5 Ways To Repair Sun-Damaged Hair

If ‘dry,’ ‘brittle,’ ‘stringy,’ or ‘lackluster’ are words you’d use to describe the current state of your mane, then there’s a good chance it has some sun-induced damage. Here’s how to fix it.
Expert Opinion
Written by Samantha Stone
08.12.2021
5 Ways To Repair Sun-Damaged HairMAX LIBERTINE/Unsplash

We hate to break it to you, but sun damage isn’t limited to the skin. Ultraviolet (UV) rays can pose the same cancerous threat to your scalp, while the sun can wreak havoc on your hair, too. “UV rays are incredibly damaging to hair, much like they are for skin,” says Valerie George, a cosmetic chemist and co-host of The Beauty Brains. If ‘dry,’ ‘brittle,’ ‘stringy,’ or ‘lackluster’ are words you’d use to describe the current state of your mane, then there’s a good chance it has some sun-induced damage.

UV rays can harm the scalp and hair shaft any time of year, but, with more time spent outdoors during the warm weather months, it’s most often experienced in a noticeable way in the summer. Couple the increased sun exposure with other summertime staples like salt water beach days and chlorine-filled pool outings, and your locks can quickly end up limp and lacking.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to treat and even prevent this damage, and we’ve spoken to an array of experts — from cosmetic chemists to celebrity hairstylists — to break down everything you need to know about caring for sun-damaged hair in the summer and beyond.

How to Tell If You Have Sun-Damaged Hair

In order to determine if you have sun-damaged strands, you first have to know what to look for. “Prolonged sun exposure causes dryness, reduced strength, rough surface, loss of color, decreased luster, and brittleness in hair,” says Krupa Koestline, a clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants. As she explains, these effects are a result of lipid degradation in the outermost cuticular layer of the hair shaft, and there is also a loss of protein and amino acids that contribute to hair changes.

Similar to sun damage to the skin, UV rays can uniquely impact certain types of hair. “Studies show that different ethnicities have different kinds of damage based on their hair color and texture,” Koestline shares. “For example, dark and black hair have more photosensitive amino acids, like cystine, than light colored hair.”

As we touched on, sun damage is often compounded by other elements. “There are different kinds of summer damage,” says Vickie Vidov, a celebrity hairstylist and founder of Vidov West Salon in New York City. Chlorine buildup, for example, will clump together, which Vidov says will cause the hair to feel straw-like and hard to comb through. And then there is the telltale shade change. “Blondes can look like cotton candy when wet or take on a greenish tone,” she explains.

The cumulative effects of sun, chlorine, salt, and the like can have varying ramifications depending on your dye job — or lack thereof. Vidov says that, for color-treated hair, the texture takes on “almost a gummy-like feel.” Virgin (read: non-dyed) tresses “will feel heavy, almost like it needs to be washed even after you’ve washed it,” she adds. “This is also buildup from the elements and overactive oil production.”

How to Repair Sun-Damaged Hair

So, you’ve overdone it in the sun department and your strands have paid the price. What comes next? It’s time to visit the pros and invest in a product or two. “I always say, ‘if you’re paying Bentley prices for your hair, you wouldn’t take it to get an oil change at a quick shop, so don’t do the same with cheap hair products,’” quips celebrity hairstylist Tyler Bishop. “All chemically treated hair needs both moisture and protein, so I like to tackle one issue in shower and the other out of the shower, always giving you your best hair forward.” Below are five expert-approved ways to repair sun-damaged hair.

1. Get a Gloss

Both Bishop and George agree that a hair gloss is an easy way to return shine to a dull ’do. “One of the things we hate most about our hair after summer is that sun-damaged hair looks drab and lifeless,” George says. “Adding a quick dash of color with shine is an easy way to restore life to your hair.” While there are at-home hair gloss options, investing in a pro treatment can yield a more customized result that touches on an array of hair concerns. “If the hair has absorbed environmental factors around them — like metals and minerals in their water, chlorine, etc. — we would do a metal detox and demineralizer and then finish with a gloss to reinstate the tone they left my chair with,” Bishop shares.

