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How to Prevent Hair Damage from the Sun, Sea & Chlorine


We like to think we're pretty well trained when it comes to looking after our skin in the sun. However, hair is an admittedly lesser concern, but nevertheless, bad treatment can seriously damage its health. Throughout summer, as we sit in the sun and swim in the sea or in chlorinated pools, our locks can begin to show signs of poor health.

This means that your hair will look frizzy and become impossible to style, but also you'll be permanently damaging the outside cover of each strand, resulting in breakage that can't be undone.


Spotting the signs of damage

If you're lucky enough to have spent a lot of time in the sun, or if you've been swimming regularly, you should keep an eye on your hair.

Signs of damage include changes in colour, increasing dryness and brittle texture, broken or split ends, thinning and frizziness. You may find that your hair dries faster than usual and also that it's harder to style; curls will drop out quickly.

What happens when your hair is damaged?

If you expose your hair to too much sun, UVA and UVB rays will cause damage. UVA can burn the cuticle (outer layer) of your hair, damaging the cells and making your hair appear brittle and dry. Both UVA and UVB rays can penetrate to the cortex (centre) of the hair shaft, reducing the hair's elasticity and strength.

Sun, salt water and chlorine all have the potential to damage the protective coating that lies on the surface of your hair – the hydrolipidic film – meaning that moisture stored inside the strand evaporates. Sun will have a double-whammy effect, as it also destroys protein (keratin). Whereas your skin can replenish its moisture supply from within, once hair has lost all its moisture, it's gone for good.

Which type of hair is most at risk?

Both thickness and pigment make your hair more able to withstand the rays of the sun, so fine blonde hair, for example, is easily damaged. Darker, coarser hair tends to be less dry as oil resides in the pigment. This means that if your hair has been lightened, it's particularly at risk as you've stripped away the natural oil along with the pigment. Afro hair is fragile and easily damaged in the sun, especially if hair has already suffered breakage from a weave or from over-styling.

Protecting your hair from the sun: the basics

There are some basic first steps you should take to protect your hair. First, wear a sun hat and try to sit in the shade. This sounds obvious but there's no protection as good as a physical barrier between yourself and the sun. Avoid the midday sun, just as you would when protecting your skin. Go out early or late in the day.

Sunscreen products for hair

Yup, you can get sunscreen for your hair. Use one if you know you're going to be sipping spritzers in a sunny plaza all afternoon. Look for products like shampoos and conditioners that promise UV-protection. These will contain either ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, which filters out UVB radiation, or benzophenone-4, which absorbs UV light.

Using a leave-in conditioner is a good idea if you know your hair’s in for some bad treatment. Standard conditioners need to be thoroughly rinsed but leave-in versions coat the hair, sealing in moisture and protecting from the sun or sea.

Get brushing

This sounds obvious, but it's easily overlooked. Brushing will help distribute oils from the scalp to the ends, which tend to be driest. Use a natural bristle brush with soft bristles, as these are better at picking up oils. Brushing will also stimulate the scalp, encouraging more oil production. Just be careful not to tear through any knots.

What about damage from swimming?

Swimming is great for your health; stretching limbs, using a full range of muscles and strengthening the heart and lungs. However, for your hair, it's a different picture. Salt in the sea will leach the moisture from your hair. Chlorine in swimming pools, meanwhile, will strip oil from your tresses and, over time, can cause some serious damage.

Those with coloured hair may find that regular swimming changes their hair colour. This is because oxidized metals (copper) in the water bind to protein in the hair shaft. Swimming in chlorinated pools can aggravate this as it will dry your hair, making it more porous and susceptible to absorbing chemicals.

Protect your hair from chlorine

Wear a swimming cap.

Soak your hair with water before you jump into the pool. This will make your hair less able to absorb more liquid in the form of chlorinated pool water.

Rinse your hair as soon as you get out of the pool.

Clarify your hair. If you swim a lot, the chances are you have a build-up of chlorine in your hair. Washing with a clarifying shampoo may help.

For all types of damage: replace lost moisture

Whether your hair's been damaged by the sun, sea or swimming in chlorinated pools, some serious therapy is probably in order. You can also use a hair mask that's packed full of emollients and vitamins that will coat each strand of your hair, infusing it with moisture and helping to close the cuticle.

Hair masks work best when used on damp hair. When applying the mask, be sure to treat your scalp too as this is where much of the damage takes place. Once you’ve coated your hair, wrap in cling film and a towel then leave for as long as possible.

See a professional

If you already have severe hair damage, go to the hairdresser. A professional will be able to recommend the right products and, if the damage has gone too far, give you a haircut. Chopping out the breakage is the only solution if you've really fried your hair.

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