When Takondwa Semphere braided her hair back to back for 10 months straight using synthetic hair extensions made by the popular brand X-Pression, her scalp became extremely itchy, red and tender. She tried everything from natural oils to petroleum-based grease to reduce the scalp issues she was enduring, but nothing worked.
Eventually Semphere did some research into the issue. She learned that several companies allegedly coat their synthetic hair in an alkaline formula that many people have had allergic reactions to. She took to social media to post her findings. Turns out, she wasn't alone – many others suffered the same itchiness after getting braids. From the roughly 19,000 likes and hundreds of comments on the thread, a picture emerged – this is happening across the world to people using synthetic hair extensions designed for black hairstyling.
In response to the feedback, Semphere wrote on Twitter: "It angers me that things that most black women I know use can be this toxic to our bodies. It's difficult for me not to chalk that up to manufacturers caring more about our coins than about our wellbeing."
Aseye* noticed less than a week after getting her braids done as a teenager that something was wrong with the product she was using. "My hair and scalp would just start itching uncontrollably," the 27-year-old teacher from Bristol said. "I know it was my hair extensions since once I took them out, it would stop." She also recalled that while on a trip to Ghana at the age of 12, the cornrows she had done had to be taken out very soon after as the itch was too intense to bear. At the time, she thought it was caused by sand that had gotten into her hair, but looking back she has a different theory – it was down to the hair extensions.
At the time I felt like I was actually going insane because the itching was non-stop.
Tamu Thomas agrees. The founder of lifestyle brand Live Three Sixty is now in her 40s and has had bad reactions to some hair going back almost a decade. When she decided to stop using relaxers and transition back to her natural hair, she began doing weaves and braids fairly regularly. "At the time I felt like I was actually going insane because the itching was non-stop," she explained. "My scalp would feel so tender and raw." She noticed that the hair would bother her for the first couple of weeks but if she was able to put up with it, the itchiness and soreness would eventually become tolerable. She puts this down to sweat and other hair products diluting whatever was causing the initial pain.
Tamu has since stopped braiding her hair, partly as a result of the side effects of using synthetic products, but it meant she had to become comfortable with her own hair. "I felt very conscious about having a tiny afro, I wanted what I saw on YouTube and in magazines and online. So, I accepted the fact that I would have to ride [the pain] out until my hair was of a length where I felt that I could look after it because the other side to that was me embracing my natural hair," she explains.
Twenty-three-year-old Tasha Okeke has a fairly similar story: "Over the past few years, I’ve worn more coloured hair extensions," she said. "I love using different colours and changing up my look." But she noticed her scalp would be itchier with brighter colours so reverted back to using darker ones. "I opted for ombré braids for a while because the black/brown colours didn’t have the same irritation as the brighter colours."
All three women's symptoms prompted them to do their research in the same way as Semphere – and they all came to the same conclusion. They each learned the same technique to ease the itch, too: washing the hair in apple cider vinegar before using it.
Monique Tomlinson, managing director of Peckham Palms, an afro-Caribbean hair and beauty hub in southeast London, told Refinery29 that the apple cider strips the irritant that is on the synthetic extensions, but many people don’t even realise what the problem is and hence don't know what to do. "Many people just kind of palm it off as 'the braid's itching, it must’ve been put in too tight so it’s just causing the scalp to be irritated,' but it is actually the hair itself," she explains.
Monique added that people regularly come to her saying they’ve had bad reactions to the hair they’ve used and want to try something different (women have had issues with many hair brands, not just X-Pression). "What we say to a lot of our clients is, if you can buy the hair prior to your appointment and bring it to us, we’re happy to wash it." This is a service many hairdressers have taken up and Tamu says the hairdresser she uses offers the same service.
An apple cider vinegar wash can be done at home too. "If you know you’re someone who braids their hair regularly, buy them in bulk, wash them and put them all together," Monique advises. She also explains how to wash X-Pression hair specifically: "When you take it out of the bag, you’ll notice it’s very loosely plaited and there’s a hairband at the end. Take that out and just shake it softly so that the plaits become free. But do not take out the middle hairband that holds it all together. Pour about half a cup of apple cider vinegar into lukewarm water and just submerge the hair into the mixture for a few minutes. Pull it out and rinse it off with some clear, cold water. Then, just hang it to dry as if you’re hanging laundry." According to the hairdresser, this will not reduce the quality or shine of the hair.
The team at Peckham Palms has started researching the chemicals in X-Pression to get a better understanding of synthetic hair products for its clients, as little information is out there. Most put the bad reaction down to the compound lye, an alkaline chemical, but it's not definite if this is causing the adverse reactions. "We know it’s some sort of synthetics that they’ve used on there, but we’re not actually sure to what extent," Monique explains. "We’d like to know exactly what the compounds are… Nobody’s 100% sure and most of these manufacturers are not going to tell you because they now feel like they’re going to be shamed into admitting they’ve done something wrong, which they have."
Despite claims from many hair users that the itching is present regardless of where they purchase the hair (including at popular hair and beauty retailer Pak Cosmetics), a statement from Feme, X-Pression’s exclusive European distributor, denies any chemicals being put into the product after it has been made.
They provided us with the following statement: "Feme...takes extreme care that all products distributed by the company do not cause harm and are compliant with all European laws and regulations. X-Pression braids are made with one of the finest synthetic fibres in the world: a Kanekalon fibre. This fibre is used to produce the X-Pression braids (including Ultra Braid, Rich Braid and Super Braid) and does not undergo any further chemical processing during its manufacture by the factory. Feme is aware of counterfeit items being sold in the UK and around Europe from time to time through different channels. Feme has reason to believe that those products are not made of a Kanekalon fibre."
The statement does not say what Feme is doing to investigate whether counterfeit hair is to blame. It ends with an assurance that Feme is on the frontline of tackling this issue. They encourage customers who suspect that the X-Pression hair purchased is not legitimate and who may experience any skin reactions to the product to contact them directly by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
However, several of the women we spoke to tell us they have reported the issues to Feme and are yet to receive a reply.