Braids are an excellent protective style. However, there can be a downside: too much tension. There are two signs that your hair has been braided too tightly: One, you're in pain. A lot of pain... for days. Or two, you notice little bumps around your hairline that weren't there before. Oh, and you're in pain.
Beauty shouldn't hurt. If your head hurts, it's because your hair is braided too tightly, or you have too much extension hair added. In either situation, this doesn't bode well for the future of your hairline. Some braiders may tell you to take an aspirin and the pain should be gone by morning, but any pain is an indicator that something is wrong. Bottom line: if you feel any pain, there's room for concern.
A braider may braid tightly so that the style lasts as long as possible, which is what most of us want, especially if we've saved up our hard-earned dollars to get the style. But tight tension is not good for your hair, hairline, and scalp. Medium tension is best for fashioning braids; they may not last as long as tight braids, but your hairline will last much longer.
If you're a victim of headache-inducing braids, there are steps you can take to alleviate the pain and potential damage to your edges. Ahead, we talk to haircare experts to get advice on how to relieve the pain and tension from tight braids.
Meet the Expert
"Tight braids can potentially cause permanent damage to the scalp and the hair," says Alicia Bailey. She explains that when braids are too tight, they could potentially cause soreness or follicular pustules, which are inflamed, sore, raised bumps on the scalp, in addition to traction alopecia.
"Traction alopecia is hair loss caused by the hair being pulled or manipulated the same way over a period of time," says Bailey. "If caught early, the hair can grow back over time. However, if it is pulled repeatedly over time, permanent follicular damage (damage to the hair follicle), can occur causing the hair to not grow back. Tight braids can also lead to thinning of the hair, hairline, or hair breakage."
Use Warm Water
A warm shower isn't just good for the body, it can also be a remedy for tight braids. "If the braids are too tight, one can try to run their hair under cool or warm water in the shower," says Bailey. You may need to gently rub your scalp to loosen the braids a little. This is not the time to worry about how much money you just spent and how much time it took to style these braids, so don't think about that. Instead, concern yourself with loosening up the tight style and saving your hairline, since Bailey says tight braids can also lead to thinning of the hair, hairline, or hair breakage.
Try a warm towel (or warm shower) to help loosen tight braids.
Wear Your Hair Down
Believe it or not, wearing your hair up in a ponytail or bun post-braiding can further trigger a lot of pain. "Try not to manipulate the braids too much by pulling them up in ponytails or by trying to style them in any way," says Bailey. Wear your hair down to loosen any tension, thus weighing the braids down. This is a simple way to not tug at the roots or scalp for a period of time.
Use Leave-in Conditioner
When braids are too tight, your scalp feels the bulk of it. If your scalp feels more dry and tense than usual, apply a leave-in conditioner to soothe the area and loosen up the braids. However, you must keep in mind that too much leave-in conditioner can cause unwanted build-up and residue. Try using a spray leave-in conditioner that you can easily spritz between your braids and evenly across your scalp.
Give Yourself a Scalp Massage
Sometimes you need to take matters into your own hands—literally. A scalp massage isn't only stimulating, it soothes tension, too. A quick scalp massage can increase blood circulation, which can aid in alleviating pain all around. Pounce recommends adding a couple of essential oils to your carrier oil of choice.
"To help soothe the tension on your scalp, gently massage tea tree oil or lavender oil into the area where you're experiencing discomfort. Both of these oils have soothing properties that ease inflammation," she says. Apply the hair oil on your fingertips before getting in between your braids and massaging for a few minutes. Try Pattern Beauty's Jojoba Oil Hair Serum as a carrier oil ($25) for maximum hydration and soothing effects.
Sometimes your braids need a little steam. Not to be confused with a hooded hair dryer, a hair steamer is meant to open up the pores on your scalp. This makes it easier for braids to loosen up on their own, while your scalp retains more moisture. To get the maximum benefits of steaming your braids, try the Q-Redew Hair Steamer ($79).
Remove Your Braids
"If the braids are unbearably tight, I highly recommend taking them out to prevent hair loss or breakage," says Pounce. Yes, remove any (or all) braids that are causing little bumps to pop up on your scalp. We know this is not the tip you want to read after sitting in your braider's chair for hours. However, tight braids are not normal and can lead to hair loss down the road, especially if you make a habit of wearing tight braid styles.
If you do find yourself needing to remove your braids, be sure to give your hair and scalp some much needed care. Try a hot oil treatment or a soothing oil made specifically for the scalp with calming and anti-inflammatory ingredients. You can use either of these options as a pre-poo before following up with a calming deep conditioner.
Do Not Return to Tight Braiders
Some braiders are notoriously hard on hair. Once should be enough to tell you that this is someone who doesn't care about the health of your scalp. Hopefully, you live in an area where you have options, but if you don't, you may need to rethink braid extensions as a regular hairstyle.
Have Open Communication With Your Stylist
Do yourself a favor and see how your head feels when you're still in the stylist's chair. Does it hurt while she's braiding? That's the time to ask her to ease up. It's much easier for her to take a step back and possibly redo any braids during your appointment than it will be to call her up and ask her to redo them later.
Plus, let's face it: not all braiders are going to take kindly to second-day phone calls and they may refuse to do them over. "The best advice is to be proactive instead of reactive and let your braider know to not use so much tension before braiding your hair," advises Annagjid "Kee" Taylor, African Pride brand ambassador and owner of Deeper Than Hair.
The next time you get your hair braided, keep an open line of communication with your stylist. If you're sitting in the salon chair and your braids feel too tight, let them know. On the other hand, you can always let them know beforehand that your scalp is tender, and you do not like extra-tight braids. If a stylist won't alter their technique for you, then they're not the stylist for you.
Urbina F, Sudy E, Barrios M. Foliculitis por tracción: seis casos producidos por diferentes tipos de peinado tirante [Traction folliculitis: 6 cases caused by different types of hairstyle that pull on the hair]. Actas Dermosifiliogr. 2009;100(6):503-506.
Kim I, Kim T, Ko Y. The effect of a scalp massage on stress hormone, blood pressure, and heart rate of healthy female. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(10):2703-2707. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.2703