The natural hair world is not an easy world to navigate. Because more and more people are going natural, there’s more and more information out there about natural hair. It’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed with all the blogs and tutorials. So we’ve created this overview of natural hair for those who are just starting out or for those who need a reminder of basic natural hair principles.
A Bit About Hair
Understanding a little bit about the science of hair helps to understand how best to take care of it.
- Hair is a non-living material made up of a protein called Keratin.
- Because it’s dead, hair can’t repair itself. So when it’s damaged, there’s little that can be done to fix it outside of cutting it off or growing it out.
- A strand of hair consists of the cuticle, cortex and medulla.
- The cuticle is discussed a lot when it comes to hair because it’s the part of hair that either lets you retain moisture or release it. It’s the scaly outer layer of a strand of hair that protects the inner layers, primarily the cortex.
- Healthy cuticles lay flat and shut, keeping moisture inside the cortex where it belongs. Keeping your cortex moist and your cuticles shut is key to maintaining healthy, frizz-free hair.
- pH is often a topic of hair conversation because acidic solutions keep your cuticles shut, while alkaline solutions open them.
- Hair is about 4.5 – 5.5 on the PH scale.
- Water is more alkaline than hair, so it can potentially damage hair. As a result, looking for “acid-balanced” shampoos and conditioners or using cider vinegar or lemon juice can be effective.
For more about the basic science of hair, read this Curly Nikki article.
Understanding YOUR Hair: Texture and Porosity
Over and over again you’ll hear that no two heads are alike and it’s true, which is why it’s important to understand your own hair and hair needs. Before creating a hair routine, take the time to understand your hair’s texture and porosity. There are several hair classification systems out there. The most popular one is the Andre Walker Texture Typing System made popular by Naturally Curly, although more people are staying away from classifications altogether as they might be too narrow and not account for the nuances of hair or the fact that it’s possible to have varying textures on one head. Curl pattern, porosity, density, width, length are all elements the Texture Typing system, as can be seen here. But we believe that texture (width) and porosity are two key areas to focus on.
Texture is determined by the diameter of a hair strand: fine = small; coarse = large, normal = medium. Here are some key notes about the various types of hair:
- Fine hair: easy to over process and easily damaged by chemical processes; opt for products with protein to give strength.
- Normal hair: can generally support a wide range of product ingredients, although it’s advisable to avoid protein in penetrating products i.e. conditioners, deep treatments
- Coarse hair: often dry and brittle because of too much protein; products with a lot of protein should be avoided; go for humectants and emollients.
- Emollients: Emollients are commonly referred to as ingredients that soften or treat dry skin. They are usually forms of oil or grease and they work by increasing the skin and hair’s ability to hold water. Per All Things O’Natural, water is the absolute best and truest moisturizer, but because it evaporates quickly, it can be ineffective once the hair dries. This is where other emollients come in to play. Water, because it evaporates quickly, needs to be held on the skin or hair by emollient oils in what is called emulsion. All Things O’Natural goes into detail about emollients.
Per Naturally Curly, to find your hair width, take piece of your hair from a brush or comb and hold it up to the light. If the hair is very wide and easily visible, then you have coarse hair. If it’s so thin that you can hardly see it, you have fine hair. If your hair appears neither thin nor coarse, you have medium width hair.
Porosity refers to your hair’s ability to absorb moisture. There are three general classifications:
- Low: compact cuticle; doesn’t allow moisture to enter or leave the hair shaft; resistant to chemical services
- Normal: same as above but not resistant to chemicals
- High: open cuticle that absorbs and releases moisture; often dry because it releases products
Per Naturally Curly, to determine your own hair’s porosity, grasp a hair strand firmly between your fingers. Slide the thumb and index finger of your other hand from end to scalp (opposite direction as for texture test). If your fingers “catch” going up the strand, or feel like they are ruffling up the hair strand, your hair is overly porous. If it is smooth, you have normal porosity. If your fingers move very fast up the hair strand and it feels exceptionally slick, you have low porosity.
Once you have a sense of your hair needs, you can then start to create a regimen that meets those needs. Natural Hair Community goes into extensive detail about formulating a routine. But below are the basics.
The Basic Elements of a Natural Hair Regimen
- Mitigate Breakage
Washing hair should be a part of any hair routine regardless of texture. Healthy hair is clean hair. The frequency of each wash, however, will vary from person to person. Every two weeks seems to be the most common frequency among naturals but it really depends on how dry or moisturized your hair is and how much product your using. There are few aspects to washing natural hair that are different from washing straight hair. Depending on your routine, washing natural hair can be pretty involved, with some naturals spending a whole day washing their hair.
- Frequency: Natural Hair Community advises to wash your hair whenever there’s build up and says that you might be washing your hair too much if it feels dull and dry. Use lukewarm water because hot water can strip away natural moisture.
- Techniques: Washing hair in sections is a popular approach that helps keep hair from tangling when wet. Learn three techniques for washing hair in sections. You’ll see that some naturals opt for washing their hair while keeping it in braids, allowing them to avoid shrinkage. You can learn more about shrinkage at Madame Noir.
- Keep your follicles healthy and avoid build up: Give your hair a blank slate by clarifying (cleansing). This is done less frequently than a typical wash, usually once a month, using a clarifying shampoo, which is usually avoided because it strips hair of moisture but is helpful in removing product build up. Black Girl Long Hair has some tips on determining when you need to clarify.
