The Link Between Hair and Health: A HealthCentral Explainer

We usually think of our hair as a means to enhance our appearance, and while it can make us look youthful and healthy, our hair actually may be able to tell us more about our overall health. Plus, treating our hair well can prevent other conditions from arising.

Can certain hair styles cause scalp problems?

According to researchers at the American Academy of Dermatology conference in 2012, certain hair styling practices, particularly for African-American hair, can cause serious scalp and hair diseases. Approximately 80 percent of African Americans use chemical relaxers, which are also frequently used in combination with blow dryers, hot combs, hair weaves, braids and dreadlocks, said Dr. Diane Jackson-Richards, director of the Multicultural Dermatology Clinic.

These practices weaken the hair, and can lead to seborrheic dermatitis and alopecia. In addition, Dr. Jackson-Richards said that there is limited research on scalp disease in African-Americans, but that it’s important to understand the unique characteristics of this type of hair in order to select the proper treatment.

She gave some tips for African-American patients to lower their risk of hair loss and other scalp diseases, including washing braids or dreadlocks every two weeks, not wearing braids too tight or for longer than three months, only using blow dryers or hot combs once a week, and keeping hair moist with natural oils, such as jojoba, olive, shea or coconut oils.

[SLIDESHOW:** 6 Ways to Treat Male Baldness**]

Are hair styles getting in the way of exercise?

A recent study published in JAMA found that the main reason African-American women avoid exercise is the hair care and maintenance involved. The study looked at 103 African-American women aged 21 to 60. Each was given a questionnaire asking about physical activity and hair maintenance. All the women understood the importance of exercise in a healthy lifestyle, but close to 40 percent of the women interviewed said they did not exercise because it caused them to have issues with their hair.

The chemical straighteners and heating devices used on African-American hair can cause it to become very fragile. Sweating during exercise can cause women to have to wash their hair more than they normally would, and washing fragile hair too much can cause it to break off. This creates a unique problem for African-American women, which is not easily solvable.

Can hair predict heart attacks?

A 2010 study concluded that cortisol levels in hair may be the first marker of long-term stress, which is linked to a higher risk for heart attack. Researchers developed a way to measure cortisol levels in the hair of 56 men who had been hospitalized following a heart attack. They also took samples from a control group of 56 men who had also been hospitalized for reasons other than heart attacks. They found that hair cortisol levels during the three months before hospitalization were higher in the heart attack patients.

What is the future of grey hair?

While grey hair is not a medical condition, it certainly is a cosmetic concern as we age. Currently, hair dye is operating on a 150-year-old approach that uses p-phenylenediamine (PPD), according to a 2011 analysis of 500 articles and patents on permanent hair dye. Recent years have brought concerns of the toxicity of PPD and other ingredients, which has led to new research on the subject.

The 2011 study authors predict new techniques will emerge, including nano-size colorants that will have pigments 1/5000th the width of human hair, which will be able to penetrate the hair and remain trapped for longer lasting color. In addition, scientists are working on a way to stimulate the genes to produce melanin to pigment the hair more naturally. It might even be possible to slow the graying of hair, or prevent it from greying altogether.

[SLIDESHOW:** Anti-Aging Secrets**]

How can we keep our hair healthy?

Making sure our hair is healthy is just another aspect of taking care of our bodies, like brushing our teeth or using sunscreen on our skin. The winter months can be especially challenging in keeping our hair looking and feeling good. HealthCentral contributor Eileen Bailey wrote down a few tips to keep in mind this winter, including washing your hair only once a week to avoid washing away essential oils that moisturize the scalp. This can keep your hair from becoming dry and brittle. Keep your shower on warm instead of hot side, as it can can also cut down on dryness. Make sure to use a conditioner on your hair, and massage warm oil on your head to moisturize your scalp. For more tips from Bailey, check out her post 10 Tips to Help Keep You Hair Healthy in the Winter.


Petra Rattue. (2012, March 22). "African American Styling Practices And The Risk Of Hair And Scalp Diseases." Medical News Today. Retrieved from

n.p. (2012, December 19). "African American Women Avoid Exercise Because Of Hair Maintenance." Medical News Today. Retrieved from

n.p. (2010, September 4). "Cortisol Levels In Hair Linked To Heart Attack Risk." Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Janet Epping. (2011, March 4). "The Future Of Hair Colorants Could Include Preventing Our Hair Turning Grey." Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Bailey, Eileen. (2012, December 19). “10 Tips to Help Keep Your Hair Healthy in the Winter.” HealthCentral. Retrieved from