We first heard of the relationship between hair tying and balding from hair stylists in the salon. They’d ask us if we tie our hair all the time, and when we ask them why, they’d say that our hairline is receding, or that our hair is thinning. Then comes the advice that we should just let our hair down to prevent baldness. Is there truth to any of it, though?
It sure seems like it.
In 2016, researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine confirmed a “strong association” between scalp-pulling hairstyles and the development of hair loss. Hair loss due to prolonged or repeated tension on the hair root is called traction alopecia.
In the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the Johns Hopkins researchers listed some of the damaging hairstyles: tight ponytails, braids, and buns. These are categorized as low-, moderate-, and high-risk styles based on how tightly you tie your hair, the weight of your hair, heat, and the presence of hair-altering chemicals like straighteners.
Low-risk styles are ones with low tension on your scalp. These include loose ponytails, and of course, wearing your hair down.
Moderate-risk hairstyles and high-risk hairstyles differ not so much in the style (dreadlocks, weaves, extensions), but whether they are done on chemically treated hair. Chemical straighteners further weaken the hair shaft (the strand of hair), causing breakage and putting you at a higher risk of hair loss.
According to bodies of research, people who often and tightly tie, braid, or weave their hair—like African-Americans and ballerinas—have traction alopecia. They’ve reported symptoms like little bumps, a stinging sensation, and noticeable hair loss on certain areas of the scalp.
It may be hard to imagine that your bun can make you bald while you’re young. But our hair, skin, and nerves are all so complex, that even dermatologists have more to know about their relationship. Yet as current personal accounts and research show, traction alopecia is no joke.
Tight hairstyles pull our strands from the hair follicle, loosening them from the root.
One study notes that some tight hairstyles (e.g., spiral braids) possibly decrease blood flow to the scalp. Over time, the tension damages the scalp and ultimately stops the hair from growing, resulting in bald spots. These bald spots are often on the hairline and near your temples, since tension is highest in those areas.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about traction alopecia is that it’s reversible—but only if you tend to it, stat—and preventable. If the symptoms apply to you, recheck your hair styling routine and your scalp. If there are no scars on your hairline, the traction alopecia is still reversible. So tie your hair loosely and keep it low on your head, or wear your hair down from now on. Your hair will grow back normally soon enough. If you want to keep your risk of traction alopecia low, do the same.
Unfortunately, if you continue with the taut and chemical-loaded hairstyling, or if your receding hairline already bears scars, the hair loss is on its way to permanence.
You’ll have to see a dermatologist to treat the scars or the swelling, to regrow hair, and to strengthen your hair. All those said, it’s funny how the hairstyles we love can damage our scalps, so much so that what we depend on to feel beautiful—our hair—can be gone just like *that.* It’s a good thing though that traction alopecia is preventable, reversible, and treatable. And while no one deserves to be ostracized for hair loss, it’s healthy to remind ourselves that the pain isn’t always worth enduring to look prettier, and that we have it in ourselves to be confident regardless of our hairstyle.