top of page

The Reason You're Tenderheaded (Explained)

woman in pain holding her head

As a mom of tenderheads and a tenderhead myself, I'm going to explain what it means to be tenderheaded and what to do if you are.

1. Understand Scalp Anatomy

scalp anatomy

Understanding anatomy helps us appreciate how intricate and complex our bodies are. The scalp is not just a space that grows hair, but a fascinating structure that deserves the most loving treatment. Let's start with where hair comes from.

Hair grows from the hair follicle. Follicles are in the dermis layer of skin next to our nerves. This means we were naturally designed to feel brushing, combing, massaging, and any manipulation that happens with our hair.

Being tenderheaded means your scalp is super sensitive to all these sensations. This can make hair time quite ticklish, super relaxing, and an overall pleasant experience. So if you're a tenderhead or doing the hair of a tenderheaded person, make sure to celebrate their sensitivity by incorporating tools and techniques that makes their head feel amazing! This includes relaxing massages, spa-like treatments, and hairstyles that help the scalp feel free.

But you're probably not here because your scalp feels good. Phrases like "how to not be tenderheaded" are searched over 500 times a day. This is because being tenderheaded also means hair time can really hurt! Pain can be a sign that something is wrong. And understanding what hurts can help prevent issues like hair loss and inflamed scalp before they happen.

Let's explore the different levels of sensitivity. A tenderheaded person can be slightly tenderheaded, fairly tenderheaded or extremely tenderheaded. Only the tenderheaded person will know how much pain they can and can not tolerate. This means anything from getting braids to a simple wash day may slightly bother one tenderhead, but be excruciating for another. Many times there are no physical signs of damage to the scalp, but the pain is very real.

How Tenderheaded Are You?

  • Slighty

  • Fairly

  • Extremely

  • It varies

The pain can range from a little soreness, an annoying tingle, an uncomfortable pull, or a full-blown headache. Sometimes the pain is felt during the hair doing process. Other times, the pain may not start until the style is done. When this happens, some may opt to take the style out. But if you really like the style, or the style took a lot of time to do, or cost a lot of money, you may want another solution.

Natural pain killers can work. This brand specifically doesn't have any acetaminophen, or ibuprofen, and is gentle on the stomach. But pain killers should really be a last resort and primarily used as a temporary solution. This is because, you're going to want to figure out the underlying cause, so that you don't become dependent on pain killers, or cause serious damage to your hair follicles because you're ignoring the real issue.

Different areas of the scalp have different sensitivities. The main areas of the scalp are the crown (top of head), nape (back of neck), and temples (side of the head near the ears). Taking note of where the pain is coming from can provide some clues and help you identify any patterns. If you're experiencing overall pain, it may be a good indication that the scalp really wants you to find a new style (or stylist). But if the pain is location-specific (for example a pulled hair at the back of the neck), you might just need to take out that one braid, or redo that one section.

Which part of the scalp is the most tender?

  • anywhere there is tension (pulling of the hair)

  • crown (middle of the head)

  • temples (side of the face)

  • nape (back of the neck)

You can vote for more than one answer.

In our experience children under 8 years old have super sensitive scalps. But 80% of our readers (which we assume are adults) report having scalp sensitivities. We believe sensitive scalps can be equivalent to having sensitive skin. Thus we need to treat our scalp in a similar way, by ...

  • using heat and vibrational therapy (maybe with a warm shower or hot oil treatment)

  • using a super gentle cleanser (harsh soaps can irritate the scalp)

  • using a complimentary moisturizing routine (manipulating hair on a dry scalp can be uncomfortable)

  • wearing super loose styles (for example, wash-n-gos)

2. Rule Out A Medical Condition

If your pain is new, sporadic, situational or coupled with other issues (like bumps, swelling, or redness), and you're sure this is not due to super tight styles or rough handling, you may want to see if there is an underlying health issue. For example, scalp psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis can make the scalp sensitive. Stress, hormone changes, and even weather changes can trigger flare ups. Try consulting a dermatologist, nutritionist, hairstylist, and/or a trichologist to determine other sources for your pain.

If you don't have one of these professionals in your life, or you simply don't trust that they would have you and your scalp's best interest in mind -- no worries. Over the years, I've mastered my own tenderhead and I hope the following tips will help you too.

Please note, you do not need to have (or buy) all of the products I list below. For example, if you only wear a bun, you may not need a hair pick. And if you only wear wash-n-gos, you may not need a boar bristle brush. I've experimented with different styles over the years, and just want you to know there are plenty of options for tenderheads. I hope this post will give you some ideas, so that you can find the style and tools that work best for you.

