Understanding Hair Loss Caused by Grooming and Chemicals

Alopecia is a general term that refers to hair loss from any cause. There are many causes of hair loss including, infection, scalp diseases, chemicals, trauma, medications and natural aging. Most scalp hair loss, in males, is caused by natural balding. In African American females, it is more commonly caused by trauma and chemicals.

A major cause of hair loss in African American females is tight ponytails, rollers and braids. This is referred to as “Traction Alopecia”. This can occur in young children and is most likely due to pulling the hair back too tight in ponytails. Repeated styling of the hair in this manner will eventually result in loss of hair in the temples and occasionally, the nape of the neck. With the use of rollers especially “sponge rollers” the hair is affected in the forehead area as well. Quite often many or all females in a family may have this condition and may think it is hereditary. This is far from the truth. It is a cultural phenomenon that has to do with the practice of pulling the hair too tight along the margins to make it appear straight or to “hold a set”. This type of hair loss is entirely preventable and this practice should be discontinued.

Before continuing let us briefly review the human hair growth cycle as I discussed in my last column.

• Anagen, the active growth phase of the hair growth cycle, will last 2-6 years or more depending on one’s genetic makeup.

• Catagen, the transitional phase between growing and resting, usually lasts 2 weeks.

• Telogen, the resting and shedding phase, usually lasts a few weeks to 2 months.

Prior to the emergence of relaxers as the primary method of straightening hair, hot combing was the most common method.

The use of the straightening comb causes hair loss from the top of the head referred to as “hot comb alopecia”.

A similar type of hair loss has also been attributed to the use of relaxers. A military dermatologist in the 1980’s coined the term “FDS – follicular degeneration syndrome” to describe this type of hair loss.

The mechanism of these two causes of hair loss is similar in that the entire hair follicle is destroyed. In “hot comb alopecia” it is commonly believed that the hot grease seeping into the pores causes permanent damage to the hair follicle. In “follicular degeneration syndrome”, relaxer seeping into the pores destroys the hair follicle, causing similar scarring and permanent damage.

Since the old method of straightening is no longer in use let us devout our attention to relaxers as the primary cause of this problem.

Relaxer, applied directly to the scalp, can penetrate deep enough to destroy hair follicles because these hairs are closer to the surface of the scalp (recall telogen is the resting/shedding phase of hair growth). At any point in time only about 5% or less of the scalp hairs are in the telogen phase and only a few hairs can be affected. Because the top of the head is like a shelf the relaxer can seep downward into the pores I estimate that it will take 8 or more years of repeated relaxing to destroy enough hairs for it to become noticeable. Of course the more often one gets a touchup the earlier we may see this. The following photograph is an example of how the scalp may look.

Although “follicular degeneration syndrome” is the most serious form of hair loss cause by chemicals, breakage is actually more common. Breakage can be caused by either relaxers or dyes and is more commonly caused by use of both. In breakage only the length is affected. With proper care the hair length can be restored.

Treating hair follicle loss can be a very difficult and sometimes impossible problem to resolve; obviously the best treatment is prevention. Discontinuing the use of relaxers would certainly solve this problem but how many women are willing to give this up? Certainly, in this situation, better technique is the key, as prevention of follicular degeneration syndrome, relies heavily on the skill of the person applying the relaxer.

Decreasing the frequency of touchups to 8 or more weeks and getting the relaxer in and out of the hair as quickly as possible will help tremendously. For those of us old enough to remember when relaxers first came out they were not applied directly to the scalp and we did not have this type of hair loss problem. As a preventive measure I recommend the use of the Tress Therapy Root Restore Conditioner as a base and neutralizer during the relaxing process. I designed this product to chemically neutralize the relaxer that seeps into the pores and to neutralize the hair after the relaxing process while keeping the hair straight. The Tress Therapy Root Restore Conditioner forms a acidic barrier between the delicate hair follicle and the relaxer, thereby decreasing hair follicle scarring and preventing hair loss.

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