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How Cornrows And Other Protective Hairstyles Can Cause Hair Loss

One of the United States’ leading digital magazines aimed at the country’s African American community is championing the return of a look that can lead to hair loss.

Jet Magazine, which had been a news-stand staple in the US since the 1950s before it went online a couple of years ago, wrote recently that “Cornrows are back”. They also added that by wearing them, “they will grow your hair better than any other protective styles.”

When people have cornrows, the ends of the hair are tucked so as not to be exposed. Additional add wefts of real or synthetic hair can also be added in. Whilst the ends of the hair may be sheltered, calling tightly braided hairstyles ‘protective’ is highly misleading, however.

‘Protective hairstyles’ can cause hair loss

Jet’s writer explains how cornrows were popular in the 1990s and then – thanks to celebrities including singer/songwriter Alicia Keys – in the 2000s. Now, they declare that cornrows are fashionable again, and that they are one of the most trending looks on Instagram.

Traction Alopecia Contributing Factors DiagramWhile cornrows do indeed often look great, the trend could spell a worrying period for anyone concerned about losing their hair. This is why it is important for people, especially women of colour, to understand why ‘protective hairstyles’ are basically a myth, given they can frequently be damaging to their follicles, leading to damaged hair and even hair loss.

“For those new to the natural hair community, protective styling involves putting your hair into a style that involves tucking your ends away from the atmosphere to protect them from damage whilst your hair grows,” writes Natural Hair movement blogger, Naturally Curly. “The premise is that if the ends of your hair don’t break and your hair continues to grow, then you will achieve longer hair.”

Unfortunately, this is not often the reality, with many women developing hair breakage, knots and thinning hair.

Snatched edges from tight hairstyles

A fully-preventable hair loss condition named Traction Alopecia is most commonly caused by tight and/or weighty hairstyles that place undue and prolonged stress on the hair follicle. Alongside cornrows, bantu knots, locs and high ponytails, hair extensions and weaves are among the worst offenders. These cause hair loss not only at the sites of the tension, but also around the hairline, particularly the temples, which can recede. Thinning edges are a common sign of traction alopecia due to the hairline bearing the brunt of the strain, and the temple area hairs being the weakest on the scalp.

The Black women’s lifestyle magazine, Essence.com rightly explains: “For Black women, the term “snatched edges” is one of endearment, used to highlight a particularly amazing moment or describe thinning edges in a friendlier way. But if you’ve personally experienced hair loss near the temple area, there’s nothing funny or amazing about the struggle to grow them back.”

In fact, in 2016 researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA, said that after reviewing no less than 19 separate studies, they concluded that there was a “strong association” between certain hairstyles and Traction Alopecia. Alarmingly, they claimed that one-third of African American women were affected by related Traction Alopecia hair loss.

The report ended with a set of guidelines which suggested that tautly braided hairstyles should never be worn for more than three months at a time.

The problem with cornrows being “cool” again is that it is often celebrities that are helping to shape public opinion – and they frequently give something of a false impression. For example, though Beyoncé was snapped at the Coachella festival with an impressive head of heavily-beaded locs, what many people don’t realise is that, not only does she have a glam squad with hair consultants ready to give the best care and attention that money can by, she also has her own wig closet. Many of her ‘new looks’ are the result of wigs, worn to protect her hair from the rigours of constant hairstyles, over-dyeing and heat-styling – all of which can cause varying degrees of hair breakage and hairloss.

Celebrities regularly change their hairstyles every few weeks, whereas in the “real world” people who have spent a small fortune on a full head of expertly-woven cornrows may well feel tempted to leave them in for considerably longer. Which can be where problems begin.

Traction Alopecia treatment can be very effective, but it will not be able to work miracles on severely damaged scalps where follicles have effectively died. At Belgravia, recovery begins with a client first selecting a hairstyle that is gentler on the roots – preferably wearing their natural hair as it is, as simply as possible. Next a bespoke regime is put in place, featuring topical applications of high strength minoxidil which is applied to the scalp where needed in order to promote regrowth. A range of supplementary products known as hair growth boosters – which range from handheld laser devices to daily Hair Vitalics for Women hair growth supplements – can complement the action of this treatment.

Afro hair particularly susceptible

The Jet magazine article does acknowledge that pause for thought is required before dashing off to get cornrows, and the writer’s top tip is to moisturise hair and seal ends with oil to prevent breakage before braiding. While this can help to keep the end in good condition, it will not be able to resolve the issue if hair has been woven too tightly.

Diagram Showing Hair Fibre Characteristics by Race

Hair Follicle Characteristics by Race

Says Leonora Doclis, senior hair loss specialist at Belgravia: “Wearing these styles for short periods occasionally is fine, but realistically not many of us change our hairstyles as often as celebrities and wearing tight hairstyles – which can be made even worse by the addition of extra hair and accessories such as beads which put extra weight and strain on the follicles – can do real damage. If you wear tight hairstyles on a regular basis, avoid making matters worse by excluding harsh chemicals like bleach or relaxers in your routine.”

“Traction Alopecia can affect people of all races and hair types, however, Afro hair is particularly susceptible. This is because it is naturally more brittle than European/Caucasian and Asian hair types. This is why Black men and women in particular need to understand the potential risks involved with various aspects of hair styling, and – crucially – how to minimise them.”

“Although traction alopecia is often reversible with dedicated treatment and maintaining a healthier approach to hair styling, this is not always the case. Refusing to leave behind these damaging practices, even for regular short breaks, can lead to baldness. This is something that the Black community is becoming increasingly aware of and looking to prevent. This pro-active trend can be seen in the positive surge in the Natural Hair movement, and celebrities like Naomi Campbell and Amandla Stedberg speaking out not only about hair loss experiences, but also encouraging women of colour to accept and enjoy their natural hair texture.”


Circ - Minoxidil iconThe Belgravia Centre

The Belgravia Centre is the leader in hair loss treatment in the UK, with two clinics based in Central London. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation Form from anywhere in the UK or the rest of the world. View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which are the largest collection of such success stories in the world and demonstrate the levels of success that so many of Belgravia’s patients achieve. You can also phone 020 7730 6666 any time for our hair loss helpline or to arrange a free consultation.


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