What hurts our hair the most? You may not guess, but of all environmental factors including light, heat, pollution and humidity, it’s solar radiation (and particularly ultraviolet radiation) that provides the greatest damage to our hair.

Know that feeling of coming back from holidays with lighter highlights and dry, brittle hair? It’s a major no-no. These are the three most obvious signs of sun damage, and they actually signify a change in the structure of the hair.

Changing colours

When natural hair is exposed to the sun, two things happen:

  • Hair gets lighter

It happens to everyone: you see it more on blondes and redheads, but brown and black hair also gets lighter too!

  • Your colour evolves
While blondes and redheads will lose some of their shine, brown hair gets blonder. 

Why does this happen? This changing colour is because the melanin pigments that give hair its colour are damaged upon exposure to the sun. Melanin absorbs the rays that lighten the hair fibres. 

The hair shaft is a dead structure. Unlike with skin during the tanning process, melanin is not produced when exposed to UV rays. Once damaged, hair is unable to repair itself as skin does when it heals. Instead, this damage is irreversible.

When artificially coloured hair is exposed to the sun, the colour actually evolves – it fades and/or changes its shade because the dyes in the hair fibre are altered under sunlight.

What are the aggravating factors?

Places where you’re exposed to lots of sun – such as pools and beaches – can cause havoc on your hair.

Swimming pools not only leave your hair smelling of chlorine long after you shower, but they can also turn your hair green! Some swimming pool products contain copper that can affect sensitive hair or bleach blonde colours. 

Sometimes the beach isn’t much better: sea water has a very high salt content, which leaves your hair matted and knotted. Grains of sand can get tangled in your locks making combing your hair an absolute nightmare! The humidity of the air at the beach can also increase and worsen UV damage.

The harmful effects of the sun are amplified when you have sensitive hair, so make sure you treat your locks to a little extra TLC. Long hair is also more at risk than shorter ‘dos – the longer your hair is, the more it’s exposed to combing, brushing, washing and sun damage. The ‘old’ parts of the hair fibre are significantly weaker: 15cm of hair = 15 months of sun exposure!

Sun-safe hair care

In addition to the conventional hair care products that promise to smooth, soften and bring out shine, ‘sun-safe’ hair care also includes special ingredients such as:

- Ceramides to strengthen the hair and help it retains its protective surface
- Filters to absorb UV rays and minimise their impact on the hair
- Nutritional oils with softening properties

The soap base in shampoo will gently wash hair weakened by the sun, and lather up into a rich foam to treat hair. 

There are plenty of other sun-safe hair care products including masks, oils, mists, gels and mousses, depending on whether you want something before, during or after sun exposure. There are even water-resistant products that are all designed to make hair soft, smooth and easy to untangle, and let you style your hair your way!