By Katherine Tinsley
Natural hair can take a lot of work. When you have curly, kinky or coily hair, the typical maintenance and proper hair care routine takes significantly longer in comparison to someone with a looser texture. While there are a lot of rules and methods promoted by natural hair influencers, how are you actually supposed to care for natural hair?
What is natural hair?
Natural hair is hair that has not been chemically altered. So if someone consistently heat styles their hair but doesn’t use a perm, relaxer or a keratin treatment, they are natural. Heat styling with a flat iron, hot comb or any other heat tool can manipulate and alter your curl pattern by making it heat-trained or looser. Typically, individuals with heat-trained hair or heat damaged hair have curly roots and looser ends.
In recent years, co-washing has gained popularity within the natural hair community. Co-washing is a way to help reduce build up by using a conditioner to lightly cleanse the scalp and is a great way to help keep curls moisturized. However, it is not meant to replace a shampoo. Co-washing and avoidance of shampoo can lead to product buildup which can later lead to a dullness of hair, hair loss and in some cases seborrheic dermatitis, which causes red scales on the scalp and stubborn dandruff.
Several popular and expensive co-washing brands have faced class action lawsuits due to fans of the brands later experiencing hair loss, itchy and painful scalps, seborrheic dermatitis and a relaxed curl pattern. People who used these products exclusively and for a long period of time experienced the most problems.
In order to properly cleanse your scalp, you have to use shampoo. However, not all shampoos are made equally. Curly hair is naturally drier in comparison to straight hair because it is harder for the oils from the scalp to travel down the hair. Because of this, harsh ingredients such as sulfates should be avoided when looking for a regular shampoo. A gentle sulfate-free shampoo should be used in order to properly cleanse the scalp. Using a cowash consistently would be the equivalent of using a dry shampoo as a shampoo replacement—these products are only meant to be used in between wash days.
Another important part of taking care of curly hair is to deep condition once a week. There are different types of deep conditioners: there are moisture masks, protein masks and a combination of the two.
For individuals who color their hair and heat style their hair, a mask that incorporates protein is best because when you straighten your hair with a flat iron or color your hair, you are breaking down the protein in your hair strands. In order to prevent long lasting damage to the curl, protein treatments are highly recommended for chemically-processed hair or damaged hair.
For individuals with virgin hair (hair that has never been chemically altered or colored) or people with protein sensitive hair, a moisture-focused mask is best. Most three minute hair masks are moisture focused. This keeps the curls hydrated because curly hair on its own is usually dry.
The combination mask kills two birds with one stone. If you use heat tools, color your hair or have been out in the sun, your curls might be dried out and also need some protein. A combination treatment will add the protein and needed moisture back into your curl.
When rinsing out the mask, it is important to rinse it out with cool/cold water in order to seal the moisture and protein into the hair. Cold water closes the hair cuticle and the pores on the scalp, which will make your curls look like they belong in a hair commercial.
Leave-in conditioner is a must. Leave-in conditioner keeps the hair moisturized, helps with detangling and is specifically formulated to be left in hair after washing. Every curly type and texture is different, so finding the right leave-in conditioner will take some experimenting.
When looking for a leave-in, look for ingredients you can pronounce, recognize and that you already know your hair responds well to. For example, my hair loves coconut oil but doesn’t respond well to heavy butters. So when looking for a leave-in conditioner, I look for coconut oil as a main ingredient; main ingredients for the conditioner will be listed first on the ingredients list.
The final step is a styling product. Styling products aren’t necessary, but can help polish off the wash and go look. Similar to finding the right leave-in product, finding the right styling product takes some experimenting as well.
There are styling creams and then there are gels. Hair gel offers a stronger hold and more definition while styling creams typically offer a light hold and little definition. If you have a ton of frizz and undefined curls, an alcohol-free gel would work best. If you have a very defined curl and little frizz with fine hair, then a styling cream would be best.
Natural hair care doesn’t have to be stressful, but with all the content and articles available on the topic, knowing what to do can become overwhelming. Taking care of curly hair is time consuming and, in many ways, a commitment. From properly cleansing the scalp to deep conditioning it can become confusing on how to properly care for curls.
Katherine Tinsley is an editorial intern who specializes in building the bridge between the industry and culture, self care, and fostering difficult conversations.