Big Hair Beware!

For those of you who read the article “How did you get That Hair?”, you know that hair extensions are all the rave right now and personally, I am a self-professed hair junkie. Not to make excuses for myself, but I do have a valid reason. And, regardless of my circumstances, I probably would not have changed my decision to wear big hair even if I knew then what I am about to tell you now. I want to take this opportunity to educate anyone considering hair extensions on the pros and cons and the life-long damage they can inflict on your hair.  You can make the decision yourself.  And if your vanity weighs heavy, then at least you have the information to make the best choice with the least possible damaging effects.

In October 2014, I was diagnosed with DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ) in my mammary ducts– a.k.a Breast Cancer. You can read about this type of cancer in my upcoming series on women’s health. According to my doctor, if there is a breast cancer to get this is the best. Meaning, if treated in a timely manner, this type of cancer, which is considered non-invasive, will not spread or come back in your body.

Now, I cannot express how even the best news of cancer was still the worst and incredibly terrifying.  “I am a fitness professional and healthy?  How does this happen?” All questions that I asked myself and others.  Well, there are many reasons, which I will not go into in this hair related article.  The fact of the matter was I had cancer and I needed to treat it.

Of the treatment options that swarmed in my head, honestly, the worst of my fears was the loss of hair related to chemotherapy and/or radiation.  Really?  The loss of hair?  Not surgery or pain or dying?!?  I never wanted to admit that.  But it was true!  I felt so vain.  I was embarrassed that my appearance was my concern.  But with all honesty, I knew the doctors would cure my cancer.  I knew because of the type of cancer I had, I was not going to die.  But the thought that I may be bald felt like death. Or a loss of my womanhood. I struggled with it for weeks agonizing over what it meant for my dating life or teaching classes at the studio I owned. It would make it obvious I had cancer. Would it make people feel like I was weak and not follow my classes? Would the big “C” word scare people away from getting to know me because they didn’t understand it or how to address it with me?  I felt the loss of hair was like wearing a badge of cancer on my head!

In my head, all I heard was you are going to lose your hair.

After many discussions with my doctor and genetic tests, I opted to have a nipple-sparring unilateral mastectomy. But this meant I would require a few rounds of radiation to make sure that the cancer in my areola would not come back.  In my head, all I heard was you are going to lose your hair.

After many surgeries and rounds of radiation and, yes, 8 weeks intervenous antibiotics for staff infection, I still had one breast.  And a large amount of hair loss!  In all honesty, I owned having one breast!  I was not going to let it slow me down or affect my professional fitness life.  But, my hair loss was holding me back mentally and emotionally.  I tried bangs, wearing hats, and constant ponytails but I felt like Samson when Delilah cut off his hair.

So, a client suggested hair extensions. I felt like if I was to endure being a woman with one breast, I could at least be happy with the other aspects of my body– especially my hair!  If all else was out of my control, at very minimum I would control what my hair looked like.  It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders and the old me came back  I knew I had to do it!

Judge me if you want to, but there are far worse examples of the reason why people get hair extensions.  Cancer was mine.

So now two years later and cancer free I am writing this article.  Why?  Well because no matter what the reason is for wanting hair extensions, not all hair extensions are created equal or right for everyone.  Had I known what I know now, I would still have put extensions in my hair.  But I would have been smarter about it.  I didn’t know the risks and damage associated with hair extensions.  I just felt like this would help me feel more like a woman.  And, I trusted the person who sold them to me. With her knowledge of my health issues, I thought she would steer me in the right direction.

Well, I will not throw any stylists under the bus.  Some are misinformed in training or only see dollar signs when recommending hair extensions.  However, minus the clip-in type, if a stylist tells you hair extensions do not damage the hair, my advice is to find a new stylist.

In the article “How did you get That Hair?”, I laid out all the different ways hair extensions are applied to the hair.  With the exception of the clip-in type designed to remove from the hair after use, all other braided or bonded extensions are going to put undo strain on your hair.  Undo strain can lead to hair loss.  Both temporary or permanent.

Permanent Hair Loss?

