The main principle of natural hair care for African Americans is embracing the hair's natural texture. This doesn't mean that you can't braid or style your hair; what it means is that you will avoid techniques such as chemical relaxers, straightening techniques, and extensions.
How to Manage Your Hair Naturally
Especially for women who have spent a lifetime in the salon chair enduring lengthy hair treatments, learning how to manage natural hair will involve a lot of study. Even the New York Times recently reported on the difficulties experienced by African Americans when it comes to reestablishing their natural hair.
The Big Chop or Transitioning
Some women who decide to go natural choose to cut off all the hair that is relaxed, straightened, or chemically altered. This can result in a very short haircut and is often called 'The Big Chop.' Others, however, take it slower and trim off previously relaxed hair in stages. This is referred to as transitioning. There is no right or wrong way - but there are things to keep in mind with both methods. The Big Chop is a drastic change and not all women are comfortable with it. Those who transition, however, should keep in mind that it can be hard to find styles to support two different hair textures. The area where the relaxed hair ends and the natural hair begins may also be weak so extra care is needed when washing, styling and detangling.
There is no one-size-fits all method to taking care of natural hair. However, there are some ways to make basic care easier.
Cleansing: Apply a pre-shampoo oil to keep hair from drying out. Use gentle sulfate-free shampoos or those designed specifically for curly hair. Many women alternate shampooing with water washing or conditioner-washing (also called co-washing). Some women also conditioner wash exclusively. When washing hair, divide the hair into sections and gently wash one section at a time, starting at the scalp.
Moisturizing: Conditioning is essential to natural hair because the oils from the scalp are not administered evenly down the hair because of the twists and curls. In-shower conditioning with a moisturizing formula or a conditioner designed for curly hair should be used after shampooing. Daily leave-in conditioners or hair oils also help maintain moisture. Use a deep conditioner as needed, for most women at least once a month. Be sure to use products that specify they are made for deep conditioning.
Protein Treatments: Protein formulas can add strength, but should not be overused. Women who are transitioning may need more protein, and at-home protein treatments can be used two to three times per month. For hair that does not have much damage, protein once per month can help fortify the hair. Deep protein treatments are usually reserved for very damaged hair that has substantial breakage and should be done at a salon, but not more often than once every six to eight weeks. Alternate protein treatements with deep conditioners to keep hair healthy and balanced.
Detangling: One of the biggest natural hair challenges is finding the right detangling method. Many women have success from detangling in the shower while hair is soaked with conditioner. Detangling damp hair that has had an oil or moisturizer applied can also be successful. Use a wide-tooth comb (anything finer can cause snagging and even breakage) or special detangling tool like Tangle Teezer and detangle hair in small sections, being extremely gentle. Detangling natural hair while dry (unless hair oil or conditioner is applied) can cause breakage and is not usually suggested. If hair is extremely tangled, take extra care and have patience to remove the tangles slowly and carefully.
Protecting Hair During Sleep: Another source of damage often occurs while sleeping, so extra care is needed. Sleeping with a hair bonnet or on satin pillowcase can help reduce the risk. For women with longer natural hair, piling or pulling hair gently up on top of the head can help reduce tangles and night damage.
Tips and Tricks
Natural hair tends to grow up and out rather than down. Depending on your hair type, tangling will also be an issue. For styling natural hair, try the following tips and tricks:
- Keep your hair style short and allow it to grow as it will. Use curling or anti-frizz serums to control its texture. This is particularly important for coarse hair types that may become unmanageable past a length of three or four inches.
- Do wash as necessary to keep your hair healthy. Applying almond and jojoba oil or hair oils post-washing and during bedtime can restore moisture, shine and manageability. Jojoba oil is also ideal for detangling.
- Clips, headbands, and barrettes can dress up your natural look and add a touch of femininity.
Many individuals considering this sort of a hair approach may wonder, "what can I actually do with my hair now?" Traditionally, there are quite a few styles that dominate the realm of natural hair. Among these are:
However, though each of these styles can easily accommodate natural hair, tight braid techniques may pose the same kind of traction damage and alopecia as certain types of hair extensions. Moreover, dreadlocks are not easily undone and will involve a severe transitioning period as you work your way out of this style.
Your first step towards effective hair management is guidance. The following sites are invaluable for women pursuing a natural hair change:
- Curly Nikki: Get your 'hair therapy' from licensed psychotherapist and natural hair expert Alicial Nicole Walton. She offers tips, reviews, and real-life information on this popular blog.
- Mo Town Girl.com: Everything from soothing split ends to reinforcing your natural hair philosophy, this website is a real power player in the field of natural hair care.
- Treasured Locks.com: An excellent site for understanding the nuances of African American hair and natural hair styling.
- Hair Milk.com: Outlines a young African American girl's journey through the world of hair styling and products.
Styling Techniques and Products
African American hair features a different texture than that of other ethnic groups. However, even within the African American community, hair types differ from dry, thick, coarse and prone to breakage to oily, curly, and finer in texture. The general rule for African American hair has been to wash less frequently and keep the hair moist. However, for individuals with scalp issues and build-up, infrequent washing can only worsen conditions like seborrhea and dandruff.
In order to embrace your natural hair you need to first understand your own individual hair type and the relationship between your scalp and actual hair.
- Oily and problematic scalps need to be washed more frequently with shampoos that control build up and oil. You'll need to restore moisture using conditioners and styling serums.
- Dry scalps and weak hair will need to be washed less frequently and favor protein-packed hair care products.
- Some people will actually suffer from an oily scalp with dry, weak hair. They will need to use scalp exfoliates and continue with frequent washings, but double up on the deep conditioners and protein treatments more frequently.
The following companies manufacture hair products specifically for natural African American hair styling:
Benefits to Natural Hair
There are several reasons to shun invasive styling techniques in favor of a natural approach. Amongst these are:
- The FDA has already blown the whistle on the dangers of chemical hair relaxers, particularly those containing lye. Permanent scalp damage may result from the use of such products.
- Thermal Straightening techniques can cause heat-induced hair cuticle damage, leading to breakage.
- Weaves and extensions may cause traction alopecia. This can occur even from the more benign clip in extensions.
- Keratin straightening treatments are the least damaging and may even aid hair health, but they are very expensive.
In light of the research and evidence brought forth by government agencies and modern science, it would appear that the safest route is not to fight your hair's texture. In doing so, you may preserve the health of your scalp and considerably simplify your hair maintenance regimen.