Without the right care, Black hair may become fragile, dry, or damaged. There are many ways to keep the hair healthy and hydrated while reducing the risk of breakage.
In this article, we explore some characteristics of Black hair, how to care for it, and options for styling.
Black hair is diverse, with a range of textures and thicknesses. It often has a curly or spiral shape, and the curls may be loosely or tightly coiled.
This occurs due to the shape of the hair follicle. A curved hair follicle creates curly hair, while a round hair follicle creates straight hair.
There are some key differences between Black hair and other types. Below are characteristics that can affect hair care:
- Cuticle breadth: Every human hair has an outer layer, or cuticle, that protects it. Research from 2015 notes that Black hair has a thinner cuticle layer than other hair types, which means that strands may break more easily.
- Overall density: On average, people of African descent have fewer hair follicles than white people, at 90,000 for Black hair, compared with 120,000 for white hair. As a result, hair loss may be more noticeable, and a person’s scalp may be easier to see.
- Dryness: To keep the skin and hair hydrated, the scalp produces sebum. This oily substance moves from the scalp along the hair shaft, sealing in moisture. The process happens more easily when the hair is straight, and curly hair can be prone to dryness.
There are many ways to approach hair care, and those that protect against damage and add moisture can keep fragile or dry hair healthy. If these issues are concerns, a person might try:
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommend washing tightly coiled hair once a week or less. Washing more frequently can remove care products and some sebum, possibly drying out the scalp and hair.
People with scalp conditions, such as seborrheic dermatitis, or dandruff, may need to wash their hair more often. A dermatologist may recommend washing twice a week, for example.
The choice of shampoo is also important. Some anti-dandruff and regular shampoos contain harsh ingredients, such as sulfates, which can remove natural oils and dry out the hair, making it harder to comb and more likely to break.
Look for gentle, moisturizing shampoos, and use a conditioner with each wash, making sure that the conditioner coats the ends of the hair. While washing, massage the scalp gently. Pat the hair dry with a towel, rather than rubbing it.
In addition to using a conditioner with each wash, a person might try a deep conditioning or oil treatment once or twice a month. This adds moisture to the hair.
After shampooing, apply a deep conditioner or a natural oil, such as jojoba, to the hair and scalp. Wrap the hair in a warm towel and leave it for up to 30 minutes.
When using an oil, choose one that melts at body temperature. This prevents the need to heat the oil ahead of time.
A person might need to experiment to find the right oil for their hair, but some options include:
- jojoba oil
- shea butter or shea butter oil
- emu oil
Combing while the hair is wet
Curly hair can tangle easily, making it prone to break while brushing. For this reason, it is best not to comb textured hair when it is dry. Instead:
- Apply a moisturizer or a leave-in conditioner while the hair is wet.
- Divide the hair into sections.
- Comb each section with a wide-toothed or detangling comb, using gentle strokes and focusing on the ends of the hair first.
- Gradually move up the hair shaft until each section is detangled.
A person can use a spray bottle filled with water to dampen the hair if it is not already wet.
Reducing friction during sleep
Movement during sleep can rub the hair and cause damage. Also, some fabrics can absorb moisture from the hair and scalp.
To avoid these issues, it may be a good idea to:
- Remove any tight hand bands before bed.
- Use a smooth, silk or satin hair wrap to reduce friction.
- Use a silk or satin pillowcase.
All hair develops split ends over time. Trimming the ends of the hair regularly can keep it healthy and help it grow out. Beyond this baseline maintenance, a person might try:
Heat can open the door to a wide range of styles. Curling irons and heated rollers can create loose curls or waves. A person might try a heated straightener, as well.
It is worth keeping in mind, however, that heat dries the hair, and can damage it over time.
If a person opts for heat styling, it can help to:
- Use ceramic-coated tools.
- Use the lowest heat setting.
- Wait until the hair is clean and dry.
- Apply a heat protection product.
- Use the heated tool once a week, at most.
These steps can minimize heat damage, but it may still occur.
Braided hairstyles can vary greatly in shape, style, and complexity. A person might have simple braids for a day or more tightly-woven braids for weeks.
However, braids that are too tight can pull on the scalp and increase the risk of breakage, irritation, and hair loss — an issue called traction alopecia.
Traction alopecia occurs when frequent tension on the hair causes it to fall out. It is reversible if a person receives treatment early, but if they continue to wear tight styles for long periods, the hair will not grow back.
During treatment for traction alopecia, a person should opt for low-tension styles that do not pull on the scalp.
Keep any braids as loose as possible, and stop the stylist if braiding is causing any pain. Also, changing the direction of braids regularly can reduce tension on the scalp. Avoid securing braids with rubber bands or bands that have a metal join.
Getting locs involves locking, twisting, or matting the hair into rope-like strands, which may be slim or thick.
Locs take time to create, and they cannot be undone. They also require special maintenance to keep them from unraveling. It is a good idea to speak to a stylist about maintaining locs before having them done.
Perms and relaxers
Perms and relaxers are chemical treatments that straighten the hair permanently until it grows out. These treatments can gradually weaken the hair, and repeated treatments increase the risk of breakage.
Chemical relaxers can damage the hair and scalp if applied incorrectly. Always have a professional stylist perform these treatments in a salon.
Chemical treatments need touching up every 2–3 months, as the hair grows. New treatment should only be applied to new hair growth.
The dominance of white beauty standards in the United States and throughout much of the world has resulted in racist perceptions and stereotypes about Black hair.
For example, some Black people are not allowed to wear their hair naturally, in braids, or in locs at work, due to the racist idea that it looks unprofessional.
In another example of discrimination, a school in Louisiana removed a student from class in 2018 because they wore braids. And some people incorrectly associate locs with a lack of hygiene.
In 2020, an analysis of four studies found that Black women with natural hairstyles were less likely to be recommended for a job interview than either Black women with straight hair or white women with curly or straight hair.
There is currently an ongoing rejuvenation of the natural hair movement, which began in the 1960s. It encourages Black people to wear natural hairstyles and counter related bias.
In 2019, California passed the Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act, making it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on their hair. Still, the prejudice persists, and in most states, hair-based discrimination is still legal.
There is also a lack of knowledge about textured hair among many doctors. In a 2014 study that included Black female participants, 68% reported that their physician did not seem to understand Black hair. This can make it difficult for people to get advice about issues such as hair loss, which can affect self-esteem and mental health.
It is important for all doctors and stylists to familiarize themselves with Black hair care to ensure that all patients’ and clients’ needs are met.
Black hair is diverse and versatile. Tightly coiled hair can be prone to dryness and breakage, so treating the hair gently and boosting the level of moisture is key to keeping it healthy.
Be cautious of products, treatments, or styles that pull on the scalp or weaken the hair. Anyone who finds that their hair is growing weaker, thinning, or excessively shedding may benefit from consulting a doctor, such as a dermatologist, who is well-versed in Black hair care.