The beach isn’t a place for work. It’s all about leisure, lying out in the sun, and forgetting that you have responsibilities to attend to, even if for just a few hours. However, that sense of relaxation can be completely destroyed the moment you realize your hair is a fried and dry mess afterward.
For as long as we can remember, the only “beach hair” we saw in magazines was long, blonde, and wavy. The idea was more about a look and less about protection. Thankfully, we’re moving past rigid beauty standards and have begun using the term as code for healthy summer strands. Ahead, three experts break down everything you need to know about protecting your hair from the sun rays this summer.
Understanding Sun Damage
Before styling your hair with a sea salt spray or texturizer, it’s important to know why it also needs the same level of sun protection as your skin. Quick science lesson: A single hair strand is made up of three layers. The protective outermost layer is the cuticle. The thicker, central layer that contains the hair’s pigment and protein is the cortex, and the fragile innermost layer is the medulla.
According to Taliah Waajid, founder of Taliah Waajid Hair Care, some level of sun damage has likely already occurred because of how that top layer is disturbed by daily manipulation. And once that top layer is opened up, the other two are fully exposed and vulnerable because the stuff they’re made of just isn’t as strong.
“Since the cuticle is made up of overlapping shingles, a lack of sun protection combined with wear and tear on the hair (such as normal combing, styling, and manipulation) can cause the shingles to stand up,” she says, “thus exposing the cortex to UV rays, which can dull and dehydrate the hair.”
What typically results is discoloration, brittleness, and an overall change in the feel and texture of the hair. And if you don’t prep your hair with even more protection before exposing it to direct sunlight, you’re setting your strands up for irreversible damage. Beyond that, if you’re spending a lot of time in the water, its naturally high salt content is also extremely drying .
“Even though it can give you a great ‘beachy hair’ look with a lot of texture and wave, it exposes hair to potential damage and breakage when brushing,” says celebrity hairstylist Birgitte Philippides. “It can make the hair very raw and exposed to the elements.” Dunking your hair in ocean water shouldn’t be confused, however, with a saltwater spray, which when applied sparingly, can actually benefit the hair (more on this later).
Pre- and Post-Treatment
So now that we’ve established “beachy hair” is really just code for “sun-protected hair,” let’s talk about all that needs to be done before, during, and after you hit the sand. First, prepping truly begins with your year-round daily routine.
One of the many cool things our scalp naturally does, according to Jana Blankenship, founder of hair-care brand Captain Blankenship, is produce oil (or “sebum”) that provides a small amount of built-in sun protection. So it’s up to us to protect that process by supplying our hair and scalp with day-to-day moisture. How you decide to exactly do that will depend on your texture and lifestyle. For instance, “if your hair is color-treated or tends toward dryness, it is best to use a protective oil before jumping in the ocean,” she says.
Waajid recommends a leave-in conditioner for those with textured or natural hair or a lighter oil, such as Protective Styles Bamboo and Coconut Milk Growth Oil or Curls, Waves & Natural PhenomonOil-14. If your hair protectant has SPF built-in, even better! Otherwise, you should top your treatment with a sunscreen spray, too.
Once you’re on the beach, it’s OK to let an oil or leave-in sit in your hair, but be wary of sunbathing for an extended period of time. “Just as you would not sit under a dryer all day while conditioning, you should not spend all day in the sun while conditioning,” Waajid says.
If you plan on sitting in one spot for a while, throw on a hat or scarf, too. Philippides says you can also fashion your hair into a bun, braid, or other protective style to prevent tangling and lock in the moisture from whatever product you’re using.
At the end of the day, remove salt spray and/or other products by shampooing and conditioning immediately. And if your hair feels especially dry, throw a deep-conditioning mask in there, too.
Sea Salt Sprays
Sea salt sprays and the beach go together like peanut butter and jelly, but are they actually a healthy choice for our hair? The short answer is yes, but in moderation. Generally speaking, when massaged into the scalp, sea salt can promote blood circulation, which wakes up the hair follicle, thus promoting slightly faster growth. It also does a killer job of soaking up excess oil and warding off dandruff.
When formulated into a spray, it’s usually combined with a hydrating ingredient, such as aloe or an essential oil, so it can provide texture without drying the hair out. Whether it’s applied to damp or dry strands really depends on personal preference, but going overboard will dry out the hair just as beach water would. And if it’s layered with too many other products, it’ll weigh your hair down with build-up.
It’s also not the best option for adding definition to natural hair. “Sea salt spray works best on wavier as opposed to curlier hair. The use of sea salt spray on curlier or textured hair should be limited, due to its high possibility of drying this hair type,” says Waajid. “If used on curlier hair textures, look for a sea salt spray that contains a high percentage of moisturizing or conditioning agents.” If you’re wearing a leave-in to the beach, remember that the sea salt spray should be applied after and rinsed out before you shampoo later on.
And be sure to check out these beachy hair products—both sea salt and otherwise—that’ll bring you one step closer to that effortless, beachside ’do you’ll be working on this summer.