Popular Methods for Maintaining Natural Hair, Demystified

Photo Credit: stevendepolo

When I first went natural 7 years ago, I remember falling in love with the wondrous world of black hair care forums. Simple in their design yet jam packed with a city-sized member list and an even larger collection of hair information, I remember feeling almost light-headed with glee when confronted with my favorite hair forum at the time, longhaircareforum.com. As a newly natural hair junkie with hopes of growing a fabulous head of long, kinky hair, I was ripe to become a practitioner of any method these forum members purported. Looking back at my zealous plunge into the world of natural hair care, I can honestly say that “practitioner” is a gross understatement for my involvement in all the popular hair bandwagons at the time. So that you may not fall into the same obsession that was mine when sifting through the oodles and oodles of hair techniques out there, here’s a demystified summary of the most popular methodologies out there for washing, conditioning, and growing natural hair.

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Washing

Co-washing: The first hair washing method that was made known to me besides the usual add-water-add-shampoo-rinse-and-repeat was “co-washing”. Co-washing, being short for “conditioner washing”, is exactly what the name suggests–washing your hair with conditioner. Derived from Lorraine Massey’s book, “Curly Girl” and its discussion on not using sulfate shampoo (coined as “no-poo” in the book), conditioner, running water and friction from one’s hands are used to lift dirt and dead skin from the scalp and hair in place of shampoo. Since shampoo contains many harsh ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate, many Naturals (and curlier textures in general) believe that a conditioner only route to cleansing is less drying to already dry hair. Lorraine Massey further recommends a no-silicone conditioner for co-washes in order to reduce buildup on the hair. While silicone tends to work nicely on my hair so I don’t make a point to avoid them, I do agree with the whole co-washing methodology in general as it has drastically cut down that “squeaky” feeling on my hair when washing in lieu of softness and slip.

Washing in Braids: Derived from “The Crown & Glory Method” which emphasizes the use of braids on ethnic hair as a means to grow it longer, washing hair in braids is good for kinkier hair that tends to tangle easily. By sectioning hair into 4-8 braids that are loose at the scalp and tighter on the ends, the scalp can be washed directly while the run off cleans the ends with out stripping them or drying them too much. Co-washing can be combined with washing your hair in braids if you prefer to avoid shampoo, although you’ll have to work harder to rinse the conditioner out of braided hair. This, however, can be an advantage if you like to leave traces of your conditioner in your hair anyway.

ACV Rinse/Baking Soda Washing: Some people prefer a natural way to thoroughly cleanse hair, of which using apple cider vinegar (ACV) or baking soda is a common method. ACV can be used to clean hair if diluted in water (usually a ratio like one tablespoon to 2 cups). I have done an ACV rinse in order to clarify my hair by adding a little bit to a full bottle of water, poking a hole in the plastic bottle cap, and squirting the solution over my scalp. ACV, even diluted, can be pretty strong so I choose to use it only once in a while, even though some oilier hair types choose to use it on a regular basis. Baking soda can be used in addition to the ACV rinse as a surfactant to loosen dirt, or it can be used just it plain water. Though I have never use baking soda on my hair or scalp, many kinky-haired women claim that baking soda washing makes their hair extremely soft.

Water: Probably the most simple way to wash your hair, many women choose not to use any product on their hair and just cleanse their hair with running water. A conditioner may be used traditionally as a follow-up to keep the hair from drying out, but the washing process itself contains nothing else outside of rinsing with water.

Conditioning

Deep Conditioning: Probably the most popular method of conditioning, many naturals (myself included) profess the benefits of a good deep condition. There are many “substances” that can be used as a deep conditioner—store brand deep conditioners, regular conditioners used as deep conditioner, oils, homemade concoctions, etc—but the point is to leave the product of choice for an extended periods of time under the heat of our own bodies or the head of a cap/hooded dryer. Some naturals leave the product on for a few minutes, some a few hours, some even a few days. Regardless of how long you leave it on, the point of deep conditioning is to provide most Naturals with moisture and pliability that lasts until the next washing session. Deep conditioning in general is a great solution for chronically dry hair.

Baggying: A sometimes confusing method used by a devoted following for not only conditioning but length retention, baggying essentially follows the formula “moisture + oil + plastic = conditioned hair”. From my understanding, baggying is not the same as deep conditioning. Done on wet or dry hair, a moisturizing product is added to the hair, then oil is put on top of it. Saran wrap or a plastic bag is tightly wrapped over the ends of the hair (or even the whole head) and left on for hours, sometimes days until the practitioner feels the hair is adequately moisturized. Because of the lack of air exposed to the hair in the process, moisture is unable to evaporate. The point is to force the hair shaft to absorb the moisturizer/oil mix, which is what the tight wrapping of the plastic is for. Critics of this method claim that the extreme nature of keeping hair continually sealed in a solution without exposure to air can actually weaken and even mildew the hair in extreme cases.

No-Silicone: Silicones are often used in conditioner to provide slip and smoothness to strands. Some naturals, however, notice a buildup of the silicones in their hair over time that actually prevents their strands from getting much needed moisture. Especially common is the person is already using a no-sulfate cleansing method to wash their hair, silicones can be difficult to remove. Some “silicone free” Naturals also believe that even if their hair is not experiencing and silicone buildup, choosing a silicone free conditioner better allows the nutrients and oils in the conditioner to penetrate their hair.

