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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Why the Black and Natural Hair Movement is Good for Your Health

Jun 01, 2022 06:00AM ● By Trish Ahjel Roberts
From the big afros of activists like Angela Davis during the Black Power Movement of the 1970s to the dreadlocks popularized by Bob Marley in the ‘80s, natural hair for Black people can make a powerful statement. But is natural hair about more than activism, cultural pride or fashion? Does it also make a difference to one’s health?

The Cambridge dictionary defines “natural hair” as “thick and curly hair, especially like that of some Black people, that has not been made straight with special chemicals.” According to Del Sandeen in an article for the beauty website,, “Pressed hair may still be considered natural because once washed, the texture usually returns to its unaltered state (as long as no heat damage has occurred).” Popular natural hairstyles include afros, dreadlocks—or “locs”—braids, cornrows, twists, twist-outs, wash-and-gos, blow-outs and buzz cuts. There is some disagreement in the African American community over whether wigs worn over natural hair, sometimes referred to as “protective styles,” or synthetic or human hair extensions added to braids qualify as natural. However, there is agreement that any untreated tresses are “natural.”

Many Products Marketed to Black Women are More Toxic

Current research reports that many products marketed to Black women are more toxic than those marketed to white women. In a 2018 study of Black hair-care products by the Silent Springs Institute, it was discovered that 80 percent of the 18 products tested contained high levels of chemicals that affect the endocrine system, which regulates reproduction and metabolism. Products tested represented six categories: hot oil treatment, anti-frizz/polish, leave-in conditioner, root stimulator, hair lotion and relaxer. 

Recent research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says hair products used by Black women and children contain many chemicals associated with endocrine disruption and asthma. According to a 2019 study from the Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans are 40 percent more likely to have asthma than whites and three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes. 

Cancer, Hormone Disruptions, Asthma and Fibroids Linked to Chemical Relaxers

Permanent hair straightening with chemical relaxers came onto the market in the 1920s. Today, nearly 75 percent of Black women use relaxers on their hair, according to They are widely used because of their convenience and long-term results as compared to other hair straightening techniques using heat or tension. A report from social services organization Black Women for Wellness reveals that the products haven’t changed from their original formulations much. 
Frequent and long-term use of lye-based hair relaxers can increase the risk of breast cancer among Black women, according to Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), which followed 59,000 African American women for more than 25 years. Ninety-five percent of participants reported having used the products, indicating a potentially significant impact on Black women’s health.

The results? Using hair products containing lye at least seven times a year for 15 or more years increased the risk of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer by 30 percent. The study found minimal risk for moderate users. According to BWHS, Black women are also more likely to develop highly aggressive breast cancers than their white counterparts. 

The study highlights disparities in the health of Black and white women. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from a breast cancer diagnosis than white women despite a lower incidence rate. While some of that difference is attributable to delays in diagnoses and less access to health care, it doesn’t fully explain the survival gap between the two groups of women. According to a 2019 study by the American Cancer Society, this disparity is even higher among Black women under 50, who have a death rate two times that of white women.

According to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, chemical exposure through scalp lesions and burns caused by relaxers are linked with high fibroid tumor rates. Approximately 80 percent of Black women will be impacted by uterine fibroids over their lifetime. The study interviewed more than 23,000 premenopausal Black women from 1997 to 2009 and found two to three times higher rates of fibroids among Black women than their white counterparts. 

Wigs, Weaves, Extensions Linked to Hair Loss and Allergic Reactions

In a 2020 article for InStyle magazine, hair historian and psychologist Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka explains that during the desegregation movement of the 1960s, "wigs had been used to address employment. There were actually certain hair requirements when a Black woman had to integrate her job, and she had to comply with a style that her natural hair maybe couldn’t do. So, whether it was a flight attendant or a nurse, it was a part of the uniform to wear the wig. It justified the respectability of that person."

According to anti-racism educator, Gahmya Drummond-Bey, Black women wear wigs and weaves for a variety of reasons: to protect natural hair, to appear “professional,” to have fun or to deal with a lack of confidence with their hair. “Protective styles are hairstyles that keep your real hair tucked away or untouched. These styles help our hair to grow, as well, because we are not pulling or manipulating our hair with heat.”

The technique for hair weaving was patented in 1951 by Christina Jenkins, an African American woman. In her technique, hair is attached to a netting that is sewn to the hair on the scalp. Since then, additional techniques were developed including “bonding and fusion,” which uses adhesives to attach hair extensions, and “pinch braids,” which involve tying extensions to the hair by braiding it in. Weaves gained popularity in the 1980s and have been worn by celebrities from Lindsay Lohan, Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton to Diana Ross, Zendaya and Keke Palmer.

If a woman is pressured to change her hair for employment or to appear “professional,” it can impact not only confidence and mental health, but physical health as well. According to dermatologist Crystal Ugochi Aguh, M.D., in an article for Johns Hopkins Medicine, almost half of Black women will experience some form of hair loss. Because most doctors are unfamiliar with Black hairstyling practices, they cannot adequately provide guidance.

Alopecia is a medical term for hair loss. While there are many types of alopecia, some related to genetics and autoimmune disorders, two varieties appear to be a direct result of hair treatment: traction alopecia and central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA). 

