Why Does Sunlight Lighten My Hair But Darken My Skin?

We love those sunny days, with bright sunshine and clear skies, but the sun also has a way driving us nuts. The sun’s superpowers are linked with its ultraviolet rays, but as always ‘along with the sunshine there’s gotta be a little rain sometime’. So, aside from providing us with solar power, the alternative to dirty fossil fuel, and a healthy dose of vitamin D, the sun’s rays can also cause hair and skin damage. But, once again, we’re baffled because it darkens your skin and lightens your hair, although many wish it were the other way around – unless you are a brunette with pale skin!

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How Sunlight Affects Your Skin & Hair

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun causes damage to both the hair and skin, but the results are different because of the differences between your skin and hair. Melanin, a pigment responsible for color, is present in both hair and skin. Melanin doesn’t just give you color, but it also plays a protective role, shielding your DNA from damage by absorbing and scattering that dangerous radiation. Unfortunately, melanin itself suffers degradation over time, losing most color as a result of oxidization from prolonged sun exposure.

Why Sunlight Lightens Hair Color

“Hair follicles sustain damage from sun exposure, but they remain in this damaged state with a bleached look, until new hair with fresh melanin supplies can grow out to replace them”

Excessive exposure to strong sunlight has a bleaching or yellowing effect on hair for the simple reason that it destroys pigment cells or melanin in the hair shafts. It’s important to note here that hair shafts above the scalp do not contain any living cells. They are instead made up solely of structural proteins, lipids, water, and pigments. As with skin, hair follicles sustain damage from sun exposure, but they remain in this damaged state with a bleached look, until new hair with fresh melanin supplies can grow out to replace them.

Why Sunlight Darkens Skin Color

“When your skin is exposed to strong sunlight, melanin is once again destroyed, but your skin is able to respond to the damage by increasing melanin production that also results in darkening”

As we’ve already established, unlike hair follicles, your skin is made up of living cells that can adapt and react to UV ray exposure. So, when your skin is exposed to strong sunlight, melanin is destroyed here too, but your skin is able to respond to the damage. In fact, the skin damage from sun exposure triggers your body into producing a hormone that binds with melanin-producing cells, encouraging them to produce even more melanin. To keep it simple, let’s just say that this has a darkening effect on skin color.

While the darkening of your skin is actually a good sign and it increases skin protection, it’s also a warning that you have been spending too much time in the sun. Prolonged sun exposure actually causes DNA damage, increasing the risk of skin cancer, which is exacerbated through frequent sunburn and tanning. So, the next time you feel the need to enjoy a day in the sun, make sure to slather on some sunscreen.

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