3. Install A High-Pressure Shower Head

This is the first of many super important tools for tenderheads. Water naturally cleanses, hydrates, and heals. So detangling should always be done under the flow of water, preferably a high-pressure shower head. When used with a good detangling brush and conditioner, the water literally melts tangles. Plus warm water that pulses feels amazing on the scalp!

When searching for a good shower head, make sure you get one that adjusts to your sensitive scalp's needs. For example, sometimes the force of the shower head can be too harsh on a tender scalp. Most likely you'll want a shower head that has adjustable settings. Here's the one we use, but I found a more affordable version with great reviews.

Showerhead qualities to look for include:

  • water intensity

  • water coverage

  • power mist

  • power rain

  • rain mist

  • rain massage

  • rain mist

  • pulsating massage

Showerhead settings and water flow types for tenderheads

If you already have a shower head you love -- even better! Play around with the settings to see which one speaks to you.

4. Oil Hair Ties

As a tenderhead it's important to rub a little oil into your hair ties before using them. Fine strands tend to get tangled in non-lubricated accessories. By oiling them, you ensure they easily stretch and do not prematurely pull out strands (which can be painful). Your hair ties will not feel oily, because you only need a tiny bit of oil, and you only do to do this once.

It's also important that they do not have metal sections because this can snag hairs too. You want hair ties that are smooth, curl-friendly and made from one consistent material. We love these.

hair ties for curly girls one has hair tangled in the elastic

The picture above shows three hair ties. The first is new. The second has been used, wasn't oiled and pulled a nice chunk of hair out. The last hair tie is used, but because it was oiled, there is no hair tangled on the hair tie. Instead it simply stretched from being used.

Do you oil your hair ties?

  • yes

  • no

  • I don't use hair ties

5. Perfect Your Finger-Comb

Finger-combing (also known as finger detangling) is literally taking your fingers and raking them through your hair as if they were a comb. Why? Because our fingers are faster at identifying any tangles before they happen. For tenderheads it's best to loosen tangles with your hands (underwater) before using any tools.

Here's a quick tutorial you may love...

How do you detangle hair?

  • my fingers

  • wide-tooth comb

  • detangling brush

  • all of the above

6. Only Detangle Wet or Damp Hair

Keep a spray bottle on hand so that you can easily dampen the hair before manipulating it. The only time dry-brushing should be used is after a braid out or stretched style. Even then, this should be done in very small sections to heavily lubricated hair via conditioner or oil.

7. Be Strategic

When detangling, you must start at the ends and work your way up. Starting at the roots will create knots and will rip your hair out. There are also times where you may have to hold sections of the hair, or the put pressure on the head, to minimize the sensations of brushing and combing. Here's a tutorial on how to comb (start at 3:24).

8. Gentle-Hands Only

Some do not believe tenderheadedness is a real condition (which is fine). Our job is not to convince them. Instead, it's essential you only allow slow-moving, sensitive-scalp respecting hands near your tender head. This means avoiding any barber or stylist that smirks, laughs, or ignores your requests to be a little more gentle.

Who's tenderheaded?

  • me

  • my child

  • my client

  • someone else

You can vote for more than one answer.

9. Use A Wide-Tooth Comb

You can find wide-tooth combs online, but ones from the dollar store work just fine. It's best used in the shower to loosen big tangles. Take your time and work in sections to get the best results.

the difference between a fine tooth and a wide tooth comb

10. Find A Ball-Less Wet Brush

Another dollar store gem. Purchase a wet brush that has soft, flexible bristles without the tiny balls on the ends. Those can get caught in our curls, hurt and cause damage.

Ball vs ball-less detangling brush for natural hair

11. Get A Quality Dry Brush

A 100% boar bristle brush should be used on dry hair. It's natural bristles neatly lay fine hair and fly-aways. It's relaxing on the scalp, and super soft (close to the feeling of a baby brush). There are medium and hard versions, but they can be super rough and scratch or injure the scalp of a tenderhead.

12. Own A Hand-Crafted Wooden Pick

Nothing accesses the scalp through new growth better than a wooden pick. We bought ours at a local festival from Senegalese vendors. While plastic and metal picks are sold online and in stores, a hand-crafted wooden pick evenly distributes oils and is another tool that offers an amazing scalp massage.

13. Part Hair With A Rat Tail Comb

The most sensitive parts of the scalp tend to be the nape of the neck and the very top of the head. In my experience, our tenderheaded girls usually laugh and say that parting their hair gives them chills down their spine. Their constant moving makes it a little difficult for me to neatly section their hair.

Nevertheless, I find a rat tail comb with a long skinny tail is the best tool for the job. While you can find plastic and wood rat tail combs, our girls like the coolness of a metal tip against their warm scalps. It also creates neater lines (in my opinion). You can also try a parting comb (which is a rat tail comb with missing teeth at the top), a tool that the mom in the following video recommends.

