The sun is shining brightly and the temperature is rising. During summertime, we get more involved in outdoor activities. We travel to the beaches or frequently go swimming in pools. Skin exposure to solar radiation causes photo-damage to the dermis cells, and this topic is well documented in scientific literature. The general public today is aware of this problem, precautionary measures, and how to prevent solar-induced skin problems.
Solar radiation can also cause photo-damage to hair fibers. This topic is relatively new, and therefore “Solar Hair Protector” products are pretty much non-existent. Hair photo-damage and the influence of summer weather on hair has attracted much-needed attention in recent times. Here, we will examine how to care for hair during summer and how we protect our hair from photo-damage and other chemical agents during the hot summer weather.
First, let’s go through some basic science stuff.
Excessive sun exposure is the most frequent cause of structural impairment of the hair shaft. Sun produces electromagnetic radiation that comprise different bands of waves having different wavelengths and energies. The two major bands of these radiations that reach the earth’s surface are ultraviolet and visible radiations. Their wavelength ranges from 100 – 400 (UV) and 400 – 800 nm (Visible). The energy of a wave is directly proportional to its frequency but inversely proportional to its wavelength. In other words, the greater the energy, the larger the frequency and the shorter (smaller) the wavelength. UV radiations possess high energy and can cause sunburns or even cancer in various human tissues. Therefore ultraviolet radiations (UV) are more damaging. UV radiations are further classified into three sub-groups, UVA (315 – 400nm), UVB (280 – 315nm), and UVC (100 – 280nm), which are characterized with different magnitude of penetration power and damage to humans.
Mother Nature has its protection system in place comprising the ozone layer, which absorbs high energy radiations and thus does not let them reach earth. However, with increasing climate changes happening, a large portion of UV radiations reach the earth’s surface. Just as the sun has the potential to damage your skin, it can do the same to your hair as well.
I spoke with my dermatologist about the ultraviolet rays of the sun and here’s what he had to say, “Fried hair isn’t just a figure of speech. The ultraviolet rays of the sun actually “cook the hair shaft.” The damage is most obvious when we see color-treated hair becoming faded, bleached, and brassy. Even hair that isn’t colored will suffer from sun-induced stress. Those UV rays dry out hair and rough up the normally smooth cuticle, or outer layer, of the hair shaft”.
Mechanism of Hair Photo-Damage
Human hair is made up of keratin protein. Keratin contains various amino acids which tie up together to form polypeptide chains. The sulfur-containing cysteine is considered the principal amino acid among all and contributes to the mechanical properties of hair. On the interaction of solar radiations (UVA, UVB, UVC, or Visible) with hair, various chemical groups of amino acids present in keratin may absorb these radiations and undergo chemical changes. Scientists have observed a decrease in tryptophan amino acid in hair fibers that are exposed to solar radiation for a prolonged time. Tryptophan degrades, and hence its concentration decreases. Similarly, another amino acid that absorbs ultraviolet radiation is “phenyl aniline.” Solar radiations can also oxidize cysteine amino acid to cystic acid inducing significant hair damage. An increase in cystic acid makes hair more hydrophilic, porous, and frizzy.
Hair photo-damage follows a free radical reaction mechanism. Solar radiations induce the formation of highly reactive free radicals by breaking the chemical bonds of amino acids. These free radicals are short-lived high energy species that can react with other free radicals or chemical groups. They demonstrate indiscriminate behavior for their reactivity, meaning they can react with literally anything they encounter. The reaction propagates in a cyclic chain mechanism where the cycle continues until the system runs out of reactive species.
Swimming Pool or Beach: Hair Response
We visit beaches and go swimming in pools more frequently in summer. Both swimming pools and beach water contain significant levels of metals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, etc. Swimming pools are disinfected with chlorine and, its residues can stay in the water for some time.
Chlorine under sunlight can generate chloro-based free radicals that can trigger free radical reactions in the hair (a similar story as described above). These free radicals react with hair amino acids and oxidize them, which is why frequent swimmers in swimming pools have dry hair with frizz and no shine. Also, free radicals react with the hydrophobic sebum layer of the hair surface and remove it. This decreases hair slip, shine, and increases fiber to fiber friction making wet & dry combing difficult.
Swimmers will also notice the slightly greenish shade of their hair after a repeated visit to the swimming pool or beach. This is due to copper deposits as a result of the oxidation of amino acids and copper ions. This alters hair color and may require specific color correction product to neutralize this green color shade.