“Go Protein”/No Protein: Much the way gluten is a dividing line for some in the natural food arena, protein in hair conditioners is equally segregating for Naturals who are concerned with it. The “Go Protein” camp feels that extra protein is beneficial to the hair as our hair strands are nothing more than protein themselves. Supposedly, seeking out protein (particularly keratin) conditioners can strengthen and build up the hair, giving it more of what it needs. The “No Protein” camp, however, feels that protein should not be used extensively when conditioning hair, as the addition is said to actually make hair harder over time from the continuous adding of protein bonds.

Growing

Protective Styling: A method that I have supported myself here on the blog, protective styling is used by some to aid length retention due to the continued protection of hair ends. Since hair ends are the oldest part of the hair and the most prone to break, supporters of protective styling believe it to be the best way to maintain healthy ends. Protective styles can included anything where the ends are hidden, such as buns or pinned up twists. Some critics of protective styling, however, feel that the constant tucking of their ends actually does more damage than good, as their ends may dry out or break off.

Low Manipulation: Related to protective styling but without the requirement of “hidden” hair ends, a low manipulations style is any way to wear the hair that doesn’t require to much styling or tampering with the hair. Supporters of low manipulation believe that less manipulation keeps our more fragile, kinkier strands from facing extreme stress that may lead to breakage and loss of length. Some low manipulation styles include braids, twists, braidouts, twistouts, wigs, and weaves.

Stretching: Stretching involves any method, with or without heat, used to elongate the tight coils in kinky hair. Some believe that stretching aids in hair growth because the ends are not left tightly coiled and are therefore less prone to tangle and knot upon themselves. The degree of stretching is up to the individual, as some Naturals choose to go as far as regularly flat ironing their hair straight while others feel utilizing the stretching from braids or twists is more than enough.

Heat/No Heat: A point of contention for even women with relaxers, the question of whether or not to use heat boils down to what the individual believes heat (or lack of) can accomplish. Some naturals are actually really believers in stretching, and they feel heat is the only way to effectively unsnarl their curls. Others are actually believers of low manipulation, and flat ironed straight hair is the only style that allows them to leave their hair untouched for an extended period of time. “No heat” proponents feel like neither of those added benefits are worth the damage excessive heat can do to the hair’s cuticle.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list, but this post is already at 1600 words, so I have to wrap up somewhere. This just goes to show you that there are hundreds of ways to skin the proverbial (natural-haired) cat. What methods work best for you? Is there anything you do that’s not on this list? Share below.

  • http://www.TheWriteCurlDiary.blogspot.com GG

    Great summary. I’ll be sharing this with many of my friends and coworkers who ask me these kind of questions often. It’s like intro to natural hair 101.

    • http://thinkandgrowchick.com Courtney

      I’m glad you said that GG, that’s exact what I meant for this post to be–natural hair 101.

  • sarah

    i’m a wash and go girl. i tried to get into “protective styling” with braids, but it caused more harm than good for me. all the extra combing and (de)tangling was horrid for my ends. i’ve always considered the wash and go a low manipulation style, but many naturals don’t. to me, after co-washing and detangling and putting on stylers, i stop there… i don’t take the extra steps of braiding and unbraiding. i just leave my hair alone. but, i guess there are “natural rules” to follow, right?? ;-)

    • http://thinkandgrowchick.com Courtney

      You know, I almost put “wash and gos” up there under the low manipulation write-up, but I refrained only because I’ve been told by so many naturals that their wash and gos have to be refreshed/re-wetted almost daily. This was true for me back when I wore wash and gos regularly, but even with the daily “redoing”, it was my preferred hairstyle of choice. At the end of the day, I say that if it works for you, rock it! I’m halfway envious that a wash and go is a protective style for you. I really really wish I could go back to that but the fairy knots I get after one day are just out of control. But I commend you for just “leaving your hair alone”, which, at the end of the day, I think is the ultimate philosophy.

  • sarah

    i see what you mean. but most WNGers i know don’t rewet or suffer from SSKs. i was told this is the exception and not the rule, but i disagree. i think there is a chronic need amongst us black women to do or fix our hair, that we feel a need to style it up, and it can be really detrimental.

    once again, i just love your blog. the debates are really refreshing and different.

  • Steph

    I’m a wash in twists girl. Its takes so much to take down your twists, wash, condition, deep condition, and re-twist every week. So I keep the twists as a protective style and only wear the twist outs on special occasions.

    Great breakdown!

  • Efe

    The methods that work for me are : shampooing in braids, deep conditioning(w/ penetrating oils like olive and/or coconut), protective styling, low manipulation and stretching (via braids). I’m not a fan of heat and I tend to avoid silicones by virtue of the fact that I like to use natural products on my hair and skin.

    This is an awesome post–I love your blog! :)

  • http://niaonline.org Jennifer

    I agree that this is a great natural hair 101.

    I’m not positive what methods work for me – I know doing as little as possible worked for a time period, and then doing alittle more worked after that. It’s just what kinda hair I wanted at the time. When I was a twa, I would just wash , condition and go…then as I got to alittle longer, I did more braids and twists – today, braids and twists are happening, but I’ve done more so called “length protective styling” though not really on purpose, but because hair on my neck and back weirds me out, but I’m not cutting my hair. So more buns, more ponytails, braid/twist outs, and things like that.
    I am still on the hunt for a good shampoo, but my conditioners are all natural, no cones.

    I also color my hair, what about color?

  • http://flavors.me/stevendepolo Steven

    I am happy you used my photo of Lourdie. She is awesome.