The Synthetic Hair Nightmare! What You Need To Know

The intricacies of managing, styling, and keeping natural hair healthy and flourishing can be tricky.
Protective styling is meant to be easy and keep hair free of damage and breakage, but the type of hair used to create many of these protective hairstyles can actually cause damage. Synthetic hair, in particular, which is often used to create gorgeous braided hairstyles, twists, and many wigs, has gained a bad rep for having damaging effects like breakage of your natural curls and scalp irritation.

Aside from the more obvious yet significant differences between synthetic and human hair, like price, synthetic hair is becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate from human hair. The debate has even led to a whole feature film thriller on the topic. So, is all the fuss warranted? There’s a lot to unpack on this topic, but before choosing a side, let’s break down exactly what each has to offer.

What is synthetic hair?
Synthetic hair is exactly as it sounds. The fake hair strands are made out of man-made fibers like acrylic or nylon. The fibers are put through various chemical processes to give them a similar look, feel, color, and styling capability as human hair. The quality of the materials used to create the fibers is what determines how closely a bundle of synthetic hair mimics actual human hair.

What is the difference between synthetic hair and human hair?
Synthetic hair has come a long way. So much so that it’s often difficult to tell the difference between synthetic and human hair at first glance. Unlike synthetic hair, human hair is harvested from actual human heads. A bundle can sometimes also blend human hair with animal (horse or sheep) hair.

The two types of hair may feel very similar, but there are certain visual details to look for that distinguish them. Color intensity is one. Synthetic hair hues come in a pretty vast assortment, whereas human hair often needs to be custom colored after it’s purchased. There are benefits to both options: Synthetic hair extensions and wigs are pretty much ready-to-wear. They’re available in a range of textures (straight, wavy, and curly), colors, and lengths.

In addition to its grab-and-go easiness, synthetic hair also has a better ability to retain a style. The fibers function similarly to memory foam, allowing it to bounce back into shape a lot easier than human hair. The con is that there isn’t as much versatility, meaning you can’t change the style, curl pattern, or color. It’s also important to note that very few synthetic hair options can be heat-styled. However, synthetic hair is particularly beneficial for curly hairstyles that you generally want to stay defined and spiraled. The curl pattern is set, so even if you smooth it out when washing, it will bounce back into place once it dries.

Human hair wigs, on the other hand, won’t do this. They’re ideal for those who prefer a style that can be completely personalized but requires a lot more styling work. Human hair can be colored down to the amount of highlights and lowlights added to it. It’s more aligned with how your natural hair behaves. This means that you not only need to re-style it every time it’s washed, but also external and environmental factors like moisture, dry air, and friction from sleeping on it can easily cause it to go limp, frizz up, or become dry and brittle.

How To Tell Human Hair From Synthetic Hair
As previously mentioned, the ability to personalize human hair wigs with various color techniques is a major distinguishing factor between synthetic and human hair. Without those nuanced color differences, synthetic hair tends to lose some of the luster that human hair can have. Or, depending on the chemicals used to make the synthetic fibers, it may have the opposite effect and be unnaturally shiny.

Higher quality synthetic hair can also feel as smooth and silky as human hair. However, it won’t react the same when washing and drying. Synthetic hair will revert back to its original shape, but human hair will need to be re-styled. Synthetic hair also tends to tangle a lot less. Again, this is a benefit to the style memory that’s built into how it’s created.

Can you be allergic to synthetic hair?
The short answer is yes. Much like synthetic fragrances and preservatives that are used in cosmetics and certain hair-care products, people can have a synthetic hair allergy. They may experience adverse effects like itching, irritation, and redness when the hair comes in contact with their skin. It’s important to keep in mind that the scalp is an extension of the skin on the rest of your body, so it might react in a similar way to certain chemicals.

Depending on your skin type, the chemicals used to give synthetic hair the same luster, smoothness, and in some cases, the ability to withstand heat-styling, hot water, and styling product ingredients may cause a negative reaction. If you’re unsure whether or not a particular style will cause synthetic hair irritation, it's best to start with a removable wig instead of a style that’s sewn in. This way, you can wear it and easily remove it if you experience any irritation on the skin where the hair touches your scalp.

Before getting synthetic hair sewn onto your head, wash it thoroughly, or better yet, take it to your stylist to cleanse. This is an important step to help get rid of any potential irritants or surface chemicals that can cause a skin reaction once it’s on your head.

How to Care For Synthetic Hair
Synthetic hair wigs and weaves are actually more low-maintenance than human hair versions. With synthetic hair, you don’t have to worry about too much tangling, dryness, or color-fading. However, it doesn’t last as long. If you’re wearing it daily, for example, if it’s sewn in, or if you have synthetic hair braids, then expect to get a solid three to six months out of it. Depending on how often you’re wearing the hair and how you care for it, you may be able to extend its life. This is achievable even if you’re washing the hair while it’s installed.

What’s most important in preventing damage or scalp irritation from synthetic hair is keeping your natural hair protected underneath. Unlike human hair, synthetic hair isn’t as breathable, and with your natural hair tucked way under it, there’s potential for bacteria and fungus to form and cause itching and scalp inflammation. These factors can lead to hair shedding and an uncomfortable wear of your protective style. Keeping the synthetic hair clean and free of product buildup lowers the risk of damage to natural hair.

You can extend the life of your synthetic hair with a proper cleansing regimen. Aim to shampoo your protective hairstyle every two weeks, following these steps:

1. Detangle the hair with a wide-tooth comb while it’s dry to remove any large knots.

2. Rinse hair thoroughly using lukewarm water. As you rinse, avoid rubbing the hair, as this might cause it to tangle up.

3. Apply a sulfate-free shampoo to the hair and finger comb it through from roots to ends to cleanse. If you’re wearing a sewn-in hairstyle, try not to put too much shampoo near your roots. It will be difficult to rinse thoroughly and could potentially cause irritation from the formula sitting on your scalp. You can also use the Wash Day Delight to cleanse the scalp. The lightweight consistency and pointed tip gets right to the scalp and rinses easily.

4. Rinse thoroughly. Again, making sure to keep the handling to a minimum so that it stays smooth.

5. Apply the Black Vanilla Moisture and Shine Leave-In Conditioner to help smooth and hydrate the hair. The oils in the formula will give the hair a natural-looking sheen.

6. While the hair is saturated with water, coat it with the Sacred Tiare 4-in-1 Combing Creme, then use a wide-tooth comb to detangle, starting at the bottom of your hair and working up to the roots. This method helps keep tangles at bay.

7. After the hair is free from knots, give it another good rinse with lukewarm water to remove any excess product.

8. Squeeze (don’t wring) the water out of your hair.

9. Synthetic generally doesn’t need styling products, since it will revert back to its original style. It will need to be air-dried, unless it’s a version that’s blow-dryer friendly.

Once you figure out which hair you’d like to use, we’ve got you covered on a look. Here’s Your Guide to Protective Hairstyles for Natural Hair.

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