Many African-American women desire to maintain healthy hair while wearing hairstyles that reflect their personality and individual style. Recent reports reveal that some African-American women decide to avoid exercising or water sports due to concerns about their hair.1-2 Given that 80 percent of African-American women are overweight or obese, avoiding exercise because of hair presents a public health challenge and an opportunity. Former US Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, partnered with a popular hair show tailored toward African-American hair stylists to challenge them to create “exercise-friendly” hairstyles.3

In the late 1900s, the standard of beauty encompassed having long, straight hair, which continued into the twentieth century. In recent years, a movement to embrace “natural hair” has caused a significant transition. Many Black women no longer desire to chemically alter their natural curl patterns. Consumer trends research has confirmed this to be true with a documented 26 percent decrease in relaxer sales between 2008 and 2013 and a 17 percent decrease between 2006 and 2011.4 African-American hair blogs have risen in popularity in concert with the movement toward natural hair and healthier lifestyles.

This article will offer an update on current Black hair care practices, including scientific evidence and recommendations from popular natural hair care bloggers.

Hair Structure

The biochemical composition of ethnic hair is identical to those with naturally straight hair, but the morphology on cross-section is oval and the strand appears as a twisted oval rod.5 Elliptical shaped strands and curved hair follicles make curly or kinky hair more prone to form knots and tangles compared to straight hair.6 Ethnic hair has decreased water content and sebaceous gland activity that can lead to increased hair dryness as the natural oils are unable to migrate down the hair shaft, also increasing the risk of seborrheic dermatitis (SD).7 Moisturizing the hair strand is often important as the tight curl pattern makes the hair more susceptible to breakage with styling manipulation.8

Hair Cleansing

Shampoos targeted for curly hair can help to decrease hair combing friction and improve manageability.8 African-American women often limit shampooing to weekly or every other week to decrease the drying effects of frequent cleansing.5 The specific frequency of shampooing varies by activity level, with more active women often shampooing two to three times weekly. Inadequate scalp cleansing contributes to the high prevalence of SD among African-American women.8 Shampooing too frequently can increase hair breakage due to the decreased amount of sebum on the hair shaft.9

Using conditioning shampoos with protein-derived substances can help to strengthen the hair while shampoos with ceramides can help decrease hair breakage.10,11 Sulfates are surfactants largely responsible for the lathering quality of shampoos. These chemicals have been blamed for removing natural hair oils, damaging color-treated hair, causing frizziness, and irritating the skin and scalp,12 arguably leading to the popularity of sulfate-free shampoos.

Conditioner washing, also termed “co-washing”, is a method of hair cleansing where a cleansing conditioner is used. The purpose is to keep the hair moisturized by decreasing the amount of sebum loss from cleansing with a shampoo. However, co-washing is not meant to completely replace shampooing.13 It is important to use a clarifying shampoo after co-washing three to four times to prevent product buildup.14 Recently, a popular cleansing conditioner has been accused of causing hair loss.15 The photos associated with the cases demonstrate circular patches of non-scarring hair loss consistent with Alopecia Areata.

Pre-shampooing, also called “pre-pooing”, is a popular method involving application of various natural oils and/or homemade recipes containing eggs (to add protein) and honey (to add moisture) to the hair and scalp to prepare the hair for the manipulation and stress of shampooing. Various natural oils are often used to help lift the adherent scales in severe seborrheic dermatitis or sebopsoriasis, similar to the method which dermatologists often use with Fluocinolone (Derma-Smoothe®) oil overnight prior to shampooing. Table 1 lists common natural oils and their suggested hair benefits, although primary research confirming this is lacking. Coconut oil is one of the most popular oils because it can penetrate the hair shaft and reduce protein loss making it a popular pre-shampoo agent.16,17

Hair Conditioning

Hydrating conditioners for ethnic hair contain emollients to decrease hair dryness.5 Strengthening conditioners contain proteins, silicones, and polymers to help damaged hair.8 Silicones, such as dimethicone, coat the hair strand to protect from dehydration.20 Many African-American women desire to use dimethicone-free conditioners because they are water insoluble. This property often requires more sulfate-containing surfactants to remove the product from the hair.

