a “sunburn” on your hair – your strands don’t feel pain. But just because there aren’t obvious telltale signs (like a giant, red sunburn) doesn’t mean your hair isn’t suffering from sun damage, which btw can heavily impact the texture, strength, elasticity, AND colour of your hair. Big yikes.

woman with light blonde hair looking downThe fact is, sun damage to your hair can sneak up on you. Color fade and weakened texture from UV rays can happen even if you’re just sitting by a sunny window, just like curtains or upholstery fabrics fade in a sunny room because they haven’t been treated with “sun-guard” protectants.

At Color Wow, we’re ALWAYS on a mission to help you stop colour fade. 

And in summer, especially this summer, when we’re all spending more days catchin’ more rays, that means making “hair sunscreen” (or UV protecting hair products) as much of a summer staple as regular sunscreen. So let’s get to it!

How does the sun damage your hair?

dr joe cincottaAccording to Color Wow Chemist Dr. Joe Cincotta, Ph.D., “Prolonged exposure to UV rays can degrade and damage your hair’s natural protective lipid layer, the internal protein structure of your hair, AND the pigment of your hair.”

Okay, let’s break down that science-y talk. How important are these three affected areas?

1. Hair lipids

Healthy hair strands have a natural, outer layer of lipids (fatty emollients) that serve as a natural moisture barrier and protection from environmental factors.

When UVA and UVB rays cause damage to your hair’s lipid layer and break down this barrier, your hair loses critical moisture.

The result is dehydration, frizz, dullness, loss of natural “swing and sway.” This lipid layer is what keeps hair “lubricated” so it has slip and movement.

When it breaks down, your hair becomes still, static and motionless….pretty much like a dull, parched, bundle of straw!

2. Hair proteins 

UV damage doesn’t just affect the surface of your hair. It can also weaken the internal protein structure of your hair.

Kind of like the “spine” of your hair, it’s made up of keratin and is literally what holds your hair together… not to mention that it’s the key to healthy elasticity and strength.

Long-term UVB damage to these proteins leaves your hair weak and prone to breakage and split ends. Here’s the really bad news: This kind of damage can be irreversible. (The only cure? Snip, snip.)

3. Hair colour 

UV rays can definitely damage your hair colour, whether it's natural or chemically-treated. If you have “virgin” untreated hair, the more melanin (aka, the darker your hair is) the more natural sun protection it has.

The melanin particles in darker hair are 1) darker pigment, 2) bigger, and 3) more plentiful. The melanin particles in blonde hair are 1) lighter pigment, 2) smaller, more fragile, and 3) sparser.

So in sunlight, melanin in blonde hair actually breaks down and dissipates faster. That’s why blondes and lighter brunettes get those sunny “natural highlights” in the summer. They look gorgeous, but those highlights can be more fragile and need some extra TLC.

Now, if your hair’s colour-treated, sun can make it turn brassy or make the colour go funky. That’s because UV rays break down the colour and toner molecules that keep your colour pure and vivid.

On top of that, colour-treated hair is more susceptible to protein and lipid layer damage since the hair is already compromised from dehydrating colour treatments.

Protecting hair in the sun: our top product picks

In case you were wondering, no, you can’t just plop regular sunscreen on your hair and call it a day! No matter what anyone tells you, SPF doesn’t actually protect your hair like it protects your skin.

“Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a number that determines how long a person can be exposed to intense UVB rays without being burned. SPF is only valid for skin products,” according to Dr. Joe. “There is no valid SPF from UV rays for hair.”

Instead, Dr. Joe suggests you look for UV protecting hair products that contain ingredients that absorb harmful UV rays, such as Ethylhexyl Salicylate or Octyl Salicylate.

Here are his top 3 go-to recommendations:

Pop + Lock

color wow pop and lockThis unique oil-serum hybrid formula works on the outside and the inside of your hair to counteract UV damage.

On the outside, the serum forms a crystal clear, UV-protectant shield around each strand that seals the cuticle, and helps keep pigments and moisture from escaping. Inside, the oil goes deep into strands to restore elasticity and suppleness to the hair.

The result? Hydrated, strong, supple, glossy hair that is, most importantly, shielded from UV damage.

Cult Favorite

color wow cult favoriteMade without any typical ingredients that yellow and darken your colour, this unique, lightweight hairspray contains UV protection that keeps colour tone true, plus gives a glossy finish to every look.

Its firm but flexible formula won’t harden or leave hair stiff, so you can layer it on, brush it through and switch up your style without fear of over-applying.

One-Minute Transformation

color wow one minute transformationProtect your hair in the sun AND fight frizz with this ultra-nourishing styling cream. Its lightweight, non-greasy formula not only saves your hair from UV damage but will also rehydrate sun-damaged hair.

Only a pea-sized amount is needed to soothe and tame frizzy, unruly hair. Rich in Avocado Oil and Omega 3’s, it instantly absorbs into each strand for smooth, sleek, shiny, frizz-free results in one minute. 

Find out how to use One Minute Transformation here.

Quick-fire sun damaged hair FAQs

Does the sun make your hair lighter?

Yes, the sun can make your hair lighter. UV rays break down the melanin in your hair, causing it to fade and appear lighter over time.

Is the sun good for your hair?

While a bit of sun can give you that natural highlight effect, prolonged exposure can damage your hair, making it dry, brittle, and prone to split ends. Protect your hair with a hat or UV-protective products.

Can the sun change your hair colour?

Yes, the sun can change your hair colour. The UV rays bleach the pigment in your hair, leading to lighter and sometimes uneven tones, especially if your hair is already colour-treated.

Why does my hair look red in the sun?

Your hair might look red in the sun due to the way sunlight reflects off your natural pigments. Even if you don't have red hair, certain pigments can become more visible under intense light.

Can you go in the sun after dyeing your hair?

It's best to limit sun exposure after dyeing your hair. UV rays can cause your new colour to fade faster and may also lead to dryness and damage. Use a hat or products with UV protection to preserve your colour.


Looking for more summer hair inspiration? Our guide to summer-proofing colour-treated hair offers tips and tricks around keeping your colour looking vibrant for longer.

And if you’re in need of some styling inspo, check out our easy braided hairstyles guide - perfect for hotter days!

Dr. Cincotta holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the City University of New York, and is currently VP of Research + Development at Color Wow.

View all articles

Shop This Blog Post