Can Stretching Natural Hair be Harmful?

Blow out on the left and finsihed flat ironed hair on the right

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Many naturals with beautiful heads of hair promote stretching hair as a way to manage shrinkage, cut down on tangles and knot formation and all importantly promote length retention. Stretching by and large is regarded as helpful, but could it be harmful?

The Short Answer
Yes, stretching hair excessively could be harmful but low levels of stretching are perfectly fine and can be useful in hair maintenance.


The Long Answer

1. Hair recovers very well from low level stretching with the help of water
Scientists have demonstrated that hair can recover very well from a 20-30% extension of the strand (Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, pp 13-26, 1996). The stretched strand will recover its full strength once the stretching force is released and the hair is dipped in water. Why the dip in water? Water has a key role in making hair flexible and strong as it slightly changes the protein (keratin) in hair. Do note that for styling, you do not have to do the dip as it may reverse the stretching process. However, when you are done with the style, a little water will help you have stronger hair to handle the next styling or maintenance process.

2. How can you tell if you are in the safe limit of stretching?
It is pretty easy to read a 20-30% stretch in a lab but not really possible in a real life situation. As a general guide, if you retain some texture in your hair while stretching, you are probably in the safe region. Aiming to completely smooth out a curl or kink with stretching has the potential to over-stretch the hair. As a general rule, if your hair shrinks to 4 inches and is actually 10 inches in length, attempting to stretch it to 6-8 inches is probably better than trying to get to the full length.

3. What happens if you stretch hair over the safe limit?
By now, most of us will know hair has a cortex and a cuticle. The cortex is the strength bearing part of hair and it will generally not suffer too much. However, the cuticle of hair can undergo a dramatic fail with whole scales lifting and separating from the cortex. This can progress to sections of the hair having no cuticle and therefore the cortex in these parts gets exposed to the full brunt of damage that the cuticle would normally protect it from.

4. Should you stretch hair when it is wet or dry?
You should avoid stretching hair when wet, it can easily break (Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, pp 449-467,1978). However, when it is completely dry, it lacks flexibility. Stretching hair which is around 70-80% dry is likely to be a good mix of flexibility and strength.

Ladies, have you ever witnessed damage from hair stretching? How do you stretch safely?

The Natural Haven

The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!


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79 thoughts on “Can Stretching Natural Hair be Harmful?

  1. I twist my hair after i’ve washed it to help it dry, its my loop hole to blow drying my hair as i hate heat. But how long does hair remain stretched? Coz some of my hair strands a really loose and some have tight coils.

  2. Since I accidentally stretched my hair back in April 2012, I have been doing so ever since. It has been my Godsend! Not only does it allow me to display length with my twists, but it has proven to eliminate the knotting of my highly textured strands…I don’t really do the hair-typing thing, but for a visual reference, I would definitely say its in range of 4 lol – anywho, I realized that I lose a whole lot of hair when I style it while wet…so I no longer do that under any circumstances. It is time consuming, but well worth it. My process is this – after I wash it and it is soaking wet (I don’t towel dry) I apply oil throughout it to seal in the moisture. Next I section it into large two-strand twists and apply more oil to each section along with my favorite creme hair dress. After this is done, I sit under my hooded-dryer until it is about 80-90% dry. and viola! its stretched and ready for styling. My typical staple style is double strand twists. Since I started working out again (need to lose 20-30 lbs) I must do them medium size so they can last and withstand the sweat (via insanity, thanks Sean T.! lol) for at least 2-3 weeks. If I do them too small, I risk too much tangling, if do them too large, it will frizz up in a heartbeat and I will end up doing them over before my wash day for the sake of not looking unkempt lol – but with the medium size I can get away with the frizz because I can simply pin them up in an updo – which I do to eliminate the friction on my shoulders and back in order to protect the ends:-) Hope this helps someone:-)

  3. My hair is a virgin hair. I stretched my hair on 1st of february and it makes me feel good cos I av a very stubborn hair. Hope it won’t have any side effect?

  4. I ended up over stretching my curls. I discover puffs and I didnt realise how damaging it was. The very front ofmy hair is justa big fluffy mess, it doesnt even clump together. And the same goes for the hair directly over my ears. :( iuts gonna be a while before I can get it where it needs to be

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