How to Ease Irritation From Synthetic Hair, From Your Scalp to Your Skin

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Every year on my birthday, I treat myself to a new hairstyle. The past few years, I’ve done faux locks, Bantu knots, cornrows, and box braids. This year, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and go for ’90s-inspired box braids with a bob. Excited to execute this properly, I pulled photos of Tessa Thompson, Zoë Kravitz, and a few others. Determined to get it right, I texted the photos to my braid girl and showed up to her house, ready for a transformation.

Five-and-a-half hours and many sweet teas later, it was time to look in the mirror and see the final result. I actually gasped. I couldn’t believe how good I looked. The braids hung just below my shoulders, and my braider even managed to A-line the bob, giving it incredible layers. I left her house, put on my cat-eye sunglasses, let down my car windows, and felt like a million bucks.

That feeling lasted less than 24 hours. I woke up the next morning scratching my neck, and not just an itch here and there; I couldn’t stop scratching. By midafternoon, I had developed a deep red, textured, bumpy skin flare-up. Not sure what to do, I texted my braider, who was under the impression that I was reacting to the gel she used and recommended I soak my braids in hot water for a while.

Thankfully, the itchiness subsided the rest of the day, but it came back with a vengeance the following two days. The rash progressed from the front of my neck to the sides. It was constantly hot and felt like sandpaper. Although I was obsessed with the hairstyle, the irritation was so severe, I needed to take my braids out entirely. When I did, I watched the rash slowly fade away. My $250 box braids that took five-and-a-half hours lasted for four days. It was such a blow. As a longtime braid-lover, I really didn’t want a traumatic experience to stop me from getting braids again, so I spoke to dermatologists Caren Campbell, MD; Anne Allen, MD; and Kavita Mariwalla, MD, to find out how to ease irritations from synthetic hair, whether it’s before you get it done or after.

Why Does Synthetic Hair Cause Irritation?

All three dermatologists said irritation comes when the hair is installed too tightly. “If you experience pain or tightness while having synthetic hair in, this is an indication that it is too tight, which can lead to hair loss – called traction alopecia,” Dr. Allen said.

Dr. Mariwalla advocates for short bursts of natural hair, as traction alopecia is very hard to recover from. She also noted the difference between synthetic hair and real human hair being a factor. “Synthetic fibres do not behave the same way as natural hair in terms of oil and dust. The result is that the skin of the scalp can become irritated and your natural hair cuticles can become more dry,” she said.

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