What is traction alopecia? Why are my edges thinning? How can I grow back my edges? This is a recurring question on my social media platforms.
There are several causes of hair loss. Your hair loss can be due to genetics (or autoimmune), diet, hormones, stress, medications, ageing, and problematic hairstyling (leading to Traction Alopecia). Did you know that Traction Alopecia (TA) affects one-third of women of African descent who wear various forms of traumatic hairstyles for a prolonged period of time? Due to this high prevalence in our population, I will focus on Traction Alopecia in this blog post covering the following topics:
- What is Traction Alopecia?
- What causes Traction Alopecia?
- Subtle signs and symptoms of Traction Alopecia
- How to prevent and reverse Traction Alopecia
Your edges are the most visible part of your hair. It has the finest, shortest, and most fragile hairs, and it does not take much to break them off or pull them. Despite this knowledge, our edges are also where many women (especially women of African descent) do the most styling. We braid them back, slick them down with gel, flat-iron them, and brush them into submission, putting them at risk of thinning or balding, also known as TRACTION ALOPECIA.
It can be difficult to hide when something is going wrong with our edges, and so naturally, the instinct is to try to fix it as soon as possible or cover it up with a wig or scarf, which could put it into a vicious cycle of further damage.
To understand how to (or if you can) fix your edges, first, you must understand the root problem with the said edges.
What is Traction Alopecia?
Alopecia is a general term for hair loss. Traction alopecia is a type of hair loss caused by constant pulling (traction), leading to bald patches as the hair is pulled from the root. This pulling is often related to tension from hair styling.
It is important to note that this is different from the condition called “Trichotillomania”, where people have the desire to pull their own hair.
What causes traction alopecia?
1. Habits that pull your hair out by the roots; examples are:
- Making your braids, twists, locks, and cornrows too tight
- Using large amounts of braid extension hair on a small section of your hair
- Using very long braiding extensions
- Having a tight ponytail
- Wearing the same protective style all the time.
2. Habits that dry out the hairs on the edges leaving them prone to breakage or split ends which gradually progresses to hair loss
- Glueing down your wigs too close to your edges
- The glue makes the hair on our edges prone to dryness leading to the splitting of the hairs on the edges, and because the splits have a short distance to go to the root, the split gets to the roots faster. Once that happens, the hair bulb, which is the part of the hair strand in the hair follicle, becomes loose and falls from the follicle.
- Relaxing your edges inappropriately for that slicked edges look
- Relaxing your hair in general causes your hair cuticles to lift, predisposing your hair to dryness. The ability of your hair to retain moisture becomes quite poor, and if the hair can’t retain moisture, the hair becomes dry, easy to break, and develops split ends. Again with the hair on your edges being shorter in general, it means the split ends get to the root of the hair faster, and once the hair splits down to the root, it falls off the hair follicle.
- Using gels that are drying on your edges.
- Re-braiding or re-twisting too often.
3. Habits around your hair tools and techniques
- Wearing the same protective style all the time.
- Sleeping without your satin bonnet or scarf.
- Tying your scarf too tight: This potentially cuts off circulation to the hair follicles on your edges due to the tightness of the scarf, starving off those follicles and leading to hair loss in the areas affected.
- Using the wrong hairbrush or comb for your hair type.
- Neglecting your edges when you moisturize your hair
Subtle signs and symptoms of Traction Alopecia
Traction alopecia can happen gradually, so it may take a while to notice your hairline receding. Here are some signs and symptoms that you could look out for which may help you stop it in its tracts before it becomes evident or, worse, permanent. These symptoms would typically occur in the areas that eventually become affected:
- Increased flakiness
- White skin flakes attached to the based of the hair
- Shiny scalp
- this is usually seen if the traction in that area is longstanding (years) and often indicates permanent damage.
- Changes to the thickness and strength of the hair on your hairline
Now you know why your edges are thinning. The question is, “Is it reversible, if yes, how? Stick with me while I explain.
