7 Ways to Protect Your Hair This Summer—and Undo Damage That’s Already Been Done

Last Update: September 28, 2022

Is there anything more chic than sunshine-streaked hair? There’s a reason “surfer-girl highlights” endure as one of the most-requested looks at salons everywhere. But if you’ve ever spent a summer’s worth of weekends by the pool or beach, you may know that authentic sun-induced highlights come with damaging side effects. Jana Blankenship, founder of the all-natural hair product line Captain Blankenship concurs: “Time spent out in the sun and swimming can seriously dehydrate your hair.”

Salt and chlorine both do damage, leaving strands dry and brittle—and sun and wind exposure only further exacerbate the problem. If you’re not proactive about protection from the elements, the only solution may be to head to your stylist for a chop—and that only takes off split ends; you’ll still have frizz and breakage closer to the roots to contend with.

If you’ve overdone it on the sun and surf all season, here’s what to do to get fried locks soft and shiny again.

Foe: Sun

Most of us already know the sun’s rays can damage skin—that’s why SPF is non-negotiable—but you might not realize that they can have the same effect on your hair. Prolonged exposure to UVA and UVB rays harms the cuticle, the outer layer surrounding each individual strand. This damage can manifest as dryness, discoloration, brittleness, thinning, and frizz. Eek.

UV rays are so powerful that they often end up destroying the melanin that gives hair its color. In other words, the sun literally bleaches hair. It might sound like a great opportunity to go a little lighter without an expensive trip to the salon, but it actually compromises hair’s structure and sets you up for tons of breakage.

Friend: All-natural sunscreen, hats

The best way to protect your hair is to keep it out of the sun. That means hats and head scarves should make an appearance if you plan to be outside in direct sunlight for long periods of time, like on a hike or a run.

If you’re heading to the beach or pool—where you’re going to get wet—Blankenship recommends massaging a little coconut oil through your tresses for a little extra moisture. “A tiny dab of plain coconut oil is a great natural moisturizer for hair and provides some protection from the sun,” she says. Then apply your favorite sunscreen to the bottom half of your hair. SPF works the same way on skin that it does on hair, but it’s not ideal for day-to-day styling since it can be so greasy. Pat it into the driest and most damaged areas of the locks to prevent further destruction. Then put it all up or cover it: Blankenship suggests putting it in a bun or braid, or under a breathable hat, to “help keep you cool and minimize sun exposure.”

Commercial UV protecting sprays are another option—they tend to leave little residue and are great for styling. Spray over your entire head and blow-dry, curl, and flat-iron hair as usual.

Foe: Salt

Well-hydrated hair has more bounce, volume, shape, and shine. When you swim in the ocean, the water’s high salt content draws out moisture and leaves locks straw-like and parched.

Friend: Better shampoo and conditioner

Traditional shampoos and conditioners contain harsh detergents, artificial scents, and potentially toxic chemical foaming agents like SLS—all of which can push damaged hair past the point of no return. Even though they might feel silky and hydrating in the shower, these products often just deposit residue on the outside of the cuticle. It’s like trying to fix a broken ankle with a band-aid; it might smooth things over temporarily, but doesn’t do anything to repair the underlying problem.

Even if you’re obsessed with a particular drugstore shampoo, Blankenship stresses the importance of going sulfate-free—and always using conditioner—during summer months. “Sulfate-free shampoos are gentler and won’t strip your hair of oil,” she says. Look for all-natural products made with nourishing ingredients like jojoba oil, shea butter, vitamin E, olive oil, argan oil, and aloe vera to restore moisture to thirsty strands.

Foe: Chlorine

If you’ve ever gone blonde during summer, you may have already experienced that most dreaded effect of too much pool time—green-tinged hair. Even non-blondes have to take note: hair is porous, so it absorbs chlorine like a sponge, leaving locks parched and the scalp stripped of natural oils.

Friend: Baking soda

Thankfully, there are a few ways you can save your hair and still fit in a swan dive this summer. If you want to channel Team USA, grab a swim cap. Or pre-dampen hair before you get into the pool—strands are like sponges, and can only absorb so much water at a time. If they’re already soaked with chlorine-free water from the shower, they’ll drink up less pool water.

Post-dip, use a clarifying treatment to get rid of any lingering chemicals. Baking soda is a safe bet—no-poo advocates use it to eliminate excess oil without stripping the cuticle: mix about 2 tablespoons baking soda with 1 tablespoon of water until it forms a paste. Massage into scalp and hair, then rinse with water to eliminate chemical or mineral buildup.

No matter what torture you put your locks through, it’s always a good idea to do a deep conditioning treatment once a week during the summer months. Opt for a product with cocoa butter or make your own from emollient avocado and coconut oil. Leave on for as long as possible (all day, if you can!) for extra protection and moisturizing action.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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