Plait Complaint Tight Braiding Can Lead To Scalp Damage And Hair Loss, A Some African-american Women Are Learning

Posted: August 16, 1999

They're stylish, fashionable and easy to manage, but do cornrows and braids come at a cost?

Can braids cause baldness?

"Seven years ago, someone braided my hair too tight and I lost a lot of hair in my hairline," said Sharon Beckett, 34, who has been getting her hair braided since she was 15.

"It still hasn't completely strengthened. I still have areas that need to grow," she said, pointing to areas of her hairline.

After losing her hair, Beckett, of Olney, became self-conscious. "You can't go about freely and feel like you look your best," she said.

And unlike hair loss on the crown of the head, the hairline area above the forehead is hard to hide. Beckett did her best: She always wore head wraps, scarves or headbands.

She said she has even seen people use mascara to create a lower hairline.

Beckett is not alone. Doctors refer to the problem as "traction alopecia," defined as "hair loss caused by pulling or traction on the hair follicles," said Michael Ioffreda, a dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

At higher risk are African-American females, including children.

"Many African-American women have tightly coiled hair and that type of hair is more susceptible to breakage and damage," said Susan Taylor, a Society Hill dermatologist.

In addition, the hairstyles that African-American females wear may contribute to the problem.

"In many, many cases, it's related to tight braiding or plaiting or a ponytail," said Harold E. Pierce, dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon for 50 years.

But many African-American women don't always take necessary precautions to avoid traction alopecia. Sporting the latest style often takes precedence.

"Women tend to want what they want at any cost," said Gerry Mayo, a cosmetology teacher and owner of Endless Creations Ltd., a salon.

But, she says, "it's more important to get what you need for your hair."

Ponytails, cornrows, weaves and braids are fashionable, yet hair strands are often over-stretched when forced into these styles. Women often tell beauticians to pull their hair tighter so that it will last longer, but Mayo said it's braiding technique, not how tight the braid is, that enables braiding styles to last.

Although women look in the mirror to style or comb their hair, they may not notice hair loss until the hairline has receded significantly.

"It's often not noticed until the hair's not there, and at that point it's on the late side," Ioffreda said.

If pulled too tight over a period of three to five years, hair follicles can be damaged permanently.

Traction alopecia "slowly destroys hair follicles a little at a time, so eventually you have a thinned patch," said Ioffreda. "And once they're dead, you can't bring them back."

Warning signs include bumps, soreness and redness on the scalp within a few days after the hairstyle has been completed. Medications can soothe the scalp, but the first thing doctors tell patients is to discontinue the tight 'do.

They "can continue to get braids or continue to have hair loss," said Taylor.

Traction alopecia is not only a problem for women with tight hairstyles; men who wear cornrows are not immune.

"We have guys that want to come in and look like [Allen] Iverson," said Mayo.

New York Knicks star Latrell Sprewell is rumored to be suffering from traction alopecia, along with rapper Coolio and singer Stevie Wonder.

And it's not just hairstyles that cause the condition, experts said.

"Cotton pillowcases alone can cause friction," Mayo explained, resulting in "hair loss around the edges" of the forehead and temple area. And people who use hair rollers regularly are at risk.

Taylor, the Society Hill dermatologist, says the weight and length of the braids also is a factor. And damage can occur even after the wearer has decided to stop wearing braids and cornrows. Experts said hair loss can be exacerbated by excessive pulling of the hair in an attempt to remove the braids.

But aside from taking the braids out improperly, some say the root of the problem is a cultural thing. African-American women often associate pain with their hairstyles, dating back to when their mothers combed their hair as children.

"Women tend to accept the pain as being normal," said Mayo.

But she says women should break away from this way of thinking. "People come here to relax, and braiding should be a relaxing time," she said.

Send e-mail to mcphaia@phillynews.com

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