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Black Women's Hair Styles Can Cause Bad Hair Days

Black women can thank Madam CJ Walker for hair straightening

Black women take a great deal of pride in their choice of hair styles and the appearance of their hair. But sometimes the hair products and styling methods they use can cause bad hair days and the development of hair and scalp disease.

Chemical relaxers can cause significant damage

It’s not unusual for African American women to spend hours having their hair relaxed, dyed, and styled with braids, weaves, dreadlocks, or other styles, but these practices can lead to serious scalp and hair problems that can last a lifetime. One reason for the development of these problems is the hair itself.

At the recent American Academy of Dermatology’s 70th Annual Meeting, Raechele Cochran Gathers, MD, FAAD, senior physician at the Multicultural Dermatology Center of Henry Ford Hospital Department of Dermatology, explained that black hair has a unique structure that makes it fragile and susceptible to damage. The use of various styling techniques puts a great deal of stress on the hair.

Stress on the hair translates into concern by black women, as more than 50% of them say thinning hair or hair loss is their main hair care worry. One hair product that may contribute to hair loss and thinning is chemical hair relaxers.

Approximately 80% of African Americans use hair relaxers, noted Diane Jackson-Richards, MD, director of the Multicultural Dermatology Center and who also presented at the conference. Chemical relaxers change the hair’s texture through a process of controlled damage to the hair’s protein structure. Excessive or long-term use of hair relaxers may lead to brittle hair.

Fortunately, there has been a move away from chemical relaxers that contain lye (sodium hydroxide) to no-lye relaxers that use ammonium thioglycolate, potassium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide, or ammonium sulfite, substances that can minimize irritation and damage to the hair and scalp. Even so, Gathers made the following recommendations concerning hair relaxers:

  • Have hair relaxers applied by a professional hair stylist
  • Wait at least 8 to 12 weeks before doing touch-ups with relaxers to help minimize hair breakage
  • Avoid applying relaxer to hair that has already been relaxed
  • When using heat to straighten hair, women should use ceramic combs or irons and not use heat more than once a week. Straightening devices that have a temperature dial are best so you can make sure the item does not get too hot.

Hair tips for black women
To minimize damage and support healthy hair among black women, Gathers and Jackson-Richards also made the following suggestions:

  • Use hair products that contain natural ingredients, such as aloe vera juice or gel, coconut oil, glycerin, olive oil, and shea butter
  • Avoid shampoos that contain sulfates, which can dry some hair types
  • Select conditions that contain amino acids, hydrolyzed proteins, panthenol, or wheat proteins
  • Twice monthly hot oil treatments can add elasticity and moisture to the hair
  • Braids, cornrows, and dreadlocks should be washed every two weeks
  • Braids and cornrows should not be too tight and should not be worn for longer than three months
  • Use of blow dryers, hot combs, and other heated hair styling devices should be limited to once per week

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Central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia
A common and permanent form of hair loss seen among African American women is central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA), which is believed to be caused by excessive pulling of the hair, as occurs with braids and cornrows. Women who notice their hair is thinning should see a dermatologist as soon as possible.

CCCA can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications or topical corticostseroids, but if not managed early, the hair follicles can be replaced by scar tissue and cause disfiguring of the scalp.

Gathers noted that although there is no conclusive proof that chemical hair relaxers may contribute to hair loss, she recommended that women not use or limit their use of relaxers if they are being treated for CCCA.

In a 2011 study published in the Archives of Dermatology, Dr. Angela Kyei, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, and her team examined the hair of 326 black women. Twenty-eight percent of the women had hair loss in their central scalps, and 60% of these had severe hair loss.

The women who had severe hair loss were more likely to have type 2 diabetes, to wear weaves and braids, and to have bacterial infections in their scalps. Kyei noted that the cause of these hair and scalp problems appeared to be hair styles that pull the hair too tight.

If black women want to wear their hair styles with pride and avoid bad hair days, the information from these experts point to the need to exercise caution when using chemical relaxers and heated devices, pamper the hair with products that contain recommended ingredients, and not pull the hair too tight.

American Academy of Dermatology
Henry Ford Hospital
Kyei A et al. Medical and environmental risk factors for the development of central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia. Archives of Dermatology 2011; 147(8): 909-14

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons



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