Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine 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.
For background information, see Saving your edges: The 4 contributing factors to traction alopecia, Part I. This week’s installment focuses on traction alopecia factors Nos. 3 and 4: weight and tension. Tension becomes a contributing factor to alopecia when protective styling is used. When protective styling is done with extensions, the factor of weight enters the scenario.
With the recent growth and evolution of the natural hair movement, “protective styles” has emerged as a new term. Though the term’s use is fairly recent, it’s just a modern name for traditional longer term styling options that help make black hair more manageable and, ideally, minimize damage. Protective styles include twists, braids, cornrows, flat twists, sew-in weaves, buns and pin-ups. Locs are a long-term lifestyle commitment to care for the hair in a holistic and minimalistic manner that naturally protects the hair. This commitment is given in terms of years, so it is not truly fitting to call them a style. In other words, Locs can be styled, but are not a style themselves.
Now, to put it simply, two basic factors are necessary for long hair. Growth is only one of them, and is controlled primarily by internal conditions. Maintenance is the other, and this means to minimize breakage and damage of the oldest, most vulnerable hair at the ends and along the hair shaft. That’s where protective styling comes in.
Protective styling aids growth by stimulating the hair follicle nerves. It enhances maintenance by literally protecting the strands and ends of hair from exposure to the elements (sun, wind, moisture), and over manipulation (excessive combing, brushing, dry heat usage, etc). Protective styling can be done with or without extensions. The purposes for using extensions are many and have a longstanding history of thousands of years. Extensions can add thickness, length, color, and varying texture to a style. Most commonly, however, extensions are used to extend the length of time a style can be worn. Because adding extensions slows the locking process, they can potentially double the length of time a style lasts. In the hands of a skilled natural stylist, protective styling can do wonders to reverse alopecia and prevent it, especially when accompanied by a moisture regimen and internal support.
So why the alarm and warnings against braids and weaves?
Weight and tension. There is a concerning trend of using extensions that are too heavy and braiding the hair entirely too tight. We commonly share experiences of headaches and not being able to sleep after having our hair done. We sit for hours, only to be forced to take it all down. Needing to take medications for pain from hair services is often the first sign that traction alopecia is on its way. Seeing lots of tiny white bulbs (hair follicles), swelling, and lasting redness around the hairline is also a huge indicator. Chemicals and heat don’t help the situation, but whether you’re “natural” or “relaxed,” heavy extensions that are too tight will literally tear your hair out. These symptoms must be taken seriously because over time scar tissue develops and the damage becomes permanent.
Even with extensions, the thickness of hair should appear natural. It should be relative to the amount of hair the client actually has, not based on how big, thick or long they want it to be. Longer, thicker natural hair can support thicker, longer looks, and if that is the client’s desire, the stylist has a professional responsibility to help them reach goals for their own natural hair first, by using extensions that are appropriate for maintaining it. The stylist should also be capable of displacing tension away from the client’s scalp. It is possible to braid securely without pulling so tight that the client becomes uncomfortable. On the contrary, hair braiding should be a relaxing, soothing experience similar to getting a massage. If it hurts, let the stylist know. That way, they can practice more or learn new techniques to create a more comfortable environment for you, the client.
By definition, protective styles such as braids and weaves guard the hair from breakage and damage. But, ultimately, when it comes to wearing braids, weaves and other potentially risky styles, consumers must also protect themselves through knowledge and prevention. Know the four risk factors: chemicals, heat, weight and tension. Don’t sit in the chair and become a victim, whether that chair is in a salon or kitchen. Save your edges. Listen to them. Pay attention to any red flags. The doctors responsible for the statement from Johns Hopkins are Black women and after reading the original release myself and looking into the background it became apparent that it was not their intention to tell us to stop wearing our traditional and trendy styles. They want us to be careful. We can be cute and look professional without sacrificing the health of our hair. Prevention is key.
Kalae Whitman is a licensed/certified natural hair stylist, consultant and educator. She opened Sankofa Natural Hair in 2011 and provides holistic services for the East Texas natural hair and loc community.