Any man who’s enjoyed a sunny summer day without the protection of a full head of hair, hat, or sunscreen has also probably endured the fiery, flakey, itchy pain of a sunburned bald spot. In fact, dermatologists agree that a bald spot might be the easiest place to get sunburned. Simultaneously a bald spot may also be the most difficult to protect and, later, heal. In other words, the sun is truly a bald man’s ultimate nemesis.
“Your head is in the direct path of sun rays, and therefore it is more exposed to their harmful effects,” says dermatologist Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, M.D. “As the skin on the scalp gets routinely exposed to the sun it gets thinner, with weaker and weaker immune and regenerative functions. That makes it more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation.”
Hair has always functioned as a natural form of SPF, protecting skin from ultraviolet rays. That’s why mustaches and beards can protect men from certain forms of skin cancer, and probably why the hairiest guy at the beach seems to be the most carefree. Even partial hair loss leaves men’s scalps more vulnerable to sunburn because protecting it with sunscreen is less intuitive than other parts of the body.
And even when men are vigilant with sunblock, they often sweat more on their heads than the rest of their bodies and don’t realize the need to reapply it more frequently. Although hats do offer protection, they’re easy to remove on a hot sunny day without realizing the risks. And once that hat is off, it only takes 15 minutes to get scorched.
If it seems like a bald spot sunburn takes longer to heal, that’s because it does. Skin regenerates with stem cells, which are found in hair follicles. No hair? No follicles, which makes it harder to recover from a sunburned scalp.
“The balding scalp has fewer hair follicles and therefore fewer stem cells — making it harder to restore after any kind of insult, including sunburns,” Tonkovic-Capin explains.
It’s important to note that anyone can get sunburned on their scalp, even with hair — but the more hair a person has, the lower the risk. And because people tend to have the most hair when they’re kids, men don’t learn to worry about protecting their scalps from the sun until they’re adults, typically after they’ve been burned.
“We are creatures of habit, and we form them early in our childhood. Almost all of us have a full head of hair in childhood, and we simply do not need to put any sunscreen on it,” Tonkovic-Capin says. “Therefore, the habit of protecting the scalp has not been entrenched in our minds, and we simply neglect it.”
Luckily for men who are just balding, sunburn won’t contribute to any further hair loss. Unluckily, balding men might be more vulnerable than men who are completely bald because it’s easier for bald men to put sunblock on their heads, adds dermatologist Susan Bard, M.D. “Many men don’t apply sunscreen to their scalps, especially if they’re thinning rather than completely bald. The hair gets in the way of sunscreen application,” she says.
Tonkovic-Capin agrees that bald spot sunburn is even worse for balding men than totally bald men because they often haven’t acclimated or even accepted that they’re losing their hair. “When men start to bald, we are in a sort of denial, which makes protecting the scalp even harder to remember,” he says.
The best thing men can do to prevent burning their bald spots is accept the fact that they are losing their hair and take the proper precautions — like wearing sunscreen as well as a hat and avoiding direct sun exposure. That’s especially true between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is the strongest.
Importantly, sun protection is not just to avoid the pain of sunburn and discomfort of peeling. Sun exposure and burns increase the risk of skin cancer. Avoiding cancer is worth a little hat-head and lotion in your thinning locks.