Written by Sade Oguntola - Nigeria
Chemical hair relaxers and extensions have found widespread use among women because of the desire to look beautiful, be socially acceptable and because of the convenience and ease of managing such hair. Experts warn, however, that these beautification processes, are not without their hazards to the users, reports Sade Oguntola.
Stella Okonkwo's hair had damaged over the years from decades of wearing weaves and hair extensions. The more her hair was thinning out and damaged, the more reliant she was on extensions to cover up her bald spots.
"Over a period of five years my hair was thin and damaged. The colour changed from black to reddish brown because of the frequency of applying relaxer, weaves and sometimes glue to make some hair styles," retorted Mrs Okonkwo, a school teacher. She admitted that the hair loss was worse when she wears tiny weaves or glues hair extension.
Hair loss is an epidemic among Nigerian women. It is a significant problem for women of all ages, especially now that hairstyles and braids are done on relaxed hair. Hairstyles like braids and extensions onto the hair put pressure on the relaxed hair, which results in hair breaking or falling out.
Dr Bola Ogunbiyi, a consultant dermatologist, University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State, said "loss of hair along the hairline as a result of pulling hair into a tight pony tail, braids and weaves, is the commonest hair loss in women."
Dr Ogunbiyi, while stating that not all cases of hair loss are due to hair care practices, declared that some hair loss begins in the centre of the scalp and spreads out.
"Our hair care practices are something that we should begin to look at. What we do to our hair, all the things that we apply to our hair can all contribute to hair loss," she stated.
According to Dr Ogunbiyi, "one of the things we speculate is the hair styles, the African hair is difficult to manage in its natural state and this is one of the reasons why many women are looking for a way out. This is the reason many women relax their hair and do jerry curls and until recently braid with hair extensions."
But causes of hair loss are several, including chemical relaxers or hot combing. The hair texture in Africans is essentially oily and the process of straightening makes it easier to comb and style. This beautification process, however, is not without its own hazards to the users.
Dr Ogunbiyi declared: "when women go to retouch their hair at the salon, for instance, many do not check the instruction that is written on the pack of the hair relaxer package. For instance, on the pack is written the length of time that the relaxer should stay on the hair before it is washed off to prevent hair damage. But many at times, people do not comply.
"Relaxers are of different strengths- super, regular and mild strength relaxers. Where a longer length of time is required for the hair to relax, a chemical hair relaxer with a higher strength should be used. But a lot of people keep the relaxers on until they feel pain or it is ready to be washed off. This invariably contributes to hair damage."
Why does wrong use of relaxers damage the hair? "Basically, what the relaxer does is to break the bond in the hair that makes it curly, thus straightening the hair. But when the relaxer is over applied, the hair begins to have split ends and then it begins to break. That is why over a period of time, the hair becomes fluffy.
"In some instances, the relaxer is supposed to be applied to the undergrowth. But, many times, the relaxer is applied both to the whole length of the hair, including the portion of the hair that had initially been relaxed. This invariably contributes to hair loss."
The medical expert lamented the increasing cases of hair loss in young girls, all in a bid by parents to make them look beautiful.
"A recent study that we did showed that parents, all because they want to make their young girls beautiful, braid their hair or have them fix hair extensions and beads," Dr Ogunbiyi said. "We have seen girls who are between three and four years old already with hair loss along the hair line. Their parents usually say that the hair will grow back, but the truth is that at a certain stage, the hair would stop growing as it should. The hair loss then becomes permanent."
But hair loss is not only a problem in Nigerian children. The same is the case in South Africa. In fact, a report from the University of Cape Town warned against use of hair relaxers on school girls and young women because it can lead to total baldness.
The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, indicated that chemical relaxers cause irreversible damage to the scalp.
The researchers wrote that "the link between relaxers and hair loss was becoming clearer". The highest risk of hair loss happens when hairstyles and braids are done on relaxed hair, which results in hair breaking or falling out.
What is more, a study carried out to assess the adverse outcomes of repeated regular application of chemical hair relaxation among women in South West, Nigeria documented major side effects of hair relaxers to include itchy scalp, dandruff, burnt/scarred scalp, thinning and weakening of hair shaft, hair discolouration, hair loss, and allergic reactions to the chemicals.
The 2009 study documented in the Journal of Pakistan Association of Dermatologists was carried out by Dr Olayinka A Olasode from the Department of Dermatology & Venereology, College of Health Sciences, Obafemi Awolowo University Ile Ife, Osun State.
Many people who had lost their hair had passed through the doors of hair salon, but hardly seen by dermatologists who could have helped in putting a stop to hair loss. Ironically, Dr Ogunbiyi stated that although hair will always fall because it is a dead tissue, some cases of hair loss are manifestations of some health problems such as diseases of the scalp.
"One of the manifestations of some medical diseases is hair loss. The person is complaining to her hair stylists of hair loss, but the hair stylist does not have a clue as to why there is hair loss."
However, she cautioned individuals against waving hair loss away as not too important, stating that hair dressers should always refer hair problems to dermatologists for expert care.
Dr Ogunbiyi stated that for good hair growth, it was important to eat balanced diet, control stress and maintain good hair care practices such as regular washing and oiling of the hair and scalp.
So what is the best hairstyle to maintain to reduce hair loss? Well it is better to choose a style that does not need too much maintenance and lesser amount of additives, such as hair sprays and gels.