Deep conditioners are made of thicker creams with emollients that can penetrate the hair shaft. Heat is needed for the hair shaft to swell so the conditioner can penetrate inside over the cracks in the hair cuticle. Moisturizing deep conditioners promote moisture retention and hair elasticity while protein deep conditioners increase hair strength.

“Hot oil treatments” infuse deep moisture and can help to improve hair strength. The hair oils used for pre-shampooing can be used for hot oil treatments. The oils are warmed for a few minutes in a water bath prior to applying to the hair. Once the oil is applied, the individual can sit under a dryer or wear a plastic shower cap to allow the oils to penetrate the hair shaft.

Leave-in conditioners are applied to damp hair to help improve manageability by strengthening and making it smoother for hairstyling.21 Also, leave-in conditioning products can be used to protect hair from heat and styling damage with humectants for moisture retention.8,21


For many generations, oiling or greasing the scalp has been a common practice amongst African-American women in an attempt to combat hair dryness. Many hair emollient products advertise hair growth stimulation and contain different oils to entice consumer usage. Applying hair oil/grease to hair edges can contribute to pomade acne along the forehead and temples.7 Furthermore, oiling the scalp can promote an environment for yeast to feed and grow, worsening the occurrence of SD. Wright el al demonstrated that use of hair oil/grease less often than daily (every two weeks) was significantly associated with SD. Using antiseborrheic shampoos for the scalp for 10 minutes then following with a hydrating shampoo for the hair at least once weekly is a combination that I call the “one-two punch” to help African-American women overcome their apprehension about using prescription anti-seborrheic shampoos.22

Moisturizing the hair with a lightweight moisturizer, as needed, can be used to combat dryness. Using a wide-tooth comb can help to reduce hair damage induced by hair tugging with combing. Wearing a satin bonnet and/or sleeping on a satin pillowcase nightly can also reduce hair dryness and prevent hair breakage that can occur with use of cotton linens.

Chemical Hair Straightening

Chemical relaxers, also called perms, are used to straighten curly hair. A virgin relaxer is used on hair that has never had a chemical relaxer applied. “Touch-ups” are the application of the chemical relaxer to new growth only, typically every six to eight weeks. Cystine, citrulline, and arginine in the hair structure have been found to be reduced with use of chemical relaxers possibly accounting for the increased hair fragility seen in chemically relaxed hair.23 Chemical relaxers can cause hair to be more prone to breakage at the transition of previously relaxed hair and virgin hair.

Two types of chemical relaxers are used to chemically straighten hair: lye and no-lye relaxers. Lye-containing relaxers, formulated with sodium hydroxide, should be applied by licensed cosmetologists.23 Sodium hydroxide relaxers have a shorter application time leading to less drying potential and faster hair penetration. No-lye relaxers, formulated with guanidine hydroxide, cause less scalp irritation and are marketed for at-home application.8,23 Although, it has a longer processing time and more drying potential.8 In our experience, we have seen more breakage from no-lye relaxers, possibly because they are more often applied by non-salon professionals with likely improper technique. Prior to application, a petroleum base is applied to the scalp for protection against scalp irritation and chemical burns.

Two possible adverse effects of chemical relaxer use are central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA) and traction alopecia (TA), especially when braids and weaves are applied to previously relaxed hair.23 Callender et al reported that early CCCA can present with occult hair breakage at the vertex or crown of the hair scalp. Multifactorial causation, including a family history and certain hair care practices causing traction and inflammation, are believed to be responsible for causing CCCA. Direct correlation of CCCA and chemical relaxer use has not been demonstrated, but case studies have been published that linked the two together.25 A larger cohort study is needed to further study if there is indeed a relationship between the use of chemical relaxers and CCCA.

