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Saving your edges: The 4 contributing factors to traction alopecia, Part I

"The Truth Is In Your Roots": A weekly report with Kalae Whitman

Kalae Whitman

Kalae Whitman

Researchers at Johns Hopkins recently reviewed 19 studies in the development of traction alopecia and issued a statement urging African American women to be aware of and to avoid excessive “scalp-pulling” hairstyles along with the use of texture altering chemical treatments. Traction alopecia is a type of gradual hair loss caused by damage to the hair follicle from prolonged or repeated tension on the hair root.

The statement classifies styles as low, moderate and high risk. Low risk styles included in the recommendations were loose styles and loose buns. While these are low risk for hair loss from the scalp, they can lead to breakage if certain hair textures are not protected from friction. Loose pin-ups, flat twists and individual twists may also be considered low risk. Twists are less stressful on the hair because they follow the direction of the natural curl pattern, allowing the hair to stretch and shrink in response to humidity.

While there are four contributing factors to the development of traction alopecia—chemicals, heat, tension and weight—this week’s focus is on breaking down the roles that chemicals and heat play in moderate and high-risk styling. Part II will take an in-depth look at tension and weight from braids and extensions, along with the treatment and prevention of traction alopecia.

So let’s get to it.

Chemical treatments are those that permanently alter the structure and make up of the hair. This includes relaxers, texturizers, curl and blowout kits and, to a lesser degree, coloring agents. Combining chemical treatments with moderately risky styles ultimately puts one at the greatest risk of developing traction alopecia. In other words, braids and weaves should not be installed on freshly relaxed hair. It is recommended to wait a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks after a chemical service for a protective style of any kind. This gives the scalp, hair follicles, and hair time to recover.

Pulling the hair into a style too soon can literally pop the follicle bulbs out of the scalp. Ever notice those small white dots at your roots and itchy, swollen bumps around your hairline when your hair is styled? While seeing a few (without bumps) is normal and indicative of natural shedding, seeing many of these tiny bulbs ,and noticeable thinning, is a sign of follicular stress.

Dr. Crystal Aguh, assistant professor of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of the study, elaborates on the risky practice of combining chemicals with tension.

“Chemical straightening weakens the hair shaft, causing breakage,” she says. “Permanent waves made with ammonium thioglycolate to create or alter curl pattern together with added tension from chemical treatment do the same.”

Researchers also warn against using wig adhesives and bonding glue, noting that these products can cause significant breakage if used improperly. One wrong application can result in an unexpected cut or even bald patches in the process of removal and though entirely preventable, this damage is not always reversible.

So what’s the big issue with heat?

Heat poses a moderate risk on its own, but becomes high risk when combined with chemicals or tension and weight. Blow drying on high heat and flat ironing prior to braiding or weaving hair removes moisture. So, basically, heat isn’t all bad; we have to be smart about how we use it. If the hair is not properly protected when using heat, or if heat is used too often, the hair becomes brittle and prone to breakage as it loses elasticity. Grapeseed oil is an excellent natural oil for heat protection that will also keep hair soft and provide sheen.

Dr. Aguh concluded that,” untreated and unprocessed hair can withstand greater traction, pulling and brushing, and overall decreases the risk of traction alopecia, regardless of styling.”

Part II of Saving Your Edges: The 4 Contributing Factors to Traction Alopecia continues next week with a breakdown of tension and weight, along with the treatment and prevention of this particular form of alopecia, estimated to affect 1 in 3 Black women in the U.S.


Kalae Whitman is a professional natural hair specialist, advocate and educator. She opened Sankofa Natural Hair in 2011 and provides holistic services for the East Texas natural hair and loc community. 



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