The Scalp Skin Cancer and Brain Connection, Plus 6 Quality Scalp Sunscreen Products
Serious skin cancer of the scalp accounts for 15 percent of all skin cancer cases—in part, experts say, because the top of the head usually gets more of the sun's rays than any other body part. The Healthy @Reader's Digest rounded up some of the best scalp sunscreens on the market to fit your needs to protect the top of your head.
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Maybe you’re good about applying sunscreen to the obvious places: your face, arms, shoulders, maybe even the tops of your ears and your feet. But if it seems less important to protect the spots where the sun doesn’t shine—as in, say, your scalp—dermatology experts say even if you’re not bald, now’s the time to include scalp sunscreen in your daily routine.
Can you get skin cancer on your scalp?
“Yes, melanomas and other skin cancers can be diagnosed on the scalp,” Dr. Jerry Miller, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist with the American Academy of Dermatologists Association (AAD), tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. In fact, he says, “Approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer daily, and scalp melanomas comprise about 15 percent of all melanomas and 35 percent of all head and neck melanomas.”
Another point Dr. Miller mentions: The scalp happens to be especially prone to burning simply because it tends to be the body part that’s closest to the sun.
A few other statistics Dr. Miller shares with us:
- On average, most patients are diagnosed with scalp cancer around the age of 62
- Scalp cancer is six times more prevalent in males
- It also carries a risk of metastasis (spread) that is two times greater than melanomas in other sites of the skin.
Dr. Miller adds that in general, scalp melanomas (arguably the most serious skin cancer cases of the scalp) are more biologically aggressive, and are usually diagnosed later, than trunk or extremity melanomas. That’s because naturally, in many cases, scalp melanomas are harder to see and often covered with hair. Dr. Miller went on to say that people with scalp skin cancer may also have a worse prognosis because it can be especially difficult to fully remove cancerous growths from the scalp during surgery.
This, of course, increases the risk of developing cancer. Also—this point is likely to get your attention—skin cancers of the scalp may be more likely to spread to the brain, given their location and rich blood supply.
How should you check yourself for scalp skin cancer?
Dr. Miller recommends regularly examining your entire scalp by using a wall or handheld mirror. (You can learn how to perform a proper skin cancer skin check from the AAD.) Miller adds that “barbers and beauticians are good at detecting new or changing lesions.”
However, he says, the best way to detect cancer is to get an annual skin check from a board-certified dermatologist. (You can find a qualified dermatologist near you on the AAD’s website.)
What are signs and symptoms of scalp skin cancer?
Miller says symptoms of scalp cancer are typically fairly limited. New or changing lesions, ulcerations, or changes in hair color can all potentially be signs of scalp skin cancer.
Other symptoms of scalp skin cancer include:
- Growths that look like crusty spots or warts
- Sores or growths that are painful, itchy, or bleed
- Moles that get bigger, change in color or texture, or have raised or irregular borders
- Enlarged lymph nodes
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How can you protect yourself from developing skin cancer on your scalp?
Dr. Miller says the best way to prevent scalp skin cancer is to decrease the amount of ultraviolet light (sunlight) your scalp is exposed to. “Protection strategies include wearing a wide-brimmed hat, avoiding being outside from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., seeking shade, and applying sunscreen 30 minutes prior to outdoor activity.” He adds that you should reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, or more frequently if you get wet or sweat a lot.
Dr. Miller says when choosing a sunscreen, you should pick products that offer broad spectrum SPF 30 or above. “Due to the longer hair on the scalp, sunscreen formulations that are best for the scalp are sprays, solutions, or lotions. Creams and gels are good for people with baldness,” he adds.
But if you’ve ever tried using regular sunscreen on your scalp, you know it kind of wasn’t designed for that. Sunscreen on the scalp often leaves your hair feeling sticky, and it’s hard to tell if it’s even penetrated your skin.
That’s why it’s so exciting that in 2022, some sunscreens have been formulated specifically for your scalp. For some of the scalp sunscreens on the market, the ingredients and delivery method from the container were designed specifically to be applied to bald skin, short hair, a part, or on any scalp.
With all this in mind, we’ve researched the best scalp sunscreens to make your selection easier.
