Skin of Color

Hair and Scalp Disorders in Adult and Pediatric Patients With Skin of Color

In Collaboration with the Skin of Color Society

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As increasing numbers of patients of African descent seek treatment for hair and scalp-related diseases, it is imperative that all dermatologists be adequately trained to address the concerns of this patient population. We present must-know information to effectively approach the concerns of patients with seborrheic dermatitis, acquired trichorrhexis nodosa, acne keloidalis nuchae, pseudofolliculitis barbae, alopecia, and common pediatric hair and scalp disorders.

Practice Points

  • Instruct patients with acquired trichorrhexis nodosa to discontinue use of heat, colorants, and chemical relaxers on their hair.
  • Create a contract with your seborrheic dermatitis patients to have them shampoo at least weekly or every 2 weeks.
  • For children with treated tinea capitis that has not completely resolved, increase or extend the griseofulvin dosage, encourage ingestion of fatty foods to enhance absorption, and divide dosage of griseofulvin from once to twice daily.
  • Selection of a biopsy site at the periphery of an alopecic area that includes hair and hair follicles and evaluation by a dermatopathologist familiar with the features of central centrifugal cicatricial, traction, and traumatic alopecias will ensure an accurate diagnosis of alopecia.



One of the most common concerns among black patients is hair- and scalp-related disease. As increasing numbers of black patients opt to see dermatologists, it is imperative that all dermatologists be adequately trained to address the concerns of this patient population. When patients ask for help with common skin diseases of the hair and scalp, there are details that must be included in diagnosis, treatment, and hair care recommendations to reach goals for excellence in patient care. Herein, we provide must-know information to effectively approach this patient population.

Seborrheic Dermatitis

A study utilizing data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 1993 to 2009 revealed seborrheic dermatitis (SD) as the second most common diagnosis for black patients who visit a dermatologist.1 Prevalence data from a population of 1408 white, black, and Chinese patients from the United States and China revealed scalp flaking in 81% to 95% of black patients, 66% to 82% in white patients, and 30% to 42% in Chinese patients.2 Seborrheic dermatitis has a notable prevalence in black women and often is considered normal by patients. It can be exacerbated by infrequent shampooing (ranging from once per month or longer in between shampoos) and the inappropriate use of hair oils and pomades; it also has been associated with hair breakage, lichen simplex chronicus, and folliculitis. Seborrheic dermatitis must be distinguished from other disorders including sarcoidosis, psoriasis, discoid lupus erythematosus, tinea capitis, and lichen simplex chronicus.

Although there is a paucity of literature on the treatment of SD in black patients, components of treatment are similar to those recommended for other populations. Black women are advised to carefully utilize antidandruff shampoos containing zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, or tar to avoid hair shaft damage and dryness. Ketoconazole shampoo rarely is recommended and may be more appropriately used in men and boys, as hair fragility is less of a concern for them. The shampoo should be applied directly to the scalp rather than the hair shafts to minimize dryness, with no particular elongated contact time needed for these medicated shampoos to be effective. Because conditioners can wash off the active ingredients in therapeutic shampoos, antidandruff conditioners are recommended. Potent or ultrapotent topical corticosteroids applied to the scalp 3 to 4 times weekly initially will control the symptoms of itching as well as scaling, and mid-potency topical corticosteroid oil may be used at weekly intervals.

Hairline and facial involvement of SD often co-occurs, and low-potency topical steroids may be applied to the affected areas twice daily for 3 to 4 weeks, which may be repeated for flares. Topical calcineurin inhibitors or antifungal creams such as ketoconazole or econazole may then provide effective control. Encouraging patients to increase shampooing to once weekly or every 2 weeks and discontinue use of scalp pomades and oils also is recommended. Patients must know that an itchy scaly scalp represents a treatable disorder.

Acquired Trichorrhexis Nodosa

Hair fragility and breakage is common and multifactorial in black patients. Hair shaft breakage can occur on the vertex scalp in central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA), with random localized breakage due to scratching in SD. Heat, hair colorants, and chemical relaxers may result in diffuse damage and breakage.3 Sodium-, potassium-, and guanine hydroxide–containing chemical relaxers change the physical properties of the hair by rearranging disulfide bonds. They remove the monomolecular layer of fatty acids covalently bound to the cuticle that help prevent penetration of water into the hair shaft. Additionally, chemical relaxers weaken the hair shaft and decrease tensile strength.

Unlike hair relaxers, colorants are less likely to lead to catastrophic hair breakage after a single use and require frequent use, which leads to cumulative damage. Thermal straightening is another cause of hair-shaft weakening in black patients.4,5 Flat irons and curling irons can cause substantially more damage than blow-dryers due to the amount of heat generated. Flat irons may reach a high temperature of 230ºC (450ºF) as compared to 100°C (210°F) for a blow-dryer. Even the simple act of combing the hair can cause hair breakage, as demonstrated in African volunteers whose hair remained short in contrast to white and Asian volunteers, despite the fact that they had not cut their hair for 1 or more years.6,7 These volunteers had many hair strand knots that led to breakage during combing and hair grooming.6

There is no known prevalence data for acquired trichorrhexis nodosa, though a study of 30 white and black women demonstrated that broken hairs were significantly increased in black women (P=.0001).8 Another study by Hall et al9 of 103 black women showed that 55% of the women reported breakage of hair shafts with normal styling. Khumalo et al6 investigated hair shaft fragility and reported no trichothiodystrophy; the authors concluded that the cause of the hair fragility likely was physical trauma or an undiscovered structural abnormality. Franbourg et al10 examined the structure of hair fibers in white, Asian, and black patients and found no differences, but microfractures were only present in black patients and were determined to be the cause of hair breakage. These studies underscore the need for specific questioning of the patient on hair care including combing, washing, drying, and using products and chemicals.

The approach to the treatment of hair breakage involves correcting underlying abnormalities (eg, iron deficiency, hypothyroidism, nutritional deficiencies). Patients should “give their hair a rest” by discontinuing use of heat, colorants, and chemical relaxers. For patients who are unable to comply, advising them to stop these processes for 6 to 12 months will allow for repair of the hair shaft. To minimize damage from colorants, recommend semipermanent, demipermanent, or temporary dyes. Patients should be counseled to stop bleaching their hair or using permanent colorants. The use of heat protectant products on the hair before styling as well as layering moisturizing regimens starting with a moisturizing shampoo followed by a leave-in, dimethicone-containing conditioner marketed for dry damaged hair is suggested. Dimethicone thinly coats the hair shaft to restore hydrophobicity, smoothes cuticular scales, decreases frizz, and protects the hair from damage. Use of a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner containing anionic surfactants and wide-toothed, smooth (no jagged edges in the grooves) combs along with rare brushing are recommended. The hair may be worn in its natural state, but straightening with heat should be avoided. Air drying the hair can minimize breakage, but if thermal styling is necessary, patients should turn the temperature setting of the flat or curling iron down. Protective hair care practices may include placing a loosely sewn-in hair weave that will allow for good hair care, wearing loose braids, or using a wig. Serial trimming of the hair every 6 to 8 weeks is recommended. Improvement may take time, and patients should be advised of this timeline to prevent frustration.


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