Recommendations for Proper Flat Iron Use:

  • Set temperature no higher than 175°C or low/medium setting
  • Use a heat protectant product containing dimethicone to minimize hair damage
  • Limit flat iron use to once a week, especially in those with chemically treated hair
  • Reduce the amount of hair breakage with one to two passes of small sections of hair

Thermal straightening

Hot combing, also termed “hair pressing,” is a temporary hair straightening method where a metal comb is placed on a stovetop or in an electric marcel stove to heat the comb to a high temperature. Adverse effects of thermal straightening are scalp and/or nape burns, especially in children.26 Oils or pomades are used to straighten hair, allowing it to last until exposure to excess humidity or water. Oil products containing petroleum were first suspected of causing scarring alopecia in African-American women, first described by Lopresti et al as “hot comb alopecia.”

Now Playing on

To see Dr. Lenzy discuss hair treatments at greater length, visit Search Key: Hair.

Flat ironing is a hair straightening method used by women of all ethnicities and hair types. Ceramic flat irons conduct heat throughout the hair more effectively at a lower temperature with a decreased amount of secondary hair damage. Incorrect usage of a flat iron can cause Trichorrhexis nodosa (TN).28 Many women utilize flat ironing multiple times per week to maintain straightened hairstyles while inadvertently causing additional hair damage. The heat from the flat iron alters the hydrogen bonds of the inner hair structure which also damages the outer protective hair cuticle leading to TN. Setting the flat iron to 175°C-215°C for five minutes can cause hair damage.28 There is a decreased threshold for damage when an increased amount of heat is applied to damp or chemically treated hair.

Keratin treatments were initially marketed as “Brazilian Blowouts.” The process involves, applying a formaldehyde or non-formaldehyde containing solution to the hair, followed by blow-drying and flat ironing to seal the straightened hair appearance for two to two-and-a-half months. It is marketed that it can be safely used by those with chemically relaxed hair, highlights, and color-treated hair. A controversy associated with keratin treatments is the use of formaldehyde in the product. The health problems associated with formaldehyde exposure include blindness, bloody noses, skin sensitivity, breathing difficulties, and an increased risk of cancer.29,30 Newer keratin treatments are being marketed as formaldehyde-free in order to increase consumer use after the detrimental effects about formaldehyde became public knowledge. However, those products marketed as formaldehyde-free have been found to be converted to formaldehyde with the use of high heat.31

Figure 1. Sewn-In Weave

Figure 2. Preservation of the Anterior Hairline called the “Fringe Sign” in Traction Alopecia

Figure 3. Traditional Locs are thicker while Sisterlocks are thinner in caliber

Traction Hairstyles

Traction hairstyles include braids, cornrows, ponytails, sewn-in or glued-in weaves (shown in Figure 1), twists, dreadlocks, and sisterlocks. Cornrows and braids are often used to decrease the frequency of using chemical relaxers and thermal straightening by giving the hair “a break” from chemicals and/or to allow the previously relaxed hair to “grow out.” These types of hairstyles involve manipulating the hair into formations, which can place prolonged tension on the follicles that can lead to traction folliculitis, traction alopecia, and irreversible scarring alopecia.32 TA is hair loss secondary to tension placed on the follicles often manifesting as thinning of hair along the hairline with preservation of the anterior hairline, called the fringe sign shown in Figure 2.33 It is recommended to only apply braids, cornrows, and hair weaves to natural hair, as the risk of TA increases when traction styles are applied to relaxed hair.34 CCCA has been associated with wearing braids, cornrows, and sewn-in & glued-in weaves for cumulative years.25 Less frequent cleansing and excess hair oil use with hair weave use can increase the incidence of SD and tinea capitis.22

Dreadlocks (which many prefer the term Locs) and Sisterlocks (shown in Figure 3) involve sectioning natural hair and palm rolling or twisting the hair using balm or wax to “lock” the hair. “Locking” the hair is a permanent process until the locs are cut off, but more recently techniques have been developed to pick out locs with the combination of water and conditioners. Dreadlocks have a rich history with the Rastafarian culture, but are often worn today due to the low maintenance. Sisterlocks are similar to dreadlocks except the locks are created with a special interlocking technique to make locs thinner and lighter.

