Wearing a weave or an extension? Handle your scalp and your own hair with care. (Photo: Iconogenic/Getty Images)

Wearing a weave or an extension? Handle your scalp and your own hair with care. (Photo: Iconogenic/Getty Images)

We’re no strangers to the transformative power of a little “hair enhancement” via weaves, wigs and extensions, which date back to Cleopatra. (Even Auntie and Nana were among some of the women who had a “church wig” for Sunday morning.)

Today, we use these enhancements to give our hair a rest when we are transitioning from relaxed to natural, to add a little volume, to wear color without damaging our own tresses, to maximize beach time and to just have fun by switching up our look.

While not everyone is on board with black women enhancing their natural locks with hair that they bought from the store, it’s nothing new to the masses. Once a well-kept secret, celebs like Fergie and Gwyneth Paltrow regularly add volume and length with some extra hair.

As with most things in life, moderation is key here, too. Dermatologists and hairstylists consistently tell me that they are seeing scores of women who come in with thinning, broken, damaged hair caused by the constant use of weaves. Now, we’re not saying we should toss all that hair in the trash. What we do suggest is that you handle your scalp and your own hair with care.

Keep in mind that today’s increasingly sophisticated methods often require the use of irritating glues, scalp-torturing sewing techniques, and human hair extensions treated with formaldehyde or other chemicals to keep it soft and supple.

Problems arise because our naturally curly or kinky tresses are especially sensitive to stress, dyes and other styling treatments. You need only glimpse super model Naomi Campbell’s hairline to see what years of a tight weave can do. And actress Countess Vaughn publicly shared her horror story of a damaged scalp and hair loss. She silently suffered with a reaction caused by the glue she was using on her lacefront wig.

So what’s a woman who loves a little versatility do to?

We went to board-certified dermatologist Seymour Weaver, M.D., (drseymourweaver.com) in Katie, Texas, for the scoop. Over the years, he has brought women back from the brink of severe hair loss. Here’s what he had to say about wearing hair extensions without sacrificing the health of your scalp and hair.

Some women use glue to attach their weaves and wigs. What type of reactions can a woman get from using glue?
Applying glue directly to a person’s scalp is a bad idea no matter what. With repeated application and removal, this process can lead to pulling the hair out and triggering an inflammatory response identical to traction alopecia [the partial or complete loss of hair]. Or the glue can be toxic and cause direct injury to hair follicles. The reactions to the glue can range from no symptoms at all to severe itching, pain and discomfort. For women with no reaction, they will usually come into the office and complain of hair thinning in the areas the glue has been applied.

If breakage and thinning occur as a result of extensions, like braids, can it lead to permanent baldness? How can you tell if the baldness can be reversed?
Breakage and thinning that occur as a result of extensions can definitely lead to permanent baldness. Thinning strands is usually what causes the patients that I see to decide to seek medical attention. From one perspective, it’s more important initially to stop the progression of the hair loss and thinning rather than to try and reverse the baldness.

For some reason with these types of hair-loss conditions, once the switch is turned on, that starts the process. It does not stop when the source of initial inflammation is removed. The hair loss can continue to progress for years for unknown reasons.

So, if a person starts to develop hair loss because of extensions and weaves then stops wearing weaves and extensions and decides to switch to a natural hairstyle for example, the hair loss can continue to progress. Going natural is not always a cure for medical hair loss and does not cause the problem to stop. To really know what’s going on with a person’s scalp requires doing a skin biopsy to be sure.

What scalp issues should women address before they decide to wear a weave?
There are three things to address before the weave is even used. First, it is important for anyone who has itching and flaking of the scalp to treat it appropriately to make sure that the scalp is healthy before adding a weave.

I have some patients who still believe in the concept of “growing dandruff,” which they interpret to mean that the dandruff is there because their hair is growing more, which is really not the case. If the scalp is healthy, there should be no itching or flaking at all. Over-the-counter products or prescription medications can be used to clear the scalp of these symptoms.

Secondly, if your scalp is tender to the touch, this is usually a sign of bacteria and medical treatment is usually required to resolve it. Some individuals with tenderness might develop pimples and pustules, which are visible, but on other occasions the scalp can be tender and look perfectly normal. In either state, it is essential to get treatment before it leads to hair loss.

Lastly, I would advise women not to wear a weave to mask hair loss without seeing a doctor first. Some of my clients say they originally started wearing the weave to cover up a small area of hair loss maybe the size of a quarter, but over the years, the spot kept getting bigger and bigger until they no longer had enough hair left to attach the weave to. If a hair-loss problem exists before starting to wear a weave, it’s best to get a medical diagnosis and treatment first before choosing weaves or extensions.

For your clients who love to wear weaves what advice do you give them so they avoid damage?
Knowing how important it is for a woman to achieve the look she wants, I try to compromise and help them find a way to have the hairstyle they want and still maintain a healthy scalp. At this point, a number of my patients wear weaves or extensions that are attached to a cap-like covering that they wear so that the glue is not directly in contact with their scalp.

Other patients get “sew ins” where their hair is braided loosely (never so tight that it will cause traction-related inflammation), and the weaved hair is sewn into the braids without creating additional tension on the scalp. I also have patients who decide to use clip-ins. These are the safest since there isn’t any direct contact to the scalp at all.

Marcia Caster is a beauty writer and founder of Beauty Beat Box, a beauty samples box for women of color. For more beauty tidbits, follow her on Twitter @marciacaster and visit beautybeatbox.com.

Natural Rx for Thinning Hair

There’s still no absolute cure for hair loss, but some women find relief from shedding and thinning hair by using treatments that heal irritated scalps and dry damaged hair. Try these three gentle remedies:

  1. Phytotraxil Spray. This new spray and product line from Phytospecific (the company that produces that safest perm on the market) is created just for women who are losing hair as a result of weaves, braids, relaxing and heat styling. The clean-smelling, easy-to-use spray is infused with vitamins and botanicals. It’s the key product in an entire line designed to address thinning caused by traction.
  2. Argan OilPura d’or’s organic hair loss prevention shampoo is an argan oil-based treatment that also has 15 DHT blockers. (Dihydrotestosterone is a testosterone byproduct that is a key contributor to hair loss.) The shampoo is free of parabens and harsh chemicals.
  3. Sage Shampoo by Maple Holistics. This sage, tea-tree and jojoba shampoo is designed to dandruff and flaking and sooth an irritated scalp.