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Hair extensions and health risks

On-trend hair extensions are a thriving business in the UK, but are there any health risks associated with them?

Hair extensions have been popular among African-Caribbean women for at least 3 decades and with celebrities, from popular singers and models to reality TV stars showing off long locks of hair, it should be no surprise that the trend has spread. However, hair extensions are not restricted to women who want long hair: they are also used to add volume to thin or thinning hair.

In fact, trading of hair is big business in the UK. In 2011 the country imported more than £38 million worth of mostly human hair, making it the third biggest importer of human hair worldwide - and many beauty salons have reported a huge growth in their hair extension business.

Types of hair extensions

Hair extensions can be made from human hair - which produces the most natural look and is easier to style - or from synthetic materials that are less suitable for styling, or a mixture of both. These extensions can be added to the person's own hair by the:

  • Strand-by-strand method, in which small tufts of hair are attached to sections of the person's own hair
  • Weft method, in which a 'curtain' of hair is attached horizontally to the person's own hair.

For either of the above methods, the extensions are held in place by sewing, metal tube clamping, bonding, gluing or heat fusing. A special solvent may be necessary to remove hair extensions that have been glued in place.

Other options include tape-in hair extensions, which are applied to your own hair with adhesive tape, and clip-in hair extensions that can be added and removed when you like.

Headaches, itchiness and hair loss

Regardless of the reasons for adding hair extensions or the type, they can cause problems if they are applied incorrectly or worn for too long. As in the case of hairstyles that cause tension by pulling the hair tightly, such as ponytails or plaits, hair extensions have been known to cause pain and headaches.

Hair extensions can lead to itchiness. Some people experience contact dermatitis or have an allergic reaction after becoming sensitised to rubber, glues or other chemicals involved in either applying or removing the extensions.

After prolonged use, the extra weight from heavy hair extensions or repeated tension from ones that are applied too tightly can eventually lead to bald patches in a condition referred to as traction alopecia. It can lead to itchiness, redness, scaling, short broken hairs, folliculitis and thinning and hair loss. It most often occurs at the front and the sides of the scalp, and in some cases the hair loss can be permanent.

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