2. Mask It Up

As Koestline explains, sun damage leads to lipid degradation and a loss of protein and amino acids that contribute to hair changes. It should come as no surprise then that she recommends employing treatments rich in proteins and lipids (read: oils). “Shea butter helps repair the lipids in the cuticular layer of the hair shaft, much like oils,” she says, adding that she’s a fan of the Maria Nila True Soft Hair Mask, Amika Soulfood Nourishing Mask, and Olaplex N.0 Intensive Bond Building Hair Treatment. George, meanwhile, suggests looking for formulas with hydrolyzed pea peptide and marula oil.

In Bishop’s mind, both professional conditioning treatments and at-home masks are non-negotiable. “I always do a treatment on each of my guests during every appointment. I call this hair insurance,” he says. “Treatments, in my opinion, are what we do behind the chair and then I send the client home with a regimented mask to maintain the results in between appointments.”

3. Pay Attention to Products

Just as you choose skincare products based on your skin type and concerns, you should choose hair care products based on your hair type and concerns. This is especially true when trying to undo damage. Bishop breaks it down into those with oily manes and those with dry locks, and he offers tips for what to do for your strands in and out of the shower:

For Oily Hair

  • In the Shower: “For my clients who get oily or greasy in the summer from sweating, I would maintain your regular shampoo and conditioning schedule of two to three times a week (or whatever number that is for you) and incorporate something more gently cleansing,” he explains. His pick? The UNITE Weekender Shampoo. “It’s a clarifying shampoo that deep cleans without removing natural oils — perfect for using once a week to erase environmental elements and daily product usage,” he notes.
  • Out of the Shower: A lightweight combo of detanglers and dry shampoo is a must. “I recommend using 7Seconds Detangler to give you heat protection without over-moisturizing,” Bishop says. From there, layer dry shampoos. “My favorite combo is U:DRY Clear Dry Shampoo and U:DRY High Dry Shampoo,” he says. “These will soak up any oils in between washes and give your hair extra volume and life.”

For Dry Hair

  • In the Shower: “For my clients who feel like they can’t get enough moisture because their hair just gets so tangled, dry, and unmanageable in the summer months, creating moisture barriers is going to be your best friend,” Bishop shares. That means swapping out your usual shampoo and conditioner with something more moisturizing and repairing, like the UNITE U-Luxury Shampoo and Conditioner. “I also recommend incorporating 7Seconds Masque once or twice a month,” he adds. “Your hair will never feel better.”
  • Out of the Shower: For heat protection, Bishop recommends starting off with the UNITE 7Seconds Detangler. Add the U Oil and 7Seconds Glossing Spray until you achieve “the shine and bounce you desire,” he says. Looking for a bit of hold in the summer heat and humidity? “I like to add the smallest amount of Conundrum Paste to my fingertips, rub together until the product is translucent, and then touch up any fly always around the face, part line, or mids to ends,” he shares.

Oh, and if you are a blonde dealing with the effects of chlorine buildup, Vidov recommends reaching for a demineralizing shampoo. A few of our favorites include Living Proof Perfect Hair Day Triple Detox Shampoo, Kristin Ess Scalp Purifying Micellar Shampoo, and Pattern Beauty Clarifying Shampoo.

4. Try a DIY Treatment

When it comes to hair repair, a solution may be closer than you think. Koestline has some tips for creating DIY hair masks. “I swear by warm coconut oil treatment for my dark hair,” she shares. “I have also used egg on occasion, but it can be quite messy so a good alternative is mayonnaise.” These protein- and oil-rich ingredients can help restore the lipid layer of your hair.

5. Scalp Care = Hair Care

Hair repair treatments and products are for naught, if you are not simultaneously thwarting additional damage. For starters, you must protect the scalp. “The scalp is the organ that supports the hair fiber through the hair follicles that are located on the scalp,” explains Bridgette Hill, a certified trichologist and creator of Root Cause Scalp Analysis. “Scalp health is the tissue and cell component of hair health.”

