I went natural (for the second time) four years ago, and I don’t miss having a relaxer and getting weekly blowouts one bit. As much as I love taking care of my own hair (versus relying on stylists), I will admit that my Afro is a lot more high-maintenance than my straight ‘do ever was. And it definitely took me a while to figure out what products and techniques work best for my hair. Truth be told, I am still learning and my look keeps evolving.
Trial and error are part of the journey for anyone with natural hair because our individual textures are so unique. Curly and coily strands can also be highly unpredictable (I’ve learned to embrace headwraps when all else fails). While the experimental phase of having natural hair never truly ends, there are some key tips that you can rely on to get the most out of your products and to maintain healthy, happy strands. Here is the scoop, straight from natural hair experts.
1. Stick with sulfate-free cleansers
Textured strands tend to be drier than other hair types because the natural oils that come from the scalp have a harder time traveling down to the ends. To avoid sapping much-needed moisture, experts recommend using sulfate-free cleansers on natural hair. “Cream-based, non-sudsing products are best for this hair type. I like NYC Curls The Cleanser — the peppermint oil and aloe leave your scalp feeling refreshed and super-clean,” says Jasmine Santiago, a hairstylist and texture expert at Collective Plus Salon in New York City. She also loves Aussie Miracle Curls Co-Wash, which nourishes hair with coconut and jojoba oils.
To get rid of buildup (which can happen due to styling product residue or if you don’t rinse your scalp thoroughly when washing) swap out your creamy cleanser for a product with a gentle lather once a month or as needed. One good option: TGIN Moisture Rich Sulfate-Free Shampoo, made with moisturizing amla oil and Pro Vitamin B5.
2. Condition like crazy
“A thick, rich conditioner is essential in order to prevent curly and coily hair from drying out, tangling up and breaking off,” says Santiago. The best way to keep your hair in good shape is to use conditioner two to three times per week — once after you cleanse and then as a co-wash the rest of the week until your next wash day. If you don’t have time to redo your wash and go that often (because let’s face it, the process is time-consuming), the next best thing is to spray on a lightweight leave-in conditioner to hydrate your hair in between cleansing sessions (like Briogeo Farewell Frizz Rosarco Milk Leave-In Conditioning Spray).
Along with a leave-in, adding a deep conditioning treatment to your routine at least twice a month will help keep your strands soft and healthy, too. Look for one that has both moisture and protein, like Curls Dynasty Pumpkin Mint Deep Treatment Masque (available at Target), to help prevent damage and strengthen your hair.
3. Take your time with detangling
One of the most dreaded parts of caring for natural hair is working through the stubborn tangles and pesky knots that sometimes seem to spring up out of nowhere — it can take forever. As annoying as the detangling process can be, it is important not to rush through it. If you don’t unravel your hair diligently, you might end up with bigger knots and split ends, all of which will get in the way of hair growth.
The best time to detangle is in the shower every time you cleanse or co-wash, which should be at least once per week. To make sure you are doing a thorough job, “use a wide-tooth comb and detangle in small sections starting from the ends, working your way up to the roots,” says Shelley Davis, founder of Kinky-Curly. Be sure to coat your hair with conditioner first to prevent breakage. Two affordable product recs: Aunt Jackie’s Knot on My Watch Detangling Therapy and Kinky-Curly Knot Today Leave-In Conditioner Detangler.
4. Apply products while your hair is soaking wet
The secret to amazing definition isn’t necessarily about what products you apply when you are doing a wash-and-go, it is about how you apply them. “To define your curls, add a cream or gel-based styling product to your soaking wet hair immediately after rinsing out your conditioner,” says Santiago. It is the best way to bring out and lock in your natural curl pattern, she explains.
For a defined, yet non-crunchy look apply a product like Jane Carter Solution Incredible Curls Cream section by section until every strand is covered. Before you hop out of the shower, flip your head over and shake it vigorously to remove excess water from your hair. Then, “air dry, use a blow dryer and a diffuser attachment or sit under a hooded dryer, just be sure not to touch your hair too much while it’s still wet — it’ll create frizz,” says Santiago.
5. Get your ends trimmed regularly
If you are tempted to slack off on salon visits, don’t. “The need for trims is more obvious with relaxed or pressed hair, but splits ends are very damaging even on natural hair because the splits will travel up the hair shaft and cause breakage and excessive shedding,” says Nickie Nougaisse, founder of Curls Dynasty. Visit a hair pro every three to four months to snip away knots, damaged ends and to maintain a fabulous shape. Need help finding a stylist? Check out Swivel Beauty, an app that offers a directory of hairstylists that specialize in textured hair.
6. Avoid terrycloth towels
If you need to blot or squeeze water out of your hair, use an old tee instead of a bath towel, which will rough up your strands and cause frizz. “A t-shirt creates less friction on natural hair,” says Kiyah Wright, CEO & Founder of Muze Hair. Or, you could spring for a microfiber towel made just for curls like the DevaTowel.
7. Protect your hair before bed
To keep your curls or coils from getting matted while you sleep, pull your hair up into a pineapple with a loose scrunchie or make a few small pineapples with elastics (this works better for shorter lengths). “To prevent dryness and breakage, I suggest sleeping with a satin bonnet or silk pillowcase,” says Wright. She is a fan of The Hollywood Silk Solution Silk Pillowcase. While it is still pricey, it is more affordable than other versions on the market because it is silk on one side and cotton on the other.
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