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What is Uncombable Hair Syndrome?

Earlier this week I was browsing online and I stumbled across an article on MSN about a little girl with “uncombable hair syndrome”. I’d heard of this condition before, but something about this article made me want to dig in more. What is uncombable hair syndrome? Is it even real?

Also known as spun glass hair, pili trianguli et canaliculi, or unmanagable hair syndrome (UHS), this condition appears in children by the age of three but in some cases it shows up as late as age twelve. There are about 100 known cases in the world, making it very rare. Of course, there’s no telling how many undiagnosed cases there are.

Skepticism

The question on whether the condition is real entered my mind because, as an African-American woman, I initially had some skepticism. During my research I discovered I wasn’t the only one. Wynter Seymour, a girl with the condition, was recently featured on the British show, This Morning. Following the airing, viewers posted comments on Twitter such as:

@thismorning uncombable hair syndrome????? Is it April fools Day again?

Are we actually talking about whether a girl can brush her hair?!? … shoot me now.

I found that much disbelief also comes from my own community regarding this condition. Twitter delievered comments such as:

#uncombablehairsyndrome get some deep conditioner, some detangler, wide tooth comb, leave in, coconut oil, hard brush, As I Am products etc.

#uncombablehairsyndrome an if that baby cries while you combing her hair, she tenderheaded … she’ll grow out of it, ALL us black folk did

Symptoms and Causes

Uncombable Hair Syndrome and African hair do have some similarities. For example, both hair types produce a coarse or “wooly” hair texture. Both hair types also grow in different directions rather than straight. They also tend to be dry and difficult to comb flat. Both hair types may also be prone to breakage if care isn’t taken, although fragility isn’t a common characteristic of uncombable hair syndrome.

Contrary to popular opinion, African hair and UHS are not the same.

However, that’s where the similarities end. Despite criticism from the African-American community, evidence shows that uncombable hair syndrome is, indeed, a real disorder. Unlike African hair, uncombable hair syndrome exhibits a white or silvery hair color and may grow at a slightly slower rate than normal. It only affects scalp hair. In most cases, a child’s hair condition improves by the time they reach adolescence. A child with African ancestry would not experience extreme changes in hair texture over time.

Alex Barlow, mother of Lyla-Grace Barlow who has the condition, says, “…she gets uncomfortable as the hair traps heat. Normal people sweat and heat escapes through their head but we’ve had to call 999 (UK equivalent to 911) when Lyla overheated and started convulsing.”

Uncombable hair syndrome is caused by a recessive gene that alters the shape of the hair shaft (what’s visible to us as hair) from the normal circular shape to being triangular, flat, or even heart-shaped. Uncombable hair syndrome is not the same as curly hair. The curl of our hair is determined by hair follicles under the scalp, not the hair shaft itself. That’s why someone with naturally curly hair can straighten their hair with a flat iron, but it will eventually revert back to its natural texture.

It’s unclear whether uncombable hair syndrome is directly inherited. In some cases it may be interrited through parents who carry the gene but in others, the pattern isn’t clear.

What Should I Do If I Think My Child Has The Condition?

I am not a medical professional so the best advice I can give is telling you to bring the issue up to your doctor. They can best assess your situation and rule out any related diseases.

With that being said, you may also want to make sure you rule out the possibility that ancestry could be a factor in your child’s hair texture. Individuals with ancestries such as African or Jewish may have a natural wooly hair texture. Recessive genes exibiting traits from these ancestries have been known to skip generations before showing up again.

If you still suspect an abnormality, talk with your pediatrician. He or she may refer you to a specialist. You can also search for one on your own. To find a doctor who’s experienced with the condition, you can look online, ask organizations, or look in medical journals. You can also find many resources here.

Treatment

There’s no cure but the good news is that the worst symptom of uncombable hair syndrome is, well, uncombable hair. In many cases, it gets less severe as a child gets older. The condition is more of a nuisance than anything else. A big problem is that children are often surrounded by those who have no idea how to care for their hair. They face countless hours of screaming as caregivers try to force combs through their hair, leaving them in pain. Then, they have to go to school where they may stand out and endure teasing from classmates.

Choose your hair products wisely when dealing with UHS.

Don’t be so quick to assume that African hair products will solve the problem. Products designed for African hair textures may still be too heavy for a Caucasian child with uncombable hair syndrome. Alex Barlow, mentioned earlier, stated that she and her husband have tried many products on Lyla’s hair, but none have worked. She said that creams and oils have left her hair “sticky and wet”.

Uncombable hair does respond well to braids and cornrows, which are great becuase once they’re styled in, they can be left for days at a time.

Lyla-Grace Barlow visited stylist Shaun Pulfrey who came up with an effective regimen.

Uncombable Hair Syndrome Care Tips

1. Work out the tangles on dry hair with a detangling hairbrush like this one.

2. Avoid heavy oils.

3. Avoid chemicals such as relaxers and perms.

4. Avoid excessive heat like flat irons and curlers. Use blow dryers sparingly, and when you do, spray the hair with a heat protector like this.

5. BE GENTLE. Use conditioners and soft brushes.

6. You may also want to talk to your pediatrician about biotin supplements. These vitamins are known to improve the general appearance of hair and may aid in growth.

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Whitney Foster is an entrepreneur and educator from Cleveland, OH. She's a foodie and loves crafting, particularly crochet and cross stitching. She also loves children and learning about the world around her.

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