“A Woman’s hair, her crown, is a source of pride, expression of creativity,

and beauty and is an essential part of African-American culture.”

Starr Mason, Field Education Leader, Hair Cuttery

In 1907, African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (née Sarah Breedlove) (1867-1919) began selling a formula of her own concocting that had reversed balding for her. In the late 2010s, following the legalization of hemp in the United States, cannabidiol (CBD) began being sold in hair products claiming the same effect: hair growth. Amazingly, both Walker’s product and CBD worked as advertised. Somewhat more remarkably, both proved particularly effective for kinky, coily and curly hair (texture types 3B to 4C). How so? And how can CBD-infused hair care products benefit you? Read on to find out!

Madame C.J. Walker: Neither Pro-Straightening Nor Anti-Kink

Many historians attribute the invention of hair-straightening tools (e.g., hot combs) and/or hair relaxers to Walker, but she was opposed to what she regarded as changing someone’s natural character. She once addressed the rumor head-on with: “Right here, let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair. I deplore such an impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair.” Hence the name of her first big-seller, Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.

Making and Changing History, One Scalp at a Time

Some historians speculate that Walker adapted her product from Annie Turnbo’s Great Wonderful Hair Grower, which was the first product to partially reverse Walker’s baldness. However, Walker’s experience as a washerwoman and, later, as a cook for a pharmacist built the foundation of the knowledge she used when experimenting. Thus, it would be unfair to place her achievement in the shadow of a fellow 1900s African American woman entrepreneur owing to circumstantial evidence.

What Walker achieved – apart from becoming the first female African American millionaire – was a self-made success story. In 1910, she established a manufacturing company in Indianapolis, Indiana, for Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. By 1920, she had added nine products to her line: Temple Grower, Witch Hazel Jelly, Tetter-Salve, Glossine, Vegetable Shampoo, Cold Cream, Vanishing Cream, Cleansing Cream and Walker’s Supreme Face Powder.

Photo of Madame C.J. Walker By Scurlock Studio/ Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History /Public Domain

Photo of Madame C.J. Walker By Scurlock Studio/ Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History /Public Domain

So, what was in that miracle cure for baldness anyhow? According to the British Journal of Dermatology, the ingredients in Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower included precipitated sulfur (to treat severe dandruff), copper sulfate, beeswax, petroleum jelly, coconut oil and a violet extract perfume to cover the sulfur smell. Those weren’t all the ingredients though, as some were imported from Africa after Walker was told in a dream where and how to procure them. As quoted in “How Madam C.J. Walker Invented Her Hair Care Products,” Walker explained:

“God answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big Black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.”

Today, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and official biographer and historian, A’Lelia Bundles, sells modern-day versions of Walker’s early 1900s products. The product line, MADAM, comprises 11 products in a “damage-defying” scalp-to-strand system. The product with the original formula, however, is not available for purchase anywhere. (Test the hyperlinks on any website that claims otherwise, and you’ll invariably hit “Error 404” dead ends.)

Hair Care Products from MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker/ https://www.madambymcjw.com/us/en

Hair Care Products from MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker/ https://www.madambymcjw.com/us/en

Thy Uniqueness and Mysteries of Kinky, Coily and Curly Hair

“Why won’t my hair grow?!”

If you’ve got kinky, coily or curly hair that seems to have reached the length it will stay at for the rest of your life, you’re in for a surprise: It really is growing! The reason you get the opposite impression is that, according to Afrochenix and Sofnfree Naturals, your hair is breaking off as fast as it’s growing. Solve the breakage problem, and you can expect to see the growth that’s been taking place all along.

“OK, so why is my hair breaking then?”

Hair breakage for kinky, coily and curly hair (specifically, texture types 3B to 4C) is driven by both behavior and ancestry. In the case of behavior, here are some things that Afrochenix, Pantene and FroHub identify as harmful:

  • Using chemicals (e.g., relaxers, texturizers).
  • Adding color (especially on top of a perm).
  • Using heat (e.g., hairdryer, flat-iron, curling wand).
  • Washing more than once a week, on average.
  • Washing with shampoo containing sulphates.
  • Towel-drying aggressively.
  • Combing wet hair.
  • Not protecting hair overnight (e.g., silk/satin pillowcase, scarf, bonnet).
  • Causing hormonal changes with certain birth control methods.
  • Not moisturizing.
  • Not eating healthfully.

