Coronavirus won't multiply on your synthetic hair weave, wig or braids, but it could live there for quite a while.
Here's what you can do about that.
Braids, Synthetic Hair: Is it Safe?
Since this pandemic started, there's been even more rumours going around than usual.
Colliding with our haircare rituals, just like every other part of our lives, It's throwing up all kinds of strange questions: Can coronavirus live on your hair? Can it live on your braids? Can you spread it through weave?
But with all the rumours swirling, we wanted to bring the facts. So we dug into peer-reviewed scientific journals for the latest research and checked out what medical experts and scientists had to say before we put this out there.
And seriously, what they said sent some alarm bells ringing. You might want to change up some of your haircare after reading this article.
How long can coronavirus live on your natural hair?
First, the good news: scientists don't think SARS-CoV-2 - the virus that causes the deadly Covid-19 - can live long on human hair.
Between the porous surface and the presence of natural oils, human hair is not the ideal place for longterm virus survival.
That's because our hair's natural lipids have "antimicrobial properties and they limit how well organisms can bind to the hair," explains Dr Adam Friedman, interim chair of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in an interview with Today.
And anyway, your hair itself can't get infected: hair is dead and the virus can only replicate inside a living cell.
For now, experts are pretty confident that the main way to get the virus is by breathing in virus droplets or aerosols from an infected person, or touching surfaces where viruses may be lurking - and then touching your face.
Hair counts as a surface, but it's not at the top of that list. So while this doesn't mean there's no need to take any precautions with your hair, it does mean you can panic just a little less about the virus lurking indefinitely on your tresses.
How safe are braids with synthetic hair during the coronavirus pandemic? Image by Luizmedeirosph.
But what about synthetic hair?
While the "Can coronavirus live on hair?" question has gotten some media attention of late, there's very little factual information on hair extensions, especially braids, despite the huge popularity of these hairstyles.
Most braided extensions, as well as some wigs and weaves, are made from synthetic hair fibres. Advances in hair extension manufacturing techniques mean these products can look increasingly like the real thing.
But synthetic hair is 100% plastic.
And for people like Ella, 27, who recently got a set of 'emergency' jumbo braids installed, that's worrying.
At least one study has shown coronaviruses can last up to 9 days on plastic surfaces.
There haven't been any studies on how long the virus survives on synthetic hair at the time of writing. Still, the news about its extended lifetime on synthetic surfaces has jolted Ella, who thought her neat, Poetic Justice-inspired braids would be the most practical protective style for this uncertain period.
Like many, she got her hair done after hearing rumours there was going to be a lockdown: "I was kind of freaking out because I just went natural and I don't know how to deal with my hair yet," she says. Ella managed to squeeze in a last-minute appointment with her braider, just one day before the lockdown closed the hair salons and hair shops in her city.
Scroll through social media and it's clear thousands of people had the same idea. Women who couldn't make it to a braider before the quarantine have shared their woes on Instagram, while others quickly made their way to Tik-Tok, YouTube and Pinterest to binge watch or create DIY braid tutorials.
Zero access to stylists and online-only access to most specialist products for textured hair means longterm protective styling with extensions is seen by many as the pragmatic, low maintenance way to ride out the lockdown.
And with their clean, precision partings along rows of identical, factory-perfect plaits, Ella's braids certainly look the part.
Braids have surged in popularity online since the crisis began. Image by Luizmedeirosph.
But a couple weeks ago, a random comment by a relative about her "plastic hair" unsettled her. She did a quick search online to see what her braids were really made of. "I knew they were Kanekalon and I knew Kanekalon was synthetic, she says. "But for some reason I never thought of it as plastic."
That discovery, linked with the much-publicised information on the virus's long survival on similar materials, "put me on edge," she admits. Unable to find any specific data on braids, hair and the virus, Ella hasn't been able to push the question out of her mind.
So are braids a safe hairstyle in the time of coronavirus?
Without a specific study on this question, there's no definitive answer. What there is, however, is an abundance of clues, from the science of synthetic hair to the latest research on coronavirus, to the opinions of experts on hair, hygiene and infection. Taken together, this information can help put the risk, and whether it's worth it, in context.
The 3 Main Types Of Synthetic Hair
Despite its appearance, all synthetic hair is made of plastic fibres. It gets its hair-like look via a dip in corrosive lye which disrupts the fibres' surface, creating texture. There are three main types:
Kanekalon, the most popular, is made of acrylonitrile and vinyl chloride. It looks natural and is longlasting.
Toyakalon, is made of polyvinyl chloride, it's the super shiny kind of synthetic hair that tangles less than Kanekalon but looks less natural.
Synthetic hair is available in increasingly realistic textures. Image by Johan de Jager.
Monofiber, made of acrylic, is the highest quality, most realistic looking synthetic hair.
What all these synthetic hair varieties have in common is a textured surface, even on glossy Toyakalon, which makes modern synthetic hair look very different from most people's idea of plastic.
So could its textured surface, more porous than the smooth, hard plastics used in research papers like this, make it safer?
Although there's no data yet on how synthetic hair fares versus human hair in terms of coronavirus, other microbes do seem to be able to tell the difference between real and fake hair.
Germs live longer on synthetic hair
In a 2014 study, scientists seeded both natural human hair and Kanekalon fibers with a type of bacteria called mycoplasma. Within 8 hours, there were no more viable mycoplasma on the natural hair.
Yet on the synthetic hair, it took another 84 hours for the bacteria to start to decline. And 9 days later, there was still potentially infectious mycoplasma on the Kanekalon hair.
As bacteria, mycoplasma are a completely different organism to viruses like SARS-CoV-2. But the study throws up a worrying picture of how much longer synthetic hair can harbour harmful microorganisms compared to natural hair.
