Although all human hair (and indeed all hair) is composed of hair follicles and shafts, there are distinct variations in the shape and behaviour of hair across different ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups, for example Native Americans, hardly suffer from male pattern baldness at all, while Caucasians suffer from it the most, followed by Blacks.
Interestingly enough, Black people are the ethnic group most heavily affected by the condition known as traction alopecia, a type of hair loss that is caused by pulling and weight put on the hair over time. This is partly the result of the types of hairstyles favoured by the Black community such as cornrows, tight braids, weaves and clip on extensions, as well as repeated straightening.
However, the structure of black hair itself is, in part, to blame for the susceptibility of black hair to the condition. The structure of black hair differs in shape from Caucasian or Oriental hair. Black hair shafts tend to be flat and relatively small in diameter. They have a twisted configuration and each hair has variations in diameter along the shaft as it twists. Because the hair is naturally curly, the hairs wrap around each other as they grow becoming tangled. The diameter variations and twists cause weakness along the shaft, making the hair more liable to break. On the other hand, trying to detangle the hair or straighten it will often lead to further damage, often resulting in severe breakage and traction alopecia.
Traction alopecia is one of the most common types of hair loss affecting black women, but it is often misdiagnosed and mistaken for another type of hair loss. It often starts at the hair line with a thinning at the front of the head, but the hair loss can spread and affect the entire head if not stopped in time. It’s important to note, though, that the traction alopecia hair loss pattern will often depend on the type of hairstyles worn by the sufferer. Wearing the hair in rollers overnight in order to straighten it, for example, can result in traction alopecia causing the hair to fall out in clumps. Banded traction alopecia, on the other hand, affects the scalp edges around the entire head.
Although not all black women suffer from traction alopecia, the condition is common enough to warrant caution when styling the hair. The fact that it’s the structure of the hair itself that can make Black hair prone to breakage and hair loss, suggests one should either avoid tight or potentially damaging hairstyles altogether, or watch carefully for early signs of traction alopecia and begin treatment immediately if hair loss or thinning is suspected.
Note that frequent straightening by means other than hair rollers can also be harmfu, and some experts actually recommend considering chemical straightening for those who are set on having their hair straightened. Although not ideal, this can be more suited for Black hair in the long run, as it reduces the amount of daily or weekly straightening activities that can do more damage to the hair overall.