Hair Color

Hair color is used by all hair types for numerous reasons and come in various colors. There is no difference in hair color formulations for different hair types.8 Hair color application can weaken the hair and induce hair damage. Permanent hair color is associated with more hair drying and breakage due to formulation with ammonia and peroxide.35,36 Also, hair dye use can cause irritant or allergic dermatitis.21

Henna is used by those with natural hair to strengthen, deep condition, and even color hair every one to two months. This is a hair care routine that has been used for thousands of years as hair dye in the East Indian culture. On black/brown hair it appears reddish-orange in sunlight.35 Black henna is a known cause of allergic contact dermatitis and therefore is recommended to avoid as a hair color.37


African-American hair care can be a complex process. Many of the habits of Black hair care practices are based on traditions passed down through generations. New practices, such as co-washing & pre-pooing, stem from the desire to have healthy hair without the use of harsh products and chemicals. It is important for healthcare providers to be knowledgeable of current practices in order to appropriately discuss healthy hair habits in a culturally respective manner. n

Yolanda Lenzy, MD, MPH is Director of Lenzy Dermatology & Hair Loss Center and is also an instructor at University of Connecticut Department of Dermatology.

1. Hall RR, Francis S, Whitt-Glover M, Loftin-Bell K, Swett K, McMicheal AJ. Hair care practices as a barrier to physical activity in African American women. JAMA Dermatol. 2013; 149(3): 310-314.

2. Gathers RC Mahan MG. African American Women, Hair Care, and Health Barriers. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2014; 7(9):26-9.

3. Surgeon General: Don’t Let Hair Get In the Way. NPR Web Site. Published August 8, 2012. Accessed April 7, 2015.

4. Not As Addicted to Creamy Crack Anymore: Relaxer Sales Plummeting Again. Madame Noire Web Site. Published November 6, 2013. Accessed April 7, 2015.

5. Syed AN. Ethnic hair care product. In: Johnson DH, ed. Hair and Hair Care. Vol 17. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker Inc; 1997:235-259.

6. Taylor SC. Skin of color: biology, structure, function, and implications for dermatologic disease. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002;46(suppl):S41-S62.

7. Quinn CR, Quinn TM, and Kelly AP. Hair care Practices in African American Women. Cutis. 2003;72:280-282, 285-289.

8. Roseborough I, McMichael A. Hair Care Practices in African-American Patients. Semin Cutan Med Surg. 2009; 28:103-108.

9. Ogunleye TA, McMicheal A, Olsen EA. Central Centrifugal Cicatricial Alopecia: What Has Been Achieved, Current Clues for Future Research. Dermatol Clin. 2014; 32:173-181.

10. Bernard BA, Franbourg A, François AM, Gautier B, Hallegot P. Ceramide binding to African-American hair fibre correlates with resistance to hair breakage. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2002; 24(1):1-12.

11. Draelos ZD. Shampoos, conditioners, and camouflage techniques. Dermatol Clin. 2013; 31(1):173-178.

12. Silicones in Hair Products: Good or Bad? Black Hair Media Web site. Published April 12, 2012. Accessed March 18, 2015.

13. Co-Washing Natural Hair: Is Your Conditioner Good Enough? Curly Nikki: Life & Hair Therapy Web site. Published December 6, 2013. Accessed March 24, 2015.

14. 4 Tips for Effective Co-Washing. Black Girl Long Hair Web Site. Published October 8, 2012. Accessed March 24, 2015.