Towel-drying kinky, coily or curly hair aggressively with a towel causes hair breakage that will cancel out hair growth, making it look like the hair can’t grow./ Photo by Ron Lach/pexels.com Photo for illustrative purposes only

Towel-drying kinky, coily or curly hair aggressively with a towel causes hair breakage that will cancel out hair growth, making it look like the hair can’t grow./ Photo by Ron Lach/pexels.com Photo for illustrative purposes only

“My diet – seriously?!”

FroHub explains what a bad diet does to hair:

“Hair is produced in the follicle which is found just below your skin, and they receive the majority of their nutrition from your blood. Therefore, eating a good balanced diet that includes plenty of vitamins and minerals can help limit the amount of hair breakage you experience, as your follicles will be getting fed well.”

Sofnfree Naturals goes into even greater detail:

“To have healthy longer hair, you need to ensure that the foods you eat are high in protein, iron, vitamin E and vitamin B. Foods like salmon, chia seeds, eggs and avocado are examples of foods that can nourish your body. You also need to drink at least eight glasses of water a day for your strands to get the moisture it needs. If you struggle with a bad diet (who doesn’t) try nourishing your body with at least five vegetables a day. Choose vegetables that you like and look for recipes that incorporate them into your meals for that day. Once you get used to this habit you can try another one like trying to add at least two protein sources to your diet.”

Afrochenix echoes the above guidance, but also suggests avoiding sweets and fatty foods.

For longer hair, skip the fast food and stock up on produce. Photo by cocarinne /pexels.com

For longer hair, skip the fast food and stock up on produce. Photo by cocarinne /pexels.com

“What does my ancestry have to do with my hair breakage?”

A study published in the trade journal “Skin Appendage Disorders” states plainly:

“Hair and scalp disorders are a significant problem in African descent women. One of the reasons is that African hair is more fragile, has less tensile strength and reaches its breaking point earlier than the hair of other racial groups.”

Adding to that, doctors from TRI Princeton summarize the bioscience with:

“[Scanning Electron Microscopy] data displayed more fiber flattening in the areas where fibers were twisted, and even twisting in opposite directions along the fiber lengths. This unique morphology of Afro-textured hair is a major factor in its susceptibility to breakage. Tight curls, in combination with the unbending, untwisting and stretching dynamics of brushing and combing, is likely to create internal shear forces that lead to crack formation.”

All of that said, it’s still remarkable that these hair textures were designed to be luscious and long all on their own. Any hair type that’s at its best when washed and brushed infrequently, left to air-dry, and kept the color it was assigned in the womb is basically the Creator’s way of saying, “Perfection.” That’s not to say that beauty isn’t like a full-time job for anyone maintaining kinky, coily or curly hair daily, nor to understate the labor (and money) that goes into amplifying the perfection of biologically perfect hair, nor to neglect the versatility of styling those types of hair. But it’s worth stepping back to appreciate the uniqueness of these hair types for a moment.

Photo via Creative Commoms/CC0 1.0 Public Domain

Photo via Creative Commoms/CC0 1.0 Public Domain

Tragically, your hair is exposed to the elements of an imperfect world, one filled with polluted air, unnatural chemicals in indoor plumbing and other such hair-health hindrances. So, your hair would definitely appreciate getting a little help with moisturizing. But beware of hair moisturizers that sneak in hazardous ingredients, such as fragrance and isopropyl, damaging your hair while claiming to fix damage. (Some even cause cancer, infertility, obesity and other dangerous health problems.) And plenty of bottles flashing the word “natural” are sneaky with their toxic ingredients, so don’t skip over the Ingredients paragraph on those.

So, you need a moisturizer to prevent breakage that cancels out growth. But why settle for that? There’s actually a legitimately all-natural product that not only prevents breakage but also stimulates growth: the cannabis extract CBD.

Cannabis’s Wonderful Hair Grower: CBD

Is CBD weed?