Best Overall Scalp Sunscreen
COOLA Organic Scalp Spray & Hair Sunscreen Mist with SPF 30
COOLA Organic Scalp Spray & Hair Sunscreen Mist offers SPF 30 protection against UVB and UVA rays, while 70% of the ingredients in this sunscreen are certified organic.
Still, our favorite feature of this product might be that it’s lightweight and lacks the oily feel of most sunscreen designed for other parts of the body.
As added perks, COOLA Organic Scalp Spray & Hair Sunscreen contains nourishing, strengthening ingredients like monoi oil and gotu kola extract. Shoppers also say it delivers a salty sage scent, and—amazing for humidity!—doubles as an anti-frizz serum.
Best Powder Sunscreen
Nature’s Apothecary Sunscreen Powder SPF 30
Powder scalp sunscreens, like this one from Nature’s Apothecary, offer a very lightweight feel and won’t give you greasy-looking hair. And, as the name hints, this product is almost as good for the environment as it is for your skin: It’s said to be reef-safe and river-friendly, as well as made in the U.S.A. in biodegradable packaging that’s designed to reduce the energy consumed to ship it. (We love this.)
This powder sunscreen also packs a powerful punch of mineral SPF protection, containing 20% zinc oxide for strong UVA and UVB protection. (Doctors also suggest zinc oxide is one of the safest sunscreen ingredients for your body if it gets absorbed into your bloodstream.)
If you aren’t happy with this sunscreen for your scalp, Nature’s Apothecary pledges to offer a full refund or free replacement product.
Best Baby Scalp Sunscreen
Supergoop! Sunnyscreen SPF 50 Spray For Babies + Kiddos
Supergoop! Sunnyscreen may be developed for children, but it offers the features grownups should look for in a top scalp sunscreen, too. It is free from silicone, artificial fragrances, parabens, PEG, phthalate, sulfates, and non-mineral based UV filters. It also offers awesome broad-spectrum SPF protection containing 10% titanium dioxide and 12 percent zinc oxide.
For those of us with sensitive skin, this product is also hypoallergenic and pediatrician-tested. It even contains ingredients to keep your skin nourished and moisturized, like shea butter and sunflower seed oil.
Best Value Scalp Sunscreen
Banana Boat Sport Performance Cool Zone Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Sun Screen Spray – SPF 30
Banana Boat Sports Performance Cool Zone Sunscreen may not be specially formulated for your scalp, but we happen to like it for the scalp thanks to many of the features that scalp-specific sunscreens offer.
This Banana Boat sunscreen is super lightweight and provides a cooling sensation when applied, which can offer a burst of relief from the summer heat. It’s also designed not to run into your eyes and is recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Note: While this product is free from parabens and phthalates, it does contain non-mineral active ingredients, including oxybenzone, octocrylene, and avobenzone.
Best Scalp Sunscreen for Bald People
HeadBlade HeadLube SPF 50 Men’s Lotion and Sunscreen
For people who shave their heads or don’t have much (or any) hair, HeadBlade Headlube with moisturizing lotion and broad spectrum SPF 50 may just be a new best friend.
This product is specially formulated for your scalp skin and won’t clog your pores. It’s also formulated for almost any type of skin, be it oily, sensitive, dry, or combination, and offers deep hydration to keep your dome smooth. This scalp sunscreen is also reef-friendly and free from parabens, PABA, oils, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and retinyl palmitate.
Best Brush-on Scalp Sunscreen
Brush On Block Mineral Sunscreen Powder (Translucent)
Brush On Block mineral sunscreen powder could be the perfect scalp sunscreen for you if you’re looking for a totally matte finish, or if you have an oily scalp. Unlike many other powder sunscreens, this offering from Brush on Block is totally translucent. It features a twist-open, twist-closed seal, which means product won’t needlessly pour out of the container while it’s sitting in a purse or bag. This product is also mineral based, offering SPF 30 protection from titanium dioxide (8%) and zinc oxide (14%), while also free from potentially harmful ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxtate, parabens, and phthalates.
Our favorite part? This product also contains nourishing, antioxidant-rich ingredients like green tea leaf extract, safflower and jojoba seed oil, and chamomile flower extract. If you’re environmentally conscious, this product is also reef-friendly, made in the USA, and one of the only products we know of that has a refillable applicator.
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