14. Choose A Style You Love (& Stick To It)

Find your natural part, pick a favorite style and keep your hair that way. My daughter and I have had the same middle part in our hair for the past year. I love a low bun with a middle part, and our daughter switches between plaits, bantu knots and pony tails (all with the same middle part). Saving parts reduces the amount of manipulation, which is irritating to sensitive scalps.

Also, do not be afraid to try wash-n-gos or locs. These low-manipulation styles are absolutely gorgeous and super freeing to sensitive scalps.

What's your favorite style for tenderheads?

  • twists

  • braids

  • bantu knots

  • locs

You can vote for more than one answer.

Braids (while they are a very common protective style) aren't the best for tenderheads (in our opinion). Installing them requires precise parting of the hair, which can be painful on sensitive scalps. Even if the hair is damp, or blow dried straight, a strand may snag and cause real pain during the parting process. Braids also look the best and last longer when they are taut to the skin. This type of styling plus the multi-directional parts expose the scalp instead of keeping it covered, which can make a sensitive scalp even more vulnerable. If you prefer the versatility and ease of braids, you can try periods of wearing head scarves or trying other styles to give your scalp a break.

You're probably thinking, so what are the best styles for tenderheads? Truth is, so much goes into a style. The shape of the face, the texture of the hair, a person's budget or ability to do certain styles, and more. While a wash-n-go may be a life saver for one tenderhead, it could be a nightmare for another. The same goes for bantu knots or buns. Your best bet is to try different styles and see what feels the most comfortable to you. And remember to focus on whichever routines make your head feel amazing!

15. Healthy Hair > Styled Hair

To piggy back on the previous point, super tight and sleek styles may look nice, but they do not feel nice on tender scalps. So as a mom of tenderheads, I'm super okay with super loose, super frizzy hair-days. I've left our girls hair in for weeks at a time.

16. Do Regular Hot Oil Treatments

I heat my bottle of oil in a jar of hot water. If you want to be fancy, you can buy a bottle warmer. Drizzling warm oil on a tender scalp feels amazing.

17. Avoid Too Much Heat or Too Much Cold

Tenderheads aren't just sensitive to touch. Extreme temperatures can really harm a sensitive scalp. For example, when blow drying the hair, use warm heat, instead of hot. And if you regularly use a spray bottle to dampen the hair, again try a bottle warmer to heat the water to a more comfortable temperature.

I've also noticed that my scalp is more sensitive in the winter when the weather is naturally cold. Try to take notice of how your scalp responds to different temperatures.

Which temperature is your tenderhead more sensitive to?

  • hot

  • cold

  • both

  • neither

18. Get Regular Temple Massages

Tenderly stroking and caring for the fragile hairs near the temples improves the overall scalp wellness of a tenderhead (including increased blood flow and hair growth). Human touch is definitely the best, but some of our readers swear by mechanical massagers. There are so many to choose from including a massager that emulate fingers like this one, a waterproof massager like this one, or a heated massager that vibrates like this one.

19. Gently Remove Debris

A few times I went to hair salons, the professionals shampooing my hair scrubbed my scalp super hard. This may feel good to some, but with a tenderhead, a gentle massage cleans the scalp just fine.

Using natural, light-weight products that do not create tons of build-up on the hair shaft, also makes the cleansing process more gentle. So try to minimize how much product you are using, so that wash day isn't too painful.

I love the following video, because it shows the different wash routines for different hair types.

20. Include Distractions

This suggestion is super helpful if you have tenderheaded children. Whether it's watching a movie or playing a game, distractions magically decrease hair complaints. Here's a cute show your family may love.

And here's a list of our favorite curly-girl books if you prefer reading.

Picture Books for World Afro Day

21. Have A Comfortable Night Routine

Wearing night scarves (as a tenderhead) literally hurts. They are too tight and uncomfortable - no matter how loosely they are tied. We've tried less-restrictive methods like satin pillowcases and bonnets. None of these worked, so I let our girls sleep as they are and try my best to keep their hair hydrated.

Do night scarves work for you?

  • yes

  • no

  • sometimes

22. Regular Check-ins

It's okay to regularly check-in with your children (and yourself) about how the hair process is going. Since I'm heavy-handed, I frequently ask our girls if I should loosen their ponytails, bantu knots or braids. Heavy-handedness can lead to being tenderheaded. So staying mindful about the tension and pressure applied, ensures that when the whole style is done, no one has a pounding headache from multiple pain points.

As a tenderhead, it's easy to talk about what hurts. I hope this post encourages you to fully embrace positive sensations during your hair routine. Tools and techniques that make you feel good about being tenderheaded.

Are you tenderheaded, or caring for a tenderhead? What tips would you add?

Until next time...

Love The Journey,

How we use ads?

bottom of page