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Afro Answers: why supplements won’t make your hair grow faster and how to prevent heat damage

As we emerge from lockdown, trichologist and natural hair expert Ebuni Ajiduah wants you to understand that not all products are as magical as they seem and that getting a silk press on your hair probably isn’t the best idea.

Credits: Photography by Yossy Akinsanya / Peckham Palms

Being at home during lockdown has caused some of us to get creative and try new skills like baking, gardening and a spot of DIY. It has also made us confront some of the issues we have been facing with our natural hair. A lot of people are coming to terms with the hair loss they have been experiencing and are looking for a fix by purchasing new products. With salons opening back up, we are itching to try new looks, and toying with the ideas of adding colour and heat to our regular styles. But not only are a lot of people wasting money on snake oil, there are only certain ways to use heat on your hair safely.

Why most products won’t make your hair grow

Clients always tell me that their hair “doesn’t grow!”, but I ask them to think back to their relaxed days and how often retouches were needed. Hair grows about half an inch a month and while its speed is largely determined by genetics, things like your diet, stress, other health conditions can all impact how your hair grows.

Everyone’s hair does grow a certain amount but for those whose growth seems slow, there are two main factors at play: length retention, i.e your hair breaking off at the bottom of the shaft, and “internal diversion of resources” – when your body isn’t at its best, it diverts all its energy to healing and other process slow down. This is why hair loss can be used as a warning sign or symptom of lots of diseases.

Length retention is usually easier to tackle and requires a change in habits which can be personalised by a hair coach for maximum results. 

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The second factor that might be impeding your hair growth requires a bit more work and a lot of patience to rectify. If you think of your genetic hair growth speed as the optimum, you need to make sure there is nothing blocking it from reaching its full potential. Stress, nutrient deficiencies and hormonal imbalance are the top three factors that can make it difficult for your hair to grow and they are all quite common.

Unfortunately, thanks to effective marketing campaigns, “hair pills” can sometimes seem like the cheapest and easiest way to solve this issue. But hair supplements are the flat tummy tea of the hair world and are the bane of my existence (actually oils are but this is a close second). They are usually low-quality multivitamins packed with hype ingredients, like biotin and that “will make your hair grow”. Sadly, these ingredients are mostly water-soluble, so essentially you are paying for expensive urine. Plus, if you have a deficiency the levels in these products are not high enough to reverse it and can actually cause harm in the long run (biotin can interfere with blood tests). 

So then, why do so many people notice a difference when they start using these types of products? Enter the placebo effect, and the reality that, mostly, they have addressed the unfavourable hair care habits – excessive heat, tight styles and have started taking appropriate care. 

My advice if you’re still struggling with hair growth – get a blood test done yearly (even when you feel healthy) and start from there. Then, under the guidance of your doctor or trichologist, take the appropriate next steps

Why you can’t use heat on your hair without (some) damage

Going to a black salon always feels like an episode of Stars In Their Eyes. You walk in holding a picture of the celebrity you want to be, there is lots of smoke, then you emerge looking like a goddess… only to wash your hair post takedown and your curl pattern is nowhere to be found. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love heat and it is very useful when styling, especially set styles like twist outs, say no to retwisting every night but there is a safe way to do it. Heat is used to temporarily alter the structure of your hair. Hydrogen bonds and temporary bonds that can form or break using water or heat, hence the old school “wet set”. By drying your hair in a certain shape you make temporary bonds that keep the hair in that position which is why we hid from all water when our hair was pressed. If too much heat is used, it can permanently change the structure so it doesn’t revert back to its original state.

I used to have to buy a new pick attachment every time I blow dried my hair, or seal it with sellotape to prevent it from flying off or getting stuck in my coils. I would like to call the paddle brush and nozzle to the stage. This elite combo requires a tad more skill (read: patience) but can give such a smooth and sleek finish. I only use the cool/medium setting on mid speed so the chance of heat damage is eliminated. 

It is all in the prep – hair should be detangled and moisturised thoroughly (skip the oil as we are not cooking). Working on small sections will prevent breakage and ensure even styling. If you plan to use heat, always use protection. A leave-in is sufficient for a blow-dry but anything hotter, use a heat protectant. Most will contain silicones which may scare some naturals as they have a bad rep for preventing moisture from penetrating the hair strand, but this coating creates a barrier around it so it’s great at protecting the hair from high temperatures. The problem is that silicones can be hard to remove and require stronger shampoos, sulfates have entered the chat.

My two fave heat protectants are Iron Guard-Thermal Protect Spray and Revlon Professional Uniq One Hair Treatment, because they protect the hair without leaving a heavy residue and can be layered with other products.

You may find you have to ask your stylist to adjust some of their practices to suit your hair so practice saying, “Please can you use the medium setting – by the way which heat protectant do you use? I would like to buy some for home” in the mirror Issa Rae style. Sizzle and smoke are never acceptable.

This is part of the Afro Answers column. If there are any afro hair questions you would like answers to in a future column, email them to [email protected] with the subject line “Afro Answers

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