A NEW medical research report from the University of Cape Town says using hair relaxers on children and younger women can lead to total baldness.
Dermatologist Nhlanhla Khumalo, who works at the university and at Groote Schuur Hospital, found that chemical relaxers cause irreversible damage to the scalp. Khumalo published her research in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology last month.
She wrote that "the link between relaxers and hair loss was becoming clearer". The highest risk of hair loss happens when hairstyles and braids are done on relaxed hair.
Based on a study of school girls and young women in Langa, Cape Town, Khumalo's research found that up to 70percent of schoolgirls and adults were using hair relaxers to straighten their hair.
"For black African women, the most worrying cause of hair loss is traction alopecia (TA) - the loss of hair which is most common in the hairline as a result of pulling hair into a tight pony tail, braids and weaves," she said.
The highest risk occurs when the hairstyles are done on relaxed hair which is already soft, she said.
Hair relaxers change the level of cystine - a protein responsible for strengthening the hair.
"The end result is that the hair is fragile and brittle compared to the original unrelaxed hair," Khumalo said.
She said adding hairstyles like braids and extensions onto the hair puts pressure on the relaxed hair, which results in hair breaking or falling out.
Lucy Mibey, hairdresser and owner of Braids Sensation Hair and Beauty Salon in Mowbray, Cape Town, said "the problem is that the majority of African black people have no proper knowledge and education about hair grooming".
Mibey said many people who had lost their hair had passed through the doors of her salon and that even dermatologists had not been able to help some of them, she said.
"The hair products industry is a booming one, and unfortunately quality hair products and relaxers are expensive and many people cannot afford them."
In her opinion, many hairdressers have "no knowledge at all" about the dangers of chemical hair products.
Khumalo said: "If you do use hair relaxers, stay away from braids and extensions which will add more weight to the hair - or else go natural."