Yes and no. Weed is simply another name for the plant cannabis, referring to the plant in its entirety. (Other names for CBD are “hemp oil” and “hemp seed oil,” by the way.) Sometimes, however, the word “weed” refers implicitly to cannabis’s psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Like THC, CBD is one of cannabis’s compounds; unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive. Here’s our infographic comparing and contrasting CBD with THC in greater detail.

Image by Andrew Weech, Head Magazine, https://headmagazine.com/cbd-vs-thc/

Image by Andrew Weech, Head Magazine, https://headmagazine.com/cbd-vs-thc/

How does CBD prevent hair breakage?

CBD does four things to prevent breakage:

  • Strengthens hair strands.
  • Keeps hair strands moisturized just right.
  • Shields hair from environmental damage.
  • Heals hair that’s been damaged by styling and chemicals.

Hair strands are mostly made of protein, and the building blocks of protein are amino acids. Somewhat miraculously, all 21 protein-building amino acids are present in CBD. Applying CBD regularly to your hair strands strengthens your hair simply by feeding it protein, comparable to eating protein to help your muscles grow.

Beyond that, CBD meets another need critical to hair strength: moisture. The fatty acids (Omega-3, -6 and -9) in CBD not only provide moisture but also lock it in, even preventing water loss. Also, the CBD builds on the keratin already found in your hair, which visibly increases hair elasticity, volume and shine.

When applied from root to tip, CBD oil is quickly absorbed, so it hydrates the hair shaft without causing a greasy scalp. It supplements hair follicles’ excretion of natural oil, which sometimes has a hard time reaching the hair shaft for kinky, coily and curly hair. The antioxidants (e.g., vitamins A, C and E) and minerals (potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc) in CBD help protect hair from environmental damage. Also, they repair breakage caused by styling and chemicals through the restoration of cells.

CBD hair moisturizers, such as this cream from Safohair, accomplish all of the above, not only preventing shaft breakage but also repairing damage by restoring cells. Image from Safohair/ https://www.safohair.com

CBD hair moisturizers, such as this cream from Safohair, accomplish all of the above, not only preventing shaft breakage but also repairing damage by restoring cells. Image from Safohair/ https://www.safohair.com

How does CBD stimulate hair growth/regrowth?

CBD does three things to get hair to grow:

  • Heals scalp conditions causing hair thinning or baldness.
  • Lowers cortisol levels to stop stress-induced hair loss.
  • Corrects imbalances in thyroid hormones to stabilize hair-cycle frequencies.

When reporting the results of testing CBD’s ability to regrow hair for people afflicted with androgenetic alopecia, medical director Gregory L. Smith and John Satino of the Laser Hair Center broke down the science of CBD’s hair-growth potential as follows:

“Studies have shown that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a key player in hair follicle cell growth.  The ECS cannabinoid type one (CB1) receptors are well expressed in the hair follicle cells. Cannabidiol CBD is a negative allosteric modulator of the CB1 receptor and has been shown to result in hair shaft elongation. In addition, the hair follicle cycle phases are controlled by the ECS vanilloid receptor-1 (TRPV1). CBD has also been shown to increase Wnt signaling pathways that are involved in the differentiation of dermal progenitor cells into new hair follicles and maintaining the anagen phase of the hair cycle.”

Data generated by Smith and Satino’s testing showed that, on average, there was a 93.5% increase in hair after six months, and that all 35 subjects had some regrowth. Moreover, there were no reported adverse effects.

The condition analyzed, androgenic alopecia, is one of many scalp conditions that can affect hair growth and even cause baldness. CBD targets scalp conditions by soothing inflammation and irritation, which can reverse the effects (e.g., baldness).

This before-and-after comparison from Vegamour shows a customer’s hair-wellness journey, with excellent regrowth only months after starting on a hair serum with broad-spectrum CBD.

In some cases, it’s not the scalp that’s the cause of baldness, but what’s deep underneath the scalp: your mind. (Quick sidebar: Paleo Stress Management’s December 2023 findings on stress worldwide provides intriguing insight into what’s got us so high-strung right now.) As if acne and weight gain weren’t punishment enough for being stressed out, another way our body commiserates with our embattled psyche is by relieving us of the burden of a full head of hair. The medical condition it causes is telogen effluvium.

In plain English, telogen effluvium is when stress puts some of your hair follicles in a coma and lets the roots they were feeding starve to death and ditch the hair they were supporting. In technical terms, when the hormone that stress releases (cortisol) increases substantially, it both reduces the synthesis of and accelerates the degradation of the skin elements hyaluronan and proteoglycans by approximately 40%. So, your hair ceases to grow in these particular follicles, and then the affected hair suddenly falls out during brushing or washing. (Maybe that’s why we neglect hygiene when depressed; we’re subconsciously clinging to hair that we know from a sixth sense will abandon us if we dare brush or wash it.)

CBD combats telogen effluvium by reducing cortisol, thereby down-regulating the damaging inflammatory responses and up-regulating regenerative processes. The endocannabinoid system in our bodies is one of the main regulators of the stress response. Put more specifically in a Journal of Clinical Medicine study, “A basal endocannabinoid tone inhibits the stress response, modulation of this tone permits/curtails an active stress response, and chronic deficiency in the endocannabinoid tone is associated with the pathological complications of chronic stress.”

So, even though CBD isn’t chilling you out by getting you high like THC does, it’s hard at work restoring balance in your central nervous system. To get enough of it though, you’ll likely need to supplement your CBD-infused hair care products with ingestible CBD (gummies, etc.). 

 Cortisol levels – which can be lowered with CBD – put hair follicles into a prolonged resting phase, and the affected hair strands fall out during brushing and washing. Photo by Wendy Burchfield via Creative Commons/ CC BY 2.0 Deed

Cortisol levels – which can be lowered with CBD – put hair follicles into a prolonged resting phase, and the affected hair strands fall out during brushing and washing. Photo by Wendy Burchfield via Creative Commons/ CC BY 2.0 Deed

Cortisol isn’t the only hormone that messes with your hair growth, of course; thyroid hormones (and many, many others) do that too. In fact, the thyroid hormone is believed to be what regulates the frequency of the four-phase hair cycle that each follicle goes through individually: 1) Anagen (growth, lasting two to eight years); 2) Catagen (shrinking, lasting two to three weeks); 3) Telogen (resting, lasting two to four months); and 4) Exogen (shedding, lasting a few days).

Thyroid hormone receptors are present on the outer sheath hair root. When insufficient thyroid hormones are produced (hypothyroidism), the Anagen frequency for the affected follicle(s) decreases. Also, if hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) is an issue, the hormone can promote a premature transition from the Anagen phase (growth) to the Telogen phase (shedding).

Once again though, CBD comes to the rescue when the body is under siege by hormonal imbalances. A clinical study published in June 2022 showed that the administration of oral CBD could significantly reverse hypothyroidism. This is due to CBD’s effect on the expression patterns of cannabinoid receptor-2 and Vitamin D’s receptor. So, if a thyroid hormone imbalance is attacking your hair follicles, discuss oral CBD with your physician. Short of committing to a medicine regimen though, you can always treat your follicles to an all-natural wellness boost by using a CBD-infused hair care product.

If hair follicle irritation is keeping your hair stuck in the resting or shedding phase of the hair cycle, get the cycle going again by using CBD to set things right, perhaps from Sunny Isle’s hair mask. https://jamaicanblackcastoroil.com/products/cbd-conditioner-194

If hair follicle irritation is keeping your hair stuck in the resting or shedding phase of the hair cycle, get the cycle going again by using CBD to set things right, perhaps from Sunny Isle’s hair mask. https://jamaicanblackcastoroil.com/products/cbd-conditioner-194

Go Forth and Grow!

When shopping for your CBD hair care products, make sure the ones you’re considering buying have been third-party tested, sometimes proven with a certificate of analysis. If you can, find out whether the cannabis the CBD came from was grown in a sustainable farm with no pesticides or fertilizers, too. That’ll be safer for your hair.

Also, consider buying products developed by African American-owned CBD hair care brands, such as Safohair, Baked Kurls and Sunny Isle. You never know; you might be helping the next Madame (or Monsieur) C.J. Walker get her (or his) start.

Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.  

 

 

 

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