Since the skin on the scalp is susceptible to sunburn like any other skin on the body, keeping it protected is one way to ensure your strands continue to grow healthy and strong. “All scalps and hair benefit from protection from prolonged sun exposure,” Hill says. As she explains, sun protection “can be as simple as wearing a hat or scarf” and “extending your facial sunscreen further above the face into the hairline, scalp, and hair fiber.”

But, if the idea of applying traditional SPF to the top of your head sounds unpleasant, there are some very effective scalp-specific formulas that defy everything you think you know about sunscreen. “I love the ease of application of the Supergoop Poof 100% Mineral Part Powder SPF 35,” Hill shares. She likens it to a dry shampoo, which allows “for ease of use for optimal coverage” and “aesthetically adds texture to a beach bun or braid.”

How to Avoid Sun Damage

It is far easier to prevent hair damage than correct it. Like Hill, George recommends shielding your scalp and strands from the sun. “Sunscreen designed for skin doesn’t do much for the hair [shaft],” she says. “It’s best to cover your hair with a cute scarf or hat before heading out into the sun.” Leave-in conditioners and stylers that offer UV protection are another option. “There are many products that act as a leave-in sunscreen for your hair and offer water-resistant protection against damage caused by UV rays, salt, and chlorine,” Vidov shares. For blondes, she likes the Oribe Bright Blonde Sun Lightening Hair Mist, while the Rene Furterer Okara Color Enhancing Spray works for other hues.

In addition to proactively preventing sun damage, it’s also important to ward off the effects of salt water, chlorine, and the like. “I tell all my clients to avoid getting into any water (pool, lake, or ocean) with dry hair,” Bishop explains. This is especially important for blondes. “The hair tends to be more porous when it’s dry, so it is going to absorb everything in its environment,” he says. Running your hair under cold water in the sink or shower before taking a dip is an old swim team trick, but Bishop offers this DIY tip: Get a spray bottle filled with three quarters water and add a quarter size drop of the UNITE 7Seconds Masque. “Shake and spray into dry hair, braid back, and go have fun,” he says. “This acts as a barrier and conditions all in potentially drying or damaging situations.”

Last, but certainly not least, let's talk about the scalp. While protecting the skin of the scalp with sunscreen is important, it’s not the only factor. As Hill explains, scalp health is the tissue and cell component of hair health. “The quality of the hair follicle is dependent upon the quality of the tissue, cells, and blood that fuel the follicle which makes our hair fiber,” she shares. As such, poor nutrition and unhealthy lifestyle habits will reveal themselves through the hair. “That means that deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, declining health, intake of toxic medications, or high cortisol levels due to our stressful lives, may negatively affect the hair follicle and compromise hair growth,” Hill says.

Eating a well-balanced diet, taking vitamins and supplements (as needed), and limiting stress as much as possible are all important components keeping the hair strong enough to fend off sun- and summer-related damage. At the end of the day, “your scalp is the root connection between internal health and external beauty,” Hill notes.

Can Hair Damage Be Beyond Repair?

Unfortunately, yes, your hair damage can be beyond repair. “​​It's important to remember that hair is a dead tissue, so there is not much that can be done to fix broken or split ends,” Koestline says. “Therefore, it’s important to get regular haircuts to prevent further damage from your ends.”

To determine just how damaged your ’do is, Vidov says to pay attention to how your locks look after a blowout. “If the hair is beyond repair, you will know when you blowdry and the ends are all split in different lengths,” she explains. Another sign? Textural changes. “When the hair is wet, you have a gummy, almost slimy feel,” she notes. And then there is the stretch test. “If you stretch the hair and it has no stretch but simply breaks, you will need to cut it,” Vidov says. “Otherwise, it spreads up the hair shaft and ultimately breaks off.”

We appreciate that you may be holding onto your hair for a special occasion or simply don’t have the time to get it cut. To temporarily revive tired tresses, George recommends treating your locks to a weekly hair mask and using products that purport to seal split ends. “The temporary repair will help your hair feel like it’s old self and look healthier,” she says. But that doesn’t replace the need for a seasonal salon visit. George’s recommendation: “At the end of the summer, I recommend getting your hair trimmed to remove damaged ends and to refresh your color at your salon with a color gloss.”

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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SAMANTHA STONEis a freelance writer for AEDIT.

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