The Black women in my family have been straightening their hair for as long as I can remember. Because of this, straight hair was all I knew. Without it, I rarely felt confident or beautiful.
Eventually, I got fed up with the pressure to keep my hair straight. I wanted to learn how to love and embrace the hair I was born with. So in 2019, I decided to ditch the hot tools and transition to wearing my hair natural full time.
It was a frustrating process. I didn't feel confident I was using the right techniques. I wasn't even sure which products to use. Eventually, after two years, I figured it out. But I wished I had talked to professionals sooner. That's why I created this guide to natural hair care – to help others have an easier journey.
To get the best advice, I spoke to Isfahan Chambers-Harris, a hair and scalp researcher who runs Alodia, a natural hair care company; and tight curl specialists Aisha Strickland and Aeleise Ollarvia, the founders of Black Curl Magic, a media company that offers natural hair education for consumers and professionals.
They share what you need to know to about growing out natural hair, from washing it and styling it – to learning to love it.
Cut away damaged hair
If you're newly natural, you may have dry and brittle hair or hair prone to breakage. That could be due to years of damage from the heat or chemicals used to style your hair, not hydrating your hair enough or inundating your hair with products that can dry your hair out.
You may feel inclined to go to a salon and cut off all the damaged hair, says Chambers-Harris, in what is known as "the big chop." Doing so would allow you to begin the process of growing healthy hair more quickly with less chance of further breakage.
But for many people, including me, wearing a short hairstyle is a bold look. So they prefer to keep their current hairstyle — and slowly trim away the damaged hair over time as the natural hair grows in. This is what's known as a "long transition," says Chambers-Harris.
If you do this, she adds, you'll see something known as the " 'line of demarcation.' It's where that natural hair meets the [damaged] hair. The natural hair from the roots is extremely healthy and a lot stronger than the hair that has been [damaged] for years."
This damaged hair requires upkeep. "Every month or so, slowly trim off those ends so that it's [not weighing down] on that newly grown, healthy, natural hair," Chambers-Harris says. Added weight can cause the natural hair to break off. Since damaged hair is visibly different from new, natural hair, this is something you can do at home yourself.
Once the damage has been gradually cut away and your natural hair is at your preferred length – a process that can take several weeks to years, depending on the hairstyle — maintain the look with regular haircuts to remove naturally occurring split ends and breakage. Ollarvia recommends getting your hair cut every 12 to 16 weeks, preferably by a professional who can help shape your hair into a desired style.
Understand your hair's traits
Learning about your hair's unique qualities — texture, surface texture, hair density, porosity and curl pattern — help you better understand your natural hair type and communicate your needs to a hairstylist, says Aeleise Ollarvia, one of the founders of Black Curl Magic.
Nabu Pickett/ Monday's are Beautiful
When I went natural, I would look at pictures of other people and use their hair as a baseline for what I wanted to achieve. I thought that healthy, natural hair had to look super thick and sleek. But my hair is thin and frizzy! It took me a while to realize that everyone has different kinds of hair – and my hair is perfectly normal.
Knowing your hair's qualities can help you better understand your natural hair type and communicate your needs to a hairstylist, says Ollarvia. It can also prevent you from comparing your hair to others.
Here are the 5 traits you should know.
Texture: "Texture is the diameter of your hair strand," Ollarvia says – in other words, the thickness or the width. "People can have very fine hair strands all the way up to coarse hair."
To find out the texture of your hair, compare a strand of your hair with a regular piece of string. Hold them both against a white sheet of paper to see them clearly. If the strand is thinner than the string, you likely have finer hair, and if it is wider, you likely have thicker hair.
Surface texture: Surface texture describes the look and feel of the hair's outer layer. "Some people's [hair strands] have a rougher, bumpier outer layer," Ollarvia says. "Some have a silkier, smoother layer. Where you are on that spectrum is going to determine how much light reflects from your hair."
To determine your hair's surface texture, gently run your fingertips along a few strands of hair. If they feel very bumpy along a section with no visible knots, you have a rougher surface texture. This hair looks more matte and absorbs more light. Hair with a smoother surface texture feels flat and is shinier and reflects more light.
Ollarvia says that the amount of light your hair reflects does not indicate its hydration — so don't automatically assume that matte or dull hair is unhealthy. (You can tell if your hair is hydrated simply by feeling it. Hydrated hair should feel soft, not stiff or dry.)
Hair density: "You're born with either a lot of hair follicles on your head, [about average] or less," Chambers-Harris says.
Get a sense of how dense your hair follicles are by tying your hair into a ponytail, she suggests. "If it's hard for you to [wrap] your [index] finger and your thumb" around the circumference of the ponytail, "then you have more hair on your head. If it's a very small ponytail, then you [likely] have a lower density" of follicles, she says.
