Cheryl Swinger damaged her hair over the years, after two decades of wearing weaves. The more her hair dropped out, the more reliant she was on extensions to cover up her bald spots.
“Over a period of 16 years my hair was thin and damaged,” says Swinger, 47, a hospital administrative assistant, based in Atlanta. “I used sew-in and glue but the damage was worse with glue.”
She admits, though, she wore her weaves for far too long. “By the time I was ready to take it out I would lose my own hair,” says Swinger. “I have lost whole braids before.”
In fact, according to some dermatologists, hair loss is epidemic among black American women. “Hair loss is a significant problem for many African-American women of all ages,” says Dr. Susan Taylor, a Harvard-trained dermatologist. “I probably see 20 women a week with hair loss.”
Afro-textured hair tends to be dryer and more prone to breakage and certain hairstyles can result in stress to the scalp, say hair experts.
The most common problems for women of color are central centrifugal cicatricial alopeci (CCCA) and traction alopecia. Both these conditions can be reversible, but can also lead to permanent damage to hair follicles.
With CCCA, hair loss begins in the center of the scalp and spreads out; it is caused by multiple factors, including chemical relaxers or hot combing. Traction alopecia, which many believe supermodel Naomi Campbell is suffering from, is hair loss that occurs as a result of continuous pulling of the hair.
“For traction alopecia, avoid any tight hairstyles including braids with extensions, tight weaves, tight ponytails and cornrow,” says Dr. Taylor. “For CCCA, you will need to have a biopsy performed to confirm the diagnosis and then begin treatment with creams, injections or pills.”
Dr. Phoenyx Austin, author of If You Love It, It Will Grow: A Guide To Growing Long Afro-Textured Hair, says women failing to care for their own hair underneath braids, weaves and other types of extensions can also cause extensive damage.
“It’s easy to forget about maintaining your own hair when a weave or wig is on top,” says Dr. Phoenyx. “It’s about taking care of what’s underneath — now you have another layer of hair you pay attention to.”
Dr. Phoenyx says one of the problems for women who continuously wear extensions is that they are cannot properly wash or condition their own hair. But “hair follicles are living things,” she says. “They need oxygen and nutrients.”
For Swinger, the only option now is a wearing a fitted custom wig, which has been her preferred hairstyle for the last four years. She says her hair is healthier and she can condition her locks when necessary.
Rose Kelly, a hair extensions expert and owner of Salon Nede, is the stylist who fits Swinger’s wigs. “I tell my clients they can achieve what they want to achieve but with less aggressive methods.”
“Women need to get weaves or hair extensions professionally installed and professionally cared for,” says Kelly. “Don’t wear the hair for too long. I’d advise two to three months, only if the weaves are done well. The hair also needs to be cleaned and dried properly to avoid damage.”
With the ever-growing problem of hair loss among black women is the increasing popularity of “miracle” hair products to repair broken hair. One such product is T444Z.
“Hair loss among black people is at its all-time high,” says Lois Machamire, one of the T444Z U.S regional distributors. “T444Z works to eliminate that problem. We have developed a product, using traditional herbs and plants extracts, that wasn’t produced in a laboratory but through years of dedication, hard work, commitment and patience.”
In extreme cases, women even resort to surgery. “Hair transplants have become increasingly popular for women,” says Hart Monroe, a patient services representative at Bosley, a hair restoration provider. “A substantial number of our clientele are now women and a good proportion of these are African-American.”
Indeed, hair loss among black women is a big issue, exacerbated by the use of wigs, hair pieces, micro braids and chemicals not always compatible with afro hair. The question is, will women who care about their appearance ever give up the desire for quick fixes and instant beauty?
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