Are You Allergic to Your Braids?

This is a portion of an article that originally appeared in Sesi’s Summer 2021 issue. Subscribe here to stay up on our current editions.

You want your braids to look fire — not feel like they’re on fire.

By Anissa Gabbara

Waaaay back in the ancestors’ day, braids were more than just a lewk. They also held great significance — reppin’ a person’s tribe, status, age, wealth, and/or religion. Enslaved people carried on this multipurpose tradition by weaving secret messages and elaborate escape routes into their braid patterns.

Now, braids not only help keep us connected to our hairitage, but they’re also hella protective and will have you comin’ through with fierceness for weeks on weeks. But what happens when those plaits you love to rock cause mad itching, burning, and tenderness on your scalp?

On 100, you may be allergic to your braids.

Wait, that’s a thing?

Yep. If you’re feeling any redness, flaking, tenderness, blisters, hives, or swelling of the scalp, face, and neck right after getting your braids installed, it might be a sign of an allergic reaction that shouldn’t be ignored. It’s called contact dermatitis, a condition where the skin becomes inflamed after being exposed to an irritating substance. And synthetic hair is one of many causes of contact dermatitis. “Someone can certainly have an allergic reaction to synthetic hair used for braids if there are fibers within the synthetic hair or chemicals used to treat the synthetic hair that the person is allergic to,” explains Dr. Erica Stevens, a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas. “If someone experiences contact dermatitis from synthetic hair, the hair should be immediately removed from their scalp and their scalp washed. They can attempt to get some relief with [over-the-counter] antihistamines and cortisone ointment, but if the rash persists or if there is formation of blisters or systemic symptoms, such as breaking out in hives all over the body, swelling, or difficulty breathing, they should be seen immediately by a physician.”

Good news: You don’t have to give up the style completely.

Having an allergic reaction to a cute ‘do is frustrating, but rest assured — braids can still work for you. Look for hair packs that say “itch-free,” “pre-rinsed,” “chemical free,” or “hypoallergenic,” which are good indicators that what you’re about to buy is free of an alkaline base, a chemical used in the treatment process of synthetic hair and potentially the main culprit in allergic reactions. You can also soak the hair, prior to using it, with a mix of apple cider vinegar and water for 30 minutes to an hour, suggests Unique Dandridge, a professional braider and natural hair stylist based in Inglewood, California. And, if you get a chance to feel the texture of the hair before you purchase, hard pass on it if it’s rough to the touch, she says.

How do you know if braiding hair is the problem, fr fr?

If the itchiness post-braiding appointment is so intense it keeps you up at night, it’s probs the hair. But to be all the way sure a true allergy exists, switch things up next time, and use unprocessed human hair that’s been washed prior to installation, says Dr. Shari Hicks-Graham, a board-certified dermatologist at Downtown Dermatology in Columbus, Ohio. “If you don’t suffer complications similar to those experienced with the processed or dyed [synthetic] hair, chances are, there may have been an allergy or irritation that occurred due to one of the chemicals found in the original hair used previously.” Purchasing human hair is a big investment, though, so make sure you’re spending your coins on 100% raw human hair, not a human-synthetic hair blend.

Basically, just slay it safe

Braids will always be #bae because they’re simple, fun, gorgeous, and protective. Just make sure you’re taking the extra steps to protect those locks and your health. Pretreat synthetic hair with an ACV rinse, wash human hair with soap and water before installing, or buy hair that’s labeled “itch-free,” “hypoallergenic,” or “antibacterial.” Do your research and be selective about the brands you choose, and the only thing fire will be your flex.

Main photo: BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy


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Quarterly print teen magazine for Black girls ages 13 to 19. Covering The Black Girl's Mainstream™