Porosity: Porosity refers to how much your hair is able to absorb moisture, either from water or hair products, says Chambers-Harris.
If your hair has low porosity, it's very hard for your hair to take up moisture, she adds. If your hair has "high porosity, it can take up moisture quickly, but it also loses the moisture just as quickly."
To test your hair's porosity, put a strand of your hair in a glass of water, says Chambers-Harris. Generally, if your hair immediately sinks to the bottom, then it's highly porous. If it floats in the middle, then it's in the medium to normal porosity range. If it sits on top, then it has a low porosity.
Knowing how porous your hair is can help you figure out what kinds of products to use – and how often you should moisturize it with water. Less porous hair requires deep conditioning products and less frequent hydrating, while more porous hair requires lightweight products, such as mousse, and more frequent hydrating.
Curl pattern: "You can have either a straighter hair type, a wavy hair type, a curly hair type or a very coily hair type," Chambers-Harris says. "That's important to understand because the curlier your hair is, the drier it is. And if it's dry, you need more moisture [from water and moisture-retaining products such as hair cream]. If it's straight, it's oilier. So you need less oils and [oil-based hair] products."
Consider talking to a professional stylist for a hair consultation and product recommendations. And check out the nonprofit Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database, which has safety rankings and detailed ingredient explanations for a variety of hair products.
Wash day doesn't need to be complicated, say Aisha Strickland and Aeleise Ollarvia. All you need to do to keep your natural hair healthy and clean is cleanse, condition and detangle and style and set.
Make wash days a routine
Because natural hair tends to be drier, you need to add more moisture to it. And the way to add moisture to it is not by adding heavy raw oils and butters – which coat the hair and scalp with a waterproof film that can dry out the hair – but to wash it with water.
Water not only cleans and moisturizes your hair, but it allows other hair products to work more effectively. "No. 1, wash your hair," says Ollarvia. She's so serious about this point that she and Strickland wrote a digital textbook called Wash Your Damn Hair.
Strickland and Ollarvia recommend washing your natural hair every four to 10 days depending on how much time you have available, how active you are, the climate you live in and your desired look. If you sweat a lot because of frequent exercise or because you live in a hot part of the country, for example, you might want to wash your hair more often.
Wash day doesn't need to be complicated, they say. All you need to do to keep your natural hair healthy and clean is follow these simple steps.
"Basically, cleanse with shampoo," Strickland says. Then "condition and detangle your hair."
Wash out your hair — then style it with a hair product with hold, such as gel. And lastly, she says, set that hairstyle (more on that below) by air drying it or using a hair dryer or diffuser.
Maintain your hair through setting and styling
After washing your hair, you will want to set it, says Ollarvia. That's when you apply a product like gel or mousse to wet hair then dry it, "setting" the hair into a desired pattern or shape. The product locks in the water in your hair, keeping it moisturized, and setting it keeps your hair styled in between wash days. Setting is also convenient because it means you don't have to wet your hair again and again each day just to style it.
There are many techniques you can use to set your hair. If you're new to natural hair, Ollarvia recommends trying simpler setting methods such as wash n' go, twist-out, braid-out or bantu knots. If you've never braided or twisted natural hair before, don't try a complicated style like cornrows.
"Choose a [style] you have the most dexterity with," Ollarvia says. This will make the styling process easier and quicker if you're a beginner.
When your hair is fully set and dry, you can play around with the look until your next wash day by taking out twists or braids, using a pick to add volume or parting the style in different ways. For example, if I set my hair in twists on my wash day, the next day, I'd take those twists out and part my hair to the side. In the days that follow, I'd change up my look by separating some of the twists so they're less defined or change my part to the middle or spread hair in front of my forehead to create bangs.
Prepare for 'inner work'
When I finally achieved my natural hair look, I felt like a brand-new person.
That's a common sentiment among many Black women who undergo the transition, says Lori Tharps, journalist and coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. "When you know yourself with straight hair and then see yourself with the way your hair behaves, unfettered and unprocessed and unstraightened, it's like you are seeing yourself for the first time."
"And in a world that does not appreciate Black natural hair, it takes inner work to learn how to not just style natural hair but to love the hair and love yourself," she adds.
To do that "inner work" as you transition to natural hair, think about the intention behind your efforts. For me, I was convinced it was a necessary step for Black people to free ourselves from a legacy of following Eurocentric beauty standards in order to be accepted.
For others, going natural is simply a matter of convenience. Ollarvia went natural to help her survive the Florida heat. For Strickland, she just wanted to try something new. Talking to them helped me realize it's not the hairstyle that matters, it's centering yourself in the decision.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow Michelle Aslam, with engineering support from Maggie Luthar. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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