- Retaining moisture while washing:
- Pre-poo: because maintaining moisture is such a big deal when dealing with natural hair, a lot of naturals “pre-poo.” Black Girl Long Hair says…
The dry, squeaky feeling hair can have after washing is a common concern among naturals. But the solution is simple — pre-pooing with a penetrating oil (like coconut oil). Plus, it can help with pre-wash detangling. Try a quick 20 minute pre-poo before your next detangle and wash. Not only will your hair feel softer after washing, you’ll also see a reduction in breakage and shedding that occurs during detangling and washing.
- Co-washing: Another way to combat dry hair or retain moisture while washing is by co-washing your hair. Co-washing is the act of washing your hair with conditioner only so that it is not stripped of its natural oils. It is often done on dry, damaged hair. This method can be used daily and is often referred to as conditioner wash. Here’s a good list of co-washing conditioners.
- Sealing: sealing your hair is the act of trapping in moisture and is done with light oils like grapeseed oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil or butters. You should seal your hair after every wash, having rinsed your with cool water. Urban Bush Babes has a quick sealing run-through.
- Deep condition your hair occasionally or after hair has been clarified. Learn how to properly deep condition natural hair.
Detangling hair is something people with straight or relaxed hair needn’t worry about as much but curly hair has an increased tendency to tangle, knot or matt, so detangling your hair and removing shed hairs is important. Detangle your hair prior to styling or washing it. There are several detangling methods out there but Kinky Coily Curly Me has a great 10 minute method.
Dry hair is a common feature of natural hair because it’s often porous and thus releases moisture. Adding and retaining moisture can be done by conditioning your hair each time you wash it (as mentioned earlier), spritzing your hair with water on up to a daily basis, or adding oils to your hair when needed. As mentioned, water is the ultimate moisturizer but it evaporates easily, which is why many naturals seal or use oils on their hair. When looking for moisturizing hair products, look for products whose primary ingredient is water. (The earlier an ingredient appears on an ingredient list, the more of that ingredient there is in a product). Also, sleep with a satin cap or on a satin pillow case at night to avoid loosing moisture to cotton materials.
Coarse, strong hair with lots of protein tends to be brittle and thus break easily. This is a largely why retaining length is difficult. As a natural who likely wants long hair, you can prevent or reduce breakage by treating your hair delicately (especially when washing and conditioning), employing protective/low-manipulation styles, detangling and avoiding heat.
You’ll here a lot about protective styling. According to Natural Hair Community, a protective style is a style that requires little manipulation, protects the ends of the hair by keeping them tucked away and allows regular moisturizing. Common styles like twists, coils, flat twists and cornrows can all be converted to protective styles by tucking or hiding the ends.
Buns and bantu knots are common protective styles but, wigs and weaves are also used for protective styling. Check out these three natural hair vloggers that use wigs and weaves to protect their hair (and to also just switch up their look).
This is another element that should be a part of any hair regimen regardless of texture. As mentioned, because hair is a dead fiber, the real way to get rid of damaged hair or split ends is to cut them off or grow them out. Trim your hair regularly to keep it healthy. If you’re worried about losing length, try the “Search and Destroy” method, which allows you to specifically trim only the trouble areas. Learn more about the Search and Destroy method here.
Here’s a good video on trimming natural hair.
Sample Hair Regimen
Again your hair routine should be tailored to your needs and should be something that evolves over time as you get to know your hair and understand how your hair responds to different products. But here are a few sample regimens.
- Wash every two weeks
- Deep condition every two weeks
- Detangle while conditioning
- I used to spritz my hair w/water every day; now I only spritz 3-4 days when I refresh my twist out
- Blow out once/month
- Trim twice a year
- Wash or co-wash two or three times a week; shampoo on the weekend
- Out styles 99% of the time (down or puff)
- Light oil everyday, especially on the ends
- Satin pillow case
- Wash once or twice a month
- Curlformers to stretch
- No combs or brushes… fingers only… for everything
- Rock twists 99% of the time
- Henna once a month (at least)
- Oil every day
- Moisturize every 3 days
- Protective styling
- Satin bonnet scarf, every night, no exceptions
Straightening Natural Hair
Does having natural hair mean you can’t ever straighten your hair? The answer to this really depends on your reasons for going natural. A definition of natural hair we like is natural hair is relaxer-free hair. There are lots of naturals who straighten their hair using non-relaxer methods i.e. blow outs, or flat-ironing. If you went natural because you want to grow your hair, straightening your hair with heat is not advised as heat can result in brittle hair that breaks. It can also change your hair texture. If you went natural because you want to embrace your curls, you may have no interest in straightening your hair at all. If you’re natural and want to switch up your look, straightening your occasionally won’t do much damage if you do it the right way.
Alicia James of Easy Natural Hair has a great video on blow drying her natural hair.
Here are some good posts on straightening natural hair:
- Curly Nikki, Maintaining Straightened Natural Hair
- Black Girl Long Hair, How to Safely Straighten Natural Hair
- Black Girl Long Hair, 3 Ways to Gently Straighten Natural Hair without Heat
Below are three must-have tools for any natural.
- Spritz Bottle
- Here’s a list of 10 must-haves.