The keratin material in hair can absorb moisture (approx. 31% of its original mass) from the surrounding environment. The moisture uptake depends upon the physical and chemical status of hair and the surrounding humidity. Water uptake follows a dynamic balance system where adsorption or desorption varies according to the humidity conditions. Under high humidity conditions, hair absorbs more water and becomes rough and frizzy. This is more prominent in wet summer conditions or around the areas which are close to seawater.
In dry summer conditions, hair loses water because the surrounding air is drier and, as a result, hair becomes rigid and dry. It loses its natural volume, body, and sheen. For both dry and wet summer conditions, hair requires proper care and specific treatments to ease daily manageability and styling.
Did You Know?
According to a study led by the National Institute of Health, seasonal changes bring about changes in human hair growth. During the summer our hair has the potential to thrive. The weather creates an ideal environment for our scalp because it helps keep our sebum in a more liquified state so it can slide down our hair strands more easily.
UVA/UVB affect our scalp and hair follicles differently. Our scalp is made up of five layers of scale-like epithelial cells. When our scalp is exposed to UVB radiation from the sun it can burn a layer or layers of the epidermis, which can cause the scalp to harden which not only temporarily blocks sebum and sweat production, but interrupts your hair from growing. In order to heal itself, the shedding and regeneration process goes into over drive. This throws off your pH leaving your scalp and hair follicles more susceptible to infections.
UVA rays penetrate deeper into the dermis layer where your hair follicle system is located. Over time, UVA waves fry the cells in that layer. So regular exposure to the sun causes your hair follicles to shrink and as your hair follicles shrink, your hair grows out thinner, weaker, and slower.
With that being said, protecting the hair’s cuticle is very important for keeping the hair shaft’s integrity. Excessive sun exposure is the most frequent cause of the hair shaft’s structural impairment, it includes degradation and loss of proteins as well as degradation of the hair pigment, especially in lighter colored hair. UVB rays are responsible for protein loss and UVA rays are responsible for color changes. Just as darker clothing is better for protecting your skin from the sun, Melanin (Dark skin and/or dark thicker hair types) does better at shielding the scalp from UVA/UVB rays. They can partially immobilize free radicals and block their entrance in keratin matrix. (US National Library of Medicine).
How to Protect Your Scalp and Hair
Pre-treatments (Hydrophobic coating). Prevention is better than having to find a cure. We need to have strategies in place to prevent solar radiation from getting in contact with hairs. Prior to swimming, you can prepare your hair by soaking it thoroughly in water and add a leave in conditioner/deep conditioner. Our hair is naturally permeable to water but can only take in so much. If you thoroughly saturate your hair with water or with conditioner prior to swimming, your hair will be less able to absorb the chlorinated water or salt water.
Wear a head covering to minimize radiation exposure. Keeping your hair completely covered is the best way to avoid exposure altogether, especially if your hair is chemically treated. If you plan to be out in the sun for more than an hour wear a hat or scarf. Try to find UVA/UVB filtered hats or head scarf with a ultraviolet protection factor of 50 or higher. You can also use an umbrella as a shield. According to a U.S. study published in JAMA Dermatology, any fully-functioning handheld umbrella can block more than three-quarters of ultraviolet (UV) light on a sunny day. Black ones do even better, blocking at least 90 percent of rays.
Chlorine is extremely drying. Chlorine poses a great threat to our hair and scalp due to its oxidative qualities. Think of oxidation as disintegrating or eating away at an organic matter like bacteria cells in the pool, skin cells, and protein cells that your hair is made of. This alkaline chemical can eat away oils and sebum on your hair strands then continues to eat away at the protein fibers. Our hair strand is a dead fiber so it doesn’t have the ability to repair itself like our skin does. Regular exposure to chlorine water can result in: discolored hair, dry, brittle, straw-like hair that’s prone to breakage, lack of shine, dry, itchy scalp.
Most of the damage chlorine does to the hair and skin happens while in the pool. Once you get out, the remaining residue will continue to be absorbed. The solution is two-fold; one that prevents or at least slows down the oxidation process while you swim, and one that stops the chemical from continuing to absorb after you get out of the pool.
Before going outdoors or swimming in the pool/beach, apply a pre-treatment (as mentioned above).. The idea is to make a hydrophobic water repellent layer on the hair surface to minimize water absorption or deposition of metals.
