Hair Talk: Before You Get Braided Up This Season, Read This

In the African-American community, many live by the mantra, “hair is your wealth”. Many frequent the hair salon religiously, every 2-weeks, and are always on top of the latest hair in trend. However, black women who like to wear their hair pulled back tightly, in braids, or weaves may be increasing their risk of hair loss, according to a new research study.

A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore reviewed 19 studies and found a “strong association” between scalp-pulling hairstyles and traction alopecia, which is gradual hair loss from damage to the hair follicle from tension at the hair root.

Traction alopecia is the most common type of hair loss among black American women, affecting about one out of three, the researchers said.

The study did not prove a definitive cause-and-effect connection. But, styles linked to this type of hair loss include braids, tight ponytails, dreadlocks, weaves, and extensions, especially if the hair has been chemically straightened, the review said.

So, what does it look like?
In the first stages, traction alopecia may appear as little bumps on your scalp that look like pimples. However, as the condition progresses, the main symptom is missing and broken hairs. The hairs on the front and sides of your scalp are most often affected. However, many may also notice hair loss on other areas of their scalp, depending on the hairstyle.

In addition to hair loss, traction alopecia can cause these symptoms:

  • redness of the scalp
  • bumps
  • soreness or stinging of your scalp
  • itching
  • scaling
  • folliculitis (inflammation of the hair follicles)
  • pus-filled blisters on your scalp

According to Cicatricial Alopecia Research Foundation (CARF), ultimately the hair follicles can become so damaged and scarred that they can’t produce new hair. The symptoms of traction alopecia are different from those of other forms of alopecia. In other types, the hair loss occurs in patches all over the scalp. In traction alopecia, usually just the hair that’s been pulled is affected.

“Hair is a cornerstone of self-esteem and identity for many people but ironically, some hairstyles meant to improve our self-confidence actually lead to hair and scalp damage,” Dr. Crystal Aguh, an assistant professor of dermatology at Hopkins, said in a university news release.

The findings show the need for dermatologists to learn more about these potentially damaging forms of hairstyles and to advise patients about the risks and alternatives, the researchers suggested.

Traction alopecia is preventable and early intervention can stop or reverse it, the researchers said. Alternating hairstyles, and avoiding those that constantly pull at the hair roots may help, they noted.

“We have to do better as care providers to offer our patients proper guidance to keep them healthy from head to toe,” Aguh said.

How Can You Prevent It?
To prevent traction alopecia, wear your hair down. If you have to pull it up into a ponytail or bun, keep it loose and low on your head. Switch up your hairstyle every couple of weeks, you can alternate between braids and wearing your hair down to relax the hair shaft. When you pull your hair up into a ponytail, try not to use rubber or elastic bands to hold it in place. They often pull out your hair when removing them.

Avoid chemically processing your hair and using hair relaxers. If you use weaves or braid your hair, once it’s time to braid it is more prone to break because of the thinness. The chemicals can damage your hair, making it more likely to break when braiding. If you have weaves or extensions, wear them for only a short period of time and take a break between your next install.

When braiding your hair, make sure the braids are thick. Thinner braids pull more tightly. Don’t sleep in rollers. Wrap your hair instead. If you wear wigs often, choose one with a satin wig cap. Satin caps don’t pull as hard on your scalp and prevent your hair from snagging on the material.

SOURCE: Johns Hopkins University, news release, April 27, 2016