Traction alopecia is caused by weaving, braiding, tight ponytails, heavy dreadlocks or any technique that pulls hair tightly for extended periods of time. Ballerinas, gymnasts, military personnel and other professionals who are required to wear their hair pulled back might be more at risk for traction alopecia. Hair loss typically occurs at the hairline.

According to research published by the Skin of Color Society, the exact cause of CCCA is unknown, however it is very common in Black women. It was previously believed to be caused exclusively by excessive heat and hot oils on the scalp, tight braids, hair rollers, weaves, extensions or chemical relaxers. Multiple processes, such as hair relaxers coupled with excessive heat from hair dryers, hot rollers and curling or flat irons can compound damage, as can double processes, such as applying hair dyes or bleaches on top of relaxers. Hair loss from CCCA occurs primarily at the crown of the head and radiates outward in a circular pattern.

Glue adhesives used to keep hair extensions and lace-front wigs in place can also impact health. According to beauty expert, Jacqueline Tarrant in an article for, “They can cause damage that is often permanent. The glue can block your scalp pores and damage your hair follicles as well as burn and dry out your hair. Heavy extensions pull on your scalp resulting in thinning hair. It is difficult to clean your scalp with glue extensions in it creating unhealthy hair. Sometimes hair extensions can cause headaches and bald spots.” Risk of allergic reaction to the latex in glues is also a concern for users. According to Tarrant, “The reactions to these items go beyond contact dermatitis, and may cause asthma, or even anaphylactic shock.” Damage can be irreversible.

Permanent Hair Dyes Linked to Cancer

According to Harvard Health, hair dyes come in four categories: permanent, semi-permanent, temporary, and natural. Most hair dyes used in the U.S. are permanent. They undergo chemical reactions to create pigment that deposits on hair shafts and may pose the greatest cancer risk. Options for completely chemical-free hair color are limited to the application of henna or pure plant juices.

According to senior reporter Nina Lakhani, in a 2020 article for The Guardian, “A landmark study that tracked almost 47,000 American women over eight years found that using permanent hair dye increases a Black woman’s risk of breast cancer by 45 percent, compared to an increased risk of 7 percent in white women. The more frequently women colored their hair, the greater the risk, rising to 60 percent for black women who used permanent dyes at least every five to eight weeks. Prior studies on the link between hair dye use and cancer had been inconsistent.”

Recommendations for Hair Health

Angel Johnson 

(Photo: Angel Johnson)

Clearly, toxicity in hair products should be of paramount concern to Black women. According to Atlanta celebrity hairstylist and Aveda Institute Instructor Angel Johnson, “Healthy hair is balanced, moisturized and undamaged, with a healthy curl pattern.” She offers some tips for women who want to achieve and maintain ideal hair health:

• Understand your hair type and texture, what your hair can do and what products you need to get desirable styles.
• Get a professional who specializes in your hair type and desired style.
• Establish a maintenance routine for between visits, get educated on products and try to stay within one product line.
• Take care of your physical health by drinking enough water, eating healthy and understanding how your medications, hormones and surgery side-effects affect your hair.
• Wrap your hair with silk or satin at bedtime to prevent hair breakage.


Dr. Taz Bhatia

Founder and CEO of CentreSpringMD in Atlanta and host of the podcast Super Woman Wellness, Dr. Taz Bhatia offers the following recipes to keep tresses in tip-top shape:

• Scalp massage.
When we notice more hair falling or thinning, it’s tempting to resolve to touch the hair and scalp as little as possible–not wanting to cause more hair to fall out. But this can have the opposite effect. Massaging the scalp increases blood flow to hair follicles, which means they have access to more nutrients with which to grow. The best way to do this is with an essential oil massage. Bhatia’s favorite recipe for a healthy hair massage is:

3-5 drops lavender essential oil
3 drops peppermint essential oil
4-6 oz carrier oil, such as coconut or jojoba

Mix ingredients together. For thicker hair, try adding 3-5 drops of cypress or rosemary essential oils.

• Homemade hair mask or conditioner. Some of the best hair-care remedies come straight from nature. Simple ingredients contain nourishing proteins and protective fats that promote strong and thick hair. Bhatia’s go-to hair-growth mask contains:

½ avocado
1 Tbsp honey
½ cup yogurt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Apply to damp hair, paying special attention to dry ends. Twist hair in a bun and let the mask sit for 15-30 minutes. Afterward, rinse out with lukewarm—not hot—water. These ingredients are great for healthy hair. Yogurt contains strengthening proteins, avocado provides fatty acids, and honey serves as a humectant to protect moisture within the hair.

Options for Atlanta’s Black Women

Black women in Atlanta have a wide variety of hairstylists and options to care for their natural hair. Virtually all hairstyles can be achieved in a healthy way by discontinuing or limiting the use of toxic products and taking care when applying tension to hair. Access the resource sidebar and find your favorites!❧

Trish Ahjel Roberts is a self-actualization and diversity coach, happiness expert, founder of Mind-Blowing Happiness, a coaching business, and creator of the brand Black Vegan Life. For more information, visit

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Dr. Clare Babino

Dr. Taz Bhatia

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