Luckily, traction alopecia is reversible if the problem is identified early and the cause is eliminated. However, when traction alopecia is longstanding and these detrimental hair practices are continued, it could damage the hair follicles permanently, making it irreversible unless surgical intervention is explored.
How to prevent and reverse further occurrence of Traction Alopecia
1. First and foremost, avoid or stop any of the above offending habits which may be causing the damage.
This would help to prevent further damage and facilitate recuperation of the hair follicles.
2. Moisturise your hair including your edges before you protective-style it.
Dry hair leads to breakage and damage. Your moisturiser must contain water or, if you prefer oil, ensure your hair is damp before applying the oil. It is also important to have them moisturised even if you plan to lay down your edges with a gel.
3. Avoid wearing your extensions for longer than 5-6 weeks
When you keep your extension for a long time, you start to notice some growth from the base, and the longer the extensions stay in, the looser the braid becomes at the base. This means the braids would tend to pull more at your roots with even the littlest manipulation.
4. Give your hair a break in between prolonged protective hairstyles for at least 2 weeks minimum (4 weeks is ideal)
Constantly wearing a protecting style puts tension on the roots of your hair, which leave your hair, especially the edges, fragile and prone to fall out. When you take down the braids you’ve had on for 2 months, switch it up and leave your hair in a loose ponytail or bun for a week or so to give your hair a break.
5. Change up your protective hairstyles.
For example, you might have your hair in braids now; on your next protective style, opt for a different hairstyle. This balances the direction of pull for your hair so that it is less fragile at the roots.
6. Opt for a knotless braid in place of the traditional braids.
Knotless braids start with your own hair, and then extensions are gradually fed into the braids. This reduces the tension at the base of the hair shaft by the extensions. Better yet, if your hair is long enough, braid with just your hair (no extensions).
7. Leave out your edges when you braid, twist or cornrow your hair.
This gives them some break from all the tension from your styling.
8. Remember! Oil is not a moisturiser.
Never apply oil on dry edges or hair in general. Have it slightly damp first before applying your oil or hair cream that does not contain water as its first ingredient.
9. Massage your scalp including your edges daily.
Massaging the scalp daily stimulates increased blood circulation to the scalp making the nutrients in your blood accessible to your hair follicles to generate new growth.
10. Use a hair growth serum to massage your scalp (ideally every other day)
You may be wondering why this is not number one not the list. I’ll tell you why.
You could apply all the hair growth serum in the world but if you continue with those haircare practices that are inflicting the bald patches on your edgiest he growth serum will forever be playing catch up and you’ll never actually see the results.
In addition, most times, you may not even need a growth serum to reverse the damage.
That being said, it is important to note that not all hair serum is created equal. Stay tuned for a post on “The Ultimate Guide to choosing a Hair growth Serum.”
11. Use the “over-the-counter” remedy for hair growth containing Minoxidil aka Rogaine.
Minoxidil is a vasodilator, which means that it dilates the muscles of the blood vessels on your scalp so that blood flows more easily where it’s applied. This, in turn, increases access of your hair follicles to nutrients from the blood. It prolongs the growth phase of the hair follicles, slows or stops hair loss, and encourages new hair growth.
It comes in 2 % and 5 %, my advise is to start with the 2% dose. Look out for side effects such as burning, redness, dizziness, feeling faint, and trigger of eczema or dermatitis. This is not an exhaustive list; the product would often list these and more on the packaging.
12. Maintain a balanced diet.
Avoid crash diets or prolonged fasting. Protein and vitamins especially are great for re-growing your edges and for hair growth in general.
13. Stay hydrated
Hydrating from the inside out
If you’re not actively doing damage to your edges but continue to lose your edges, you may have genetic or autoimmune-related alopecia. In this case, please see your dermatologist immediately. The sooner you see one, the higher the chance of having productive results with the treatment you would be offered.
A happy haircare journey to you!
Billero V, Miteva M. Traction alopecia: the root of the problem. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2018;11:149-159