How to Ease Irritation From Synthetic Hair, From Your Scalp to Your Skin

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Every year on my birthday, I treat myself to a new hairstyle. The past few years, I've done faux locks, Bantu knots, cornrows, and box braids. This year, I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and go for '90s-inspired box braids with a bob. Excited to execute this properly, I pulled photos of Tessa Thompson, Zoë Kravitz, and a few others. Determined to get it right, I texted the photos to my braid girl and showed up to her house, ready for a transformation.

Five-and-a-half hours and many sweet teas later, it was time to look in the mirror and see the final result. I actually gasped. I couldn't believe how good I looked. The braids hung just below my shoulders, and my braider even managed to A-line the bob, giving it incredible layers. I left her house, put on my cat-eye sunglasses, let down my car windows, and felt like a million bucks.

That feeling lasted less than 24 hours. I woke up the next morning scratching my neck, and not just an itch here and there; I couldn't stop scratching. By midafternoon, I had developed a deep red, textured, bumpy skin flare-up. Not sure what to do, I texted my braider, who was under the impression that I was reacting to the gel she used and recommended I soak my braids in hot water for a while.

Thankfully, the itchiness subsided the rest of the day, but it came back with a vengeance the following two days. The rash progressed from the front of my neck to the sides. It was constantly hot and felt like sandpaper. Although I was obsessed with the hairstyle, the irritation was so severe, I needed to take my braids out entirely. When I did, I watched the rash slowly fade away. My $250 box braids that took five-and-a-half hours lasted for four days. It was such a blow. As a longtime braid-lover, I really didn't want a traumatic experience to stop me from getting braids again, so I spoke to dermatologists Caren Campbell, MD; Anne Allen, MD; and Kavita Mariwalla, MD, to find out how to ease irritations from synthetic hair, whether it's before you get it done or after.

Why Does Synthetic Hair Cause Irritation?

All three dermatologists said irritation comes when the hair is installed too tightly. "If you experience pain or tightness while having synthetic hair in, this is an indication that it is too tight, which can lead to hair loss — called traction alopecia," Dr. Allen said.

Dr. Mariwalla advocates for short bursts of natural hair, as traction alopecia is very hard to recover from. She also noted the difference between synthetic hair and real human hair being a factor. "Synthetic fibers do not behave the same way as natural hair in terms of oil and dust. The result is that the skin of the scalp can become irritated and your natural hair cuticles can become more dry," she said.


What Can I Do Prior to Getting Synthetic Hair?

Before going to the salon, make sure your natural hair is clean with synthetic-specific shampoos, conditioners, and brushes to avoid damage.

Dr. Campbell recommends "products that say 'noncomedogenic,'" meaning they do not clog the pores as small bumps or blackheads. If you think you are experiencing an allergy to the hair and or products used, "you can first try an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment or cream to relieve itching and take an antihistamine like Zyrtec or Allegra."

How Do I Manage Scalp Itchiness Once Hair Is Installed?

For irritation on the scalp, it's important to clean and condition your hair while weaves or braids are in. Concentrate on the scalp area. Dr. Allen and Dr. Mariwalla recommend the Head & Shoulders Royal Oils collection, including the Head & Shoulders Royal Oils Moisture Renewal Conditioner ($7), for conditioning hair properly.

It's equally important to know when enough is enough. Dr. Allen suggests switching products once irritation begins. "You can get a contact dermatitis — or skin irritation — to one product, leading to chronic itchiness and redness of the scalp." If this doesn't work, "change hairstyle immediately, especially if you notice scabs or crusts on the scalp, scalp stinging, or pain from tight hairstyles."

Scalp folliculitis, or acne, can also occur due to bacterial buildup. "Remember that synthetic fibers hold dust in a different way than natural hair does. The result is that your scalp can get buildup in the pores, increase in bacteria, and breakouts," Dr. Mariwalla said.


What Do I Do If the Synthetic Hair Causes a Skin Rash?

When the braids are in, swap your shampoo to one with anti-inflammatory properties, steroids, or calming agents. We like the Neutrogena T/Gel Therapeutic Shampoo-Extra Strength ($10) and MG217 Psoriasis Medicated Conditioning 3% Coal Tar Shampoo ($13).

If you're experiencing a persistent rash that just won't quit, it might be time to go get the hair uninstalled. "Allergies can develop at any time despite not having them in the past," Dr. Campbell said. "The more you use something that you start to develop an allergy to, the worse it is going to continue to get with repeated use. You're best off stopping completely if itching, irritation, and rashes start to develop."

How Do I Prevent Acne From Synthetic Hair?

Like Dr. Mariwalla said, the synthetic hair or gel used could could lead to breakouts on your forehead and the nape of your neck if not properly washed. If your skin is experiencing any bout of acne, all dermatologists recommended switching to glycerin-based hair products instead of oils, like Pattern's Leave-In Conditioner ($25) or Deva Curl's One Condition Original ($24).