The biggest potential problem is traction hair loss (known as traction alopecia) is breakage as a result of the pulling or tension on the hair follicle. The breaking and receding hair can be fairly obvious. Hairs can often snap off, but with consistent use your hairs can actually be pulled out from the follicle and if this is done repeatedly, your follicles can become permanently damaged and your hair can stop growing back.

At first, traction alopecia from hair extensions and incorrect styling is reversible; you can stop the process or take them out and your hair will grow back.  However, over time, irreversible damage can be done if the hair starts to grow back and is pulled out again and again. This happens because the constant pulling of the hair from its follicle eventually weakens the growth of the hair, which can cause your hair to grow back finer and even not grow back at all!

Unfortunately, the more breakage and loss that occurs, the more hair extensions are put in to compensate. This can become a vicious cycle and leads to further volume reduction and damage.  And this is exactly what happened to me.

The first set of extensions I put in my hair were the keratin bond type.  They are attached in small strands with a glue-like substance.  Beautiful, almost undetectable to the eye.  But as they grow out, they can tangle and dread together above the bond.  They only way to undo this dread is to rip or cut it apart.  This IS breakage near the root.  And remember hair only grows at approximately an inch or less a month!  If you break a hair off near the root, how long will it take to grow back to the length you desire?  And, what stops the dreading or tangles?  Maintenance!  To take out the bonded hair extensions you need to use a metal tool that breaks apart the keratin or glue bond.  That is damaging in and of itself!

When I took out these keratin bonded extensions I knew I had not helped my hair loss issue at all.  In fact, I had made it worse!  So, I sought out the best of the best stylists in the city and got their advice.  Both suggested that a sew-in type or micro-braid was the best option.  It looks very natural and is less damaging because of the braid and sew vs glue type attachment. And, when doing maintenance, with the correct quality of hair, you can reuse the hair several times. Note, there are now metal bond options.  Extensions that attach with a small metal bead clip that is pinched over the hair.  If not taken out properly and carefully with the metal tool, these are equally as damaging.

And after wearing these extensions for over a year, I agree that they were definitely less damaging when put in correctly.  You could see the braids if I pulled my hair back into a ponytail but overall I liked the experience and look.  But, when I had them installed incorrectly and with a substandard hair type, again paid the price with breakage and hair loss from tangling.

Seeking new information, I discovered a new type of application called tape-in extensions.  Tape-in hair extensions are attached to tape and wrapped around sections of hair and sealed by folding over hair in medium or small flat sections.  This avoids the tangling factor when your hair grows.  And a substance is applied to the glue to dissolve the glue when taking out for maintenance.  The problem with these type is that they can tend look and feel unnatural.  And the hair is not reusable after you take them out.  They can be costly.  But if a permanent attachment is what you are seeking, this is the least damaging.

But I still want Big Hair!

So is there a type of extension that is damage free?  The answer is yes and no!  Put it this way, ponytails worn to bed are damaging to hair.  The invention and rave of the clip-in style or halo hair extensions are the least damaging to the hair if worn for a short period of time and taken out like a ponytail.  Not slept in or worn daily.  But the problem is that the installation is timely and when you don’t wear them every day, most of the time, it is obvious when you do.

When I decided that I was not going to put in any permanent extension in my hair I felt naked.  So I purchased a clip in extension set just a little longer than my own hair as to not make it obvious.  I also purchased an easy to install ponytail that I often use to go to the gym or create an updo that looks straight out of Pinterest.  Brides now see stunning pictures on Pinterest and think that this is normal hair.  No ladies, it is most likely clip-in extensions that are added to achieve that look of length and volume.  So, if you are ok with owning that your hair is not perfect, clip-in hair extensions are the best option of all for having the big, full, long-hair look.

As a self- proclaimed hair junky you can assume that this temporary fix is not satisfactory for me.  True.  But it helpful as I regrow my hair.  I have come to accept that there are really non-damaging permanent options other than growing my own hair.  And that is what I am working on now.  There are several systems and many “magic pills” that grow your hair.  Many are false and pure marketing, especially if it is advertised on facebook.  But there are a few FDA approved approaches available without surgery.  For more information, read my article “Magic Hair Pills?” on the truth behind hair growth.

Until then, beware of big hair!