When you look in the mirror, do you wonder what’s happening to your hairline? Are you having problems with your edges or controlling tiny broken strands? You could be experiencing the onset of traction alopecia.
Keep reading to learn what this condition is, and what you can do about it before it’s too late.
Unlike other types of alopecia, it’s not caused by genetic or immune factors. Only the hair weakened by traction is affected. Anyone, of any gender, ethnicity or age can experience it.
Traction alopecia occurs when hair is pulled repeatedly in a certain way over a long period of time. Damage is done to your hair follicles from the pulling (or traction) used in frequent styling. This repeated stress weakens the hair shaft at the follicle. Some changes can be reversed, but others are permanent.
Traction Alopecia – Is It Too Late?
While this condition can occur in people of any age, you’re more likely to suffer from it as you get older. This is because hair loss due to traction will progress over time if tight styling habits are maintained.
Each time your hair is pulled too tightly, the follicle gets a little more damaged. Gradually, it produces hair that becomes weaker and thinner and eventually, it stops producing hair altogether. Shiny patches of smooth, bald skin on the scalp are scarring sites which indicate advanced traction alopecia.
You’ll find signs of traction alopecia along your forehead, nape, sides and temples and often presents as a receding hairline or thin and breaking hairs. Some may experience small pimples or infections, itchiness, swelling, or redness. It takes time for the damage to become noticeable, so you might not realise that it’s happening until the problem is quite far along.
Traction alopecia is reversible only if you recognise it early and do something about it. Once your scalp is scarred, your hair won’t grow back.
How to Prevent Traction Alopecia
The best way to prevent traction alopecia is by understanding how it starts.
Traction alopecia is more common among people who wear tight hairstyles every day. This is especially true for a lot of afro hair styling techniques, professions that require the hair to be tied back tightly, such as dancers or sportspeople, and those that wear tight head scarves or turbans.
Here are a few examples of hairstyling techniques that cause traction alopecia:
- Tight buns and ponytails
- Long dreadlocks or locs that are frequently and tightly retwisted/interlocked.
- Braiding and tight corn rowing
- Wigs, particularly lace front/closures
- Hair extensions
Remember, most stylists are not hair experts, they are styling experts. Their specialisation is to make your hair look good, which isn’t always best for the health of your hair follicle or scalp.
If you’re noticing signs of traction alopecia, the very first thing you can do is to change your styling routine. Stop the pulling and treat your hair gently. Speak up at the salon and explain your requirements to your stylist. Express yourself if your hair is being pulled painfully tight.
Avoid any further chemical processing or heat on your hair, including colouring, perming or straightening. These types of processes weaken the hair further and can cause inflammation to your scalp surface and follicles.
When styling your hair, remove any added weight such as extensions and aim to keep styles as big and as loose as possible. For example if you are planning to cornrow your own hair, try and use as few cornrows as possible over your head. As cornrowing can be tricky without making the plaits very small, you may wish to try single twisting your hair to keep your hair detangled and styled while limiting any tension at the roots.
Styles should be changed on a weekly basis as a minimum, giving you a chance to wash your hair and scalp regularly and treat any areas of concern.
Importantly, don’t be fooled into thinking that some hairstyling practices such as braiding, weaving and using wigs are “protective”.
They are not, as we explain below:
While there are some things you can do by yourself, consulting a professional is best. A trichologist is a hair and scalp specialist who will assess the state of your hair and scalp. In addition, he or she will consider your styling history and practices to give you the most appropriate advice.
They will be able to identify if there is scarring present and whether there are opportunities for recovery. They will know the right treatment for your specific condition and whether onward referral is necessary.
The psychological impact of hair loss has been examined by science and can have far-reaching effects. One source says, “Hair is essential to the identity of many women. Femininity, sexuality, attractiveness, and personality are symbolically linked to a woman’s hair, more so than for a man. Hair loss can therefore seriously affect self-esteem and body image.”
Hair loss is rarely an easy process to accept or endure. As a society we place an unrealistic amount of value on long, strong and healthy hair. Therefore, disguising hair loss can boost confidence and help us to cope.
Wigs, extensions, and weaves have been used extensively to disguise hair loss in recent years. However, for those who have weaker follicles this is incredibly problematic, particularly in conditions where recovery may still be possible. In many cases, these disguise tactics can lead to increased pressure on struggling follicles and can actually worsen hair loss further, even leading to irreversible damage.
When seeking treatment for hair loss, even when it is as preventable as traction alopecia, it’s essential to talk to specialists who understand the problem. Attempting treatment that is unlikely to be effective may be more harmful to their mental health than medically helpful.
Losing your hair extends beyond vanity. For many, the scarring caused by traction alopecia can result in painful psychological and emotional distress.
If you have made it to the end of this article, congratulations. Educating yourself empowers you to take positive steps toward your own well-being. Your best defence is knowing how traction alopecia starts in the first place and understanding the next steps to mitigate the problem.
Simple changes like changing your hairstyling habits may put you out of your comfort zone, but it may also be a refreshing opportunity to reinvent yourself.
If you’d like some advice, we invite you to talk to a consultant who will be able to guide you further.