Use oils like coconut oil, raspberry oil (showed absorbance in the UVB/UVC range for use as a broad spectrum UV protectant) sunflower, safflower, grapeseed oil, etc. or leave in butters (like Shea butter). My personal oil combination is Righteous Roots Oil.
Note: Coconut oil is effective for protecting hair from the sun. Coconut oil is the only oil found to reduce protein loss for both undamaged/damaged hair.
If you’ve had excessive sun exposure, make sure to restore your hair by focusing on hydration and restoring protein with protein treatments.
Clarify: Remove the deposits. Even with a preventive coating, prolonged exposure of UV radiation or chlorine water will eventually cause deterioration in hair proteins. Especially after swimming at the pool or beach, we should immediately rinse off hair to remove any residues. A clarifying or anti-residue shampoo should also be used to make sure no residues are left on the hair. Cleansing products having a slightly acidic pH (4.00 – 5.00), which can accelerate the detachment of residues.
UV-Blockers & Anti-oxidants . Obviously, we don’t want to forget about our skin, as solar radiation can be blocked by using physical or chemical UV-blockers. There are many sun protection products for the skin readily available, similar products are available for hair care as well. These products contain a high concentrated anti-oxidant (Vitamins E/C) to neutralize free radicals.
Large aromatic chemical compounds are also incorporated in such products that can capture UV radiations and prevent their penetration in hair.
Some examples are:
Oxybenzone – commonly found in sun protectors
Inorganic materials such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide also work as UV-blockers. Look for these ingredients while purchasing sun protection products for your hair.
Chelation treatment. Chelation is a chemical term highlighting the process to “capture metal ions.” Cleansing products containing chelants, e.g., Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) or Ethylenediamine-N, N′-disuccinic acid (EDDS) are effective in chelating metals of calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper and remove them from hair during subsequent rinse off stages. People that frequently visit the pool or beach (seawater) should use this type of formulation to make sure metals do not stay on the hair, which can cause buildup.
Acidic Spritz. Use products with a pH that’s more on the acidic side to help the hair’s cuticles lay flat. The pH is the most important chemical feature of the skin and body. Maintaining the correct pH value of the hair and scalp is essential for the overall health of hair. Hair products can control the pH of hair. Rewetting or dampening your hair with an acidic spritz will help to keep the pH from swinging.
The pH stability spritz helps in re-balancing your hairs natural pH level which insures that your cuticles lay flat and smoothed down, this slows down the natural progression to breakage.
What it does:
Balances the pH level of your scalp and hair
Quickly hydrates and moisturizes hair and scalp
Best Time to Use:
After hair has been exposed to cold or hot weather
After washing your hair
When hair is dry and feels brittle
Vitamin C naturally neutralizes chlorine and is a much safer natural alternative than the traditional chlorine removal shampoos. Both ascorbic acid and sodium ascorbate (two common forms of vitamin C) will neutralize chlorine (neither form of vitamin C is considered a hazardous substance) according to the USDA.
Drench hair in a neutralizing liquid, preferably vitamin C ascorbic powder and water mixture (can be used all over your body). Just make sure the vitamin C powder is completely dissolved before using it. (Let the vitamin C sit for 10-15 mins.). Follow up with a conditioner/deep conditioner (leave in at least 30 mins.), or rinse with apple cider vinegar as a clarifying rinse (test it to make sure its pH is around 4, because if it’s too acidic, it can harm your hair). Apply a deep conditioner to your hair after washing.
You can also purchase the Swim Spray, which was introduced to me by @curliegirlie143. SwimSpray is 100% natural, fragrance-free, sulfate-free, silicone free and free from artificial colors. It has been independently verified to be 400x more effective than traditional anti-chlorine shampoos, soaps, and body washes. And it is gentle on hair and skin and is safe for all ages – including children.
Last but not least, don’t forget to hydrate your body from the inside and out by drinking a considerable amount of water.
Summer is the time of year for more outdoor activities, however, it exposes our hair to unwanted solar radiation and certain chemical agents which may induce undesired changes in our hair. UV-radiation can oxidize amino acids of hair and cause permanent damage to hair. Similarly, frequent visits to the beach or pool can also alter hair properties. Hair requires special care to minimize the effect of harsh summer weather conditions. Make sure to use more of a leave-in protector that also contains UV blocking agents.