While it can be easy to focus on the challenges of maintaining thick, natural hair, it’s hard to ignore its stunning versatility. From flowy silk presses to bouncy wash-and-gos, there are seemingly endless ways to keep curly hairstyles feeling new and exciting. However, despite the beautiful end results, achieving those styles requires significant manipulation. Whether it’s the heat of a flat iron or the tugging of your brush as it detangles your curls, the steps it takes to achieve new styles can lead to breakage and overall damage.
This is why, especially in the sweatier summer months, many turn to protective styles like cornrows, twists and knotless braids. Not only do these styles shield your hair and, thus, eliminate the need for harmful styling tools, but they also keep your curls laid in the face of humidity. However, when your hair is safely tucked into a plaited style it may be tempting to skip a few wash days and scalp care sessions, which can lead to visible, oily buildup. To keep your braids looking and feeling their healthiest throughout the process, Select spoke to two experts about everything you’ll need to maintain your protective style this summer.
Everything you need to maintain your braids in 2023
Below, we provide a comprehensive, expert-backed routine that will help your braids look good and stay healthy. Read on for tips from Kamilah Gerestant, celebrity hairstylist and knotless braid expert, and Jaxcee Challenger, founder of The Coily Collective and my long-time hairstylist, on the best practices for maintaining your protective style from wash day to take down. Plus, we’re sharing top-rated and expert-recommended products you’ll want on hand for each step.
SKIP AHEAD Wash Day | Scalp Care | Edge Care | Maintaining Your Ends | Styling | Sleep | Take Down | When is it time to take your braids out? | How do I take care of my hair between protective styles?
Washing protective styles is a task that many put off due to a fear of aging their braids, says Gerestant. However, your hair won’t achieve optimal health if you are not shampooing and deep conditioning it at least once a week, according to Challenger. Both experts agree that this schedule isn’t always feasible with braided styles, so Gerestant generally suggests a wash every two weeks. Below, we’re sharing the products they recommended incorporating into your wash day lineup.
Design Essentials Avocado Clarifying Shampoo
When searching for a shampoo for your braids Gerestant says to look for clear — not white — options. “When you use a white, creamy shampoo, and don’t [wash] it out properly, it leaves a residue that can stay on your hair and cause more damage,” she says. Instead, she recommended this option from Design Essentials due to its thinner consistency and clarifying formulation that breaks down scalp buildup without stripping your hair of its natural oils.
TPH By Taraji Master Scalp Shampoo
This scalp shampoo has become one of my go-tos for braid care. Its comb-like applicator helps me quickly and evenly distribute the clear, watery cleanser throughout my hair and the tingling sensation assures me that my scalp is getting the deep clean it needs. I typically use this as a soothing, second wash after thoroughly scrubbing my scalp with a clarifying shampoo.
Mizani Miracle Milk Leave-In Conditioner
With braids, you can skip the thick, creamy conditioners