15. Women sue Hollywood stylist over hair loss. USA Today Web Site. Published April 3, 2015. Accessed April 8, 2015.

16. Rele AS, Mohile RB. Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. J Cosmet Sci. 2003; 54(2):175-192.

17. Ruetsch SB, Kamath YK, Rele AS, Mohile RB. Secondary ion mass spectrometric investigation of penetration of coconut and mineral oil into human hair: relevance to hair damage. J Cosmet Sci. 2001;52:169-184.

18. 7 Fabulous Natural Oils For Natural Hair Growth. Curly Nikki: Life & Hair Therapy Web site. Published November 12, 2013. Accessed March 18, 2015.

19. 3 Hair Oils for Healthy Hair. Web Site.!start. Published August 21, 2012. Accessed March 18, 2015.

20. Silicones and Other Sealants for Natural Hair. Curly Nikki: Life & Hair Therapy Web site. Published May 11, 2011. Accessed March 18, 2015.

21. The Science Behind Hair Conditioners- Common Ingredients. Curly Nikki: Life & Hair Therapy Web site. Published September 18, 2013. Accessed March 18, 2015.

22. Rucker Wright D, Gathers R, Kapke A, Johnson D. Joseph CL. Hair care practices and their association with scalp and hair disorders in African American girls. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010; 64:253-262.

23. Khumalo NP, Stone J, Gumedze F, McGrath E, Ngwanya MR, de Berker D. ‘Relaxers’ damage hair: evidence from amino acid analysis. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010;62:402-408.

24. Callender VD, Wright DR, Davis EC, Sperling LC. Hair breakage as a presenting sign of early or occult central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia: clinicopathologic findings in 9 patients. Arch Dermatol. 2012; 148(9):1047-1052.

25. Gathers RC, Jankowski M, Elde M, Lim HW. Hair grooming practices and central centrifugal cicatrical alopecia. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008; 60:574-578.

26. Duncan RA, Waterston S, Beattie TF, Stewart K. Contact burns from hair straighteners: a new hazard in the home. Emerg Med J. 2006; 23(3):e21.

27. LoPresti P, Papa CM, Kligman AM. Hot comb alopecia. Arch Dermatol. 1968; 98(3):234-238.

28. Mirmirani P. Ceramic flat irons: improper use leading to acquired trichorrhexis nodosa. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010; 62:145-147.

29. Maneli MH, Smith P, Khumalo NP. Elevated formaldehyde concentration in “Brazilian keratin type” hair-straightening products: a cross-sectional study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014; 70:276-280.

30. Hair Salons: Facts about Formaldehyde in Hair Products. U.S. Department of Labor OSHA Web site. Accessed March 24, 2015.

31. “Keratin-Based” Hair Smoothing Products and the Presence of Formaldehyde. Oregon OSHA Web site. Published October 29, 2010. Accessed April 7, 2015.

32. Fox GN, Stausmire JM, Mehregan DR. Traction Folliculitis: An Underreported Entity. Cutis. 2007; 79(1):26-30.

33. Samrao A, Price VH, Zedek D, Mirmirani P. The “Fringe Sign”- A useful clinical finding in traction alopecia of the marginal hair line. Dermatol Online J. 2011; 17(11):1.

34. Khumalo NP, Jessop S, Gumedze F, Ehrlich R. Determinants of marginal traction alopecia in African girls and women. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008; 59(3):432-438.

35. My Abbreviated Henna Routine 2013. Curly Nikki: Life & Hair Therapy Web site. Published September 28, 2013. Accessed March 18, 2015.

36. Nogueira AC, Scanavez C, Carnelos C, Gaspari A, Joekes I. Hair color changes caused by dyeing and thermal treatments. J Cosmet Sci. 2004; 55:437-447.

37. Kind F, Scherer K, Bircher AJ. Contact dermatitis to para-phenylenediamine in hair dye following sensitization to black henna tattoos- an ongoing problem. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2012; 10(8):572-578.