As a dermatologist, one of my main objectives is to share best practices to ensure skin and hair health. So why don’t we talk about protective hairstyles? Do protective styles actually protect your hair? Yes, they do! How about your scalp? Well, it depends. When worn with care and brevity there are few, if any, major conflicts between protective styling and scalp health. However, there are a couple of different factors to consider when wearing a protective style, 1) scalp cleansing limitations and 2) tension on the hair follicle. Let’s discuss!
Wigs, braids, weaves and updos, cover the ends of your natural hair from frequent manipulation and external factors that may cause damage. It can be an advantage to protect textured hair in this way and effectively rest the hair from the root to tip, reducing opportunities for breakage. Moreover, heat, humidity, exposure to salt water or chlorine are troublesome external factors for natural hair that protective styles help protect against. Protecting natural hair for a while can theoretically allow for a growth period. It is also worth noting that wigs are the most flexible protective styling option as they can be removed quickly and easily.
Most protective hairstyles require a significant investment in both time and money, so it may be hard to justify wearing the style for only a few weeks. However, I argue that keeping the style for longer than a couple weeks, despite how much it cost or how beautiful it looks, may be counterproductive to the health of your natural hair. Protective styles limit wearers from completely washing, exfoliating, or moisturizing the scalp, which may allow bacteria from sweat or other pollutants to grow rapidly and/or clog pores. While I personally love the look and appreciate the dynamic aspects of protective hairstyles, I believe the best practice is to avoid long-term use if possible. Wearing a protective style for up to two weeks at a time with breaks (a couple months) in between to allow for regular cleansing is recommended. Although, wearing protective styles for short periods of time should allow for the prevention of scalp irritation, high tension of the braids associated with the style, even for a brief time, can also have undesirable side effects.
One common side effect is traction alopecia. It occurs when tightly-pulled hairstyles such as braids, ponytails, dreadlocks, weaves and extensions damage the hair follicle and lead to hair loss. I see it frequently in patients in my practice but it is fairly easy to recognize and prevent. Importantly, traction alopecia can sometimes be reversed if detected early and if gentle, tension-free hair care practices are implemented consistently.
How do you know if your braids are tight enough to cause damage? If you see tiny bumps near your hairline or if your hair is painful to the touch, your braids are likely too tight and damage to the follicle may ensue. The tiny bumps are called folliculitis and reflect physical trauma to the hair follicle. It may be true that the tighter your braids are, the longer your style will last. But if you feel a lot of pain, the damage may exist beyond the period you are wearing the hairstyle. Your choice of hairstyle should never hurt! Crochet braids and updos are alternatives to traditional sew-in weaves or micro braids that may place individuals at a higher risk of traction alopecia. These alternatives are typically applied with less tension on strands and the hair may also be not as heavy on the scalp.
I want you to enjoy the freedom of wearing your hair in whichever style you prefer and protective styles are great for certain occasions and provide great variety for brief periods! Knowing how to protect your hair and skin while making choices that allow you to live your best life is what this blog post is all about. Have a healthy and stylish start to the summer!
Live free and clear!
Dr. Shari Hicks-Graham