Homerton Hospital consultant dermatologist Sharon Wong tells the Gazette about hair loss and her work with Hackney’s black communities.
While perhaps only six NHS consultants in London specialise in hair loss, Sharon Wong’s expertise is even more niche.
Having worked at Homerton Hospital since 2008 as a trainee, the 37-year-old consultant dermatologist has many patients of Afro-Caribbean and African origin.
Consequently she’s had a big insight into central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCRA), where permanent scarring of the hair follicles leads to hair loss. It was called Hot Comb Alopecia in the ’60s when it was thought that frequent oil pomades and hot combs were to blame.
“What we believe now is it’s a condition that probably has a genetic component but that’s brought out in the individual as a result of the styling practices,” Sharon told the Gazette. “I still see this as my number one hair loss diagnosis of women of African hair type where braids, weaving or relaxers are a common feature. You have to educate these ladies to wear their hair naturally, and a lot of them gasp when I ask them to do that – they have processed their hair for as long as they’ve known.”
Whatever the diagnosis – whether it be chemotherapy-induced, alopecia areata like Gail Porter’s where the immune system attacks the hair leading to rapid hair loss, or just common balding – losing your hair can be devastating.
“It’s a condition that I think is unfairly trivialised,” said Sharon, who works with the charity Alopecia UK. “Until it happens to you, you don’t realise the impact it has. Hair is not an essential structure, and you don’t need it for survival, but it’s so closely linked to identity and feelings of attractiveness.
“In history, it could be related to your culture or religion. It’s a statement about yourself. It’s so personal yet it’s so public for everyone to see. If people lose their hair they have been stripped of their identity and with that comes a feeling of anxiety, and people might undergo social phobias.”
Growing up in the Peak District with two older sisters, one of whom is also a dermatolgist, she decided to go into the field herself early on in her medical training. While trichologists are “good at diagnosis”, consultants like Sharon come in at the “more severe end of the spectrum” of hair loss. She values being able to make a visible difference – not only to patients’ appearance, but also their confidence.