And braids with synthetic hair have been flagged as a hygiene risk in the past: in South Africa many of the large poultry producers have long forbid their staff from wearing synthetic braids, deeming them a 'biosecurity' risk.
Studies show that other microbes can live for a long time on synthetic hair. Image by Bob B. Brown.
Is it safe to wear braids in the coronavirus outbreak?
Does this mean you should give up braids during the pandemic?
Probably not. But it does mean you need to be more careful. While experts don't think contaminated hair is a major transmission route, it is one of the many indirect ways you can end up inadvertently putting yourself at risk.
One scenario in which your hair could be contaminated is when you touch a surface with the virus on it, and then touch your hair. If you later touch your hair again and go on to touch your face, you could potentially become infected.
That is, unless you wash your hands at the right time. Along with social distancing, hand washing is one of the most effective steps you can take to maintain hygiene and safety — for your health overall and also for your hair.
Washing your hands — thoroughly with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds — right after you touch a potentially contaminated surface can easily disarm this coronavirus.
Infectious droplets can spread via coughing, sneezing, talking or breathing. Image by mahmoud99725.
And what if someone coughs on your hair?
By all means, wash it.
In that case, virus particles entering your nose, mouth or eyes would be your biggest concern.
But washing your hair with shampoo is the best way to remove microbes from it, whether you're rocking your own natural hair, or braids or weaves made with synthetic hair.
That's because the surfactants in shampoo act just like those in handwash; micelles in the formula grab onto the virus's lipid coat, dissolving it and allowing its remnants to be rinsed away from your hair with water.
So if you're concerned about inadvertently getting the virus onto your braids, a good, thorough shampoo is a simple way to remove it.
It's an easy way to ease concerns about whether or not your hair is "safe", especially if you've been in a context where social distancing isn't possible.
The strong surfactants in shampoo help deactivate viruses and allow them to be rinsed safely from your hair.
Coronavirus: How often should I wash my hair?
If you work in an environment where you have a high likelihood of exposure to the virus, washing your hair is even more important.
Back in 2017, researchers were monitoring people who were exposed at work to a different coronavirus. Although the workers wore personal protective equipment, scientists still found substantial viral contamination on their skin and hair after leaving the contaminated work space.
The scientists had a clear recommendation to avoid spreading the virus: workers should shower and wash their hair after exposure.
Experts agree that people who are more exposed to the current virus should wash their hair more frequently, too.
Dr Sarah Fortune, chair of the department of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health says more intense hygiene precautions are needed "if you're a healthcare provider and potentially subject to a high density of virus."
Scientists are concerned that supermarkets are becoming hubs of infection. Image by Tyler Nix.
But what about if you don't work in a healthcare setting: should you wash your hair after going to the supermarket?
Fortune thinks the focus should be elsewhere. "For most of us, it is all about our hands and face," she says. And Feng Zhaolu, a researcher at the Chinese Center For Disease Control advises that people should just maintain regular hair washing schedules after going outside.
But with emerging evidence of supermarkets as hubs of infection, other experts are more cautious.
Dr Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute For Global Health, recommends "daily" hair washing.
Dr Hadley King, a New York dermatologist, advises keeping your hair up and away from your face when you go to the supermarket to avoid touching it, or having it fall in your face. "It would be reasonable to pull it back if you'll be in an area that could be contaminated with viral particles," she says in an interview with Refinery29.
King adds that if you visit a place that could be contaminated, "it certainly wouldn't hurt to wash your hair when you get home."
Coronavirus: How often should you wash braids?
How does advice like "maintaining regular washing" translate if you don't usually wash your hair as often as some of the experts seem to assume? Or if you're currently braided up?
Here's one way of looking at it: In times like these, 'regular' means 'frequent'. So if your pre-corona routine meant wash days that came 2 weeks apart, that definitely needs to change.
The myth that braids can't be washed without getting messed up also needs to be crushed. Braids can be washed daily and still look good for two months if you know how to wash braids the right way.
NYC doctor recommends wearing your hair up at the supermarket. Image by Godisable Jacob.
As for suspect social media trends like 90 Day No Wash Challenges, those were always unhygienic, but now they could be dangerous, too.
Something else we need to keep in mind: All four experts' advice on hair wash frequency during the pandemic is based on natural human hair, on which most microbes have a limited viability.
We still don't know exactly how much virus you'd have to come into contact with in this way to get infected.
But what we do know suggests this virus might last a lot longer on synthetic hair. And that longer survival time makes it more likely be present in higher quantities.
It makes sense to be more diligent about washing this type of hair often.
Coronavirus: A Daily Braid Washing Routine
For Ella, who has to work outside of her home, washing her braids when she gets back feels like the best option. "I thought about taking them down, but I literally have no other option style-wise. And I really like my braids," she says.
First, the shampoo is squeezed into a large cup, which she fills up "three quarters" with warm-hot water. The frothy mix is poured onto her braids, and squeezed in to cleanse without causing frizz, before rinsing under the shower.
She mixes her conditioner in a 1:4 ratio with water in a separate cup, and rinses it out completely after a few minutes. Her last step is a tea infusion, "either hibiscus or black tea", poured on, squeezed in and left in.
Braids can be kept clean and safe in 3 steps: shampoo, conditioner, and tea rinse. Image by Bonbonga.
Airdrying part of the way in a satin scarf preserves the top of the braids, while the rest is wrapped in a microfiber towel.
To finish off, she uses a blowdryer on the cold shot "or the lowest warm setting" to get at any damp braids she might have missed. Random stray hairs are smoothed into place with homemade flax seed gel.
"It takes me 30 minutes from start to finish and I do 90% in the shower," she says of her new routine. "It's like washing my hands and face as soon as I get in. For me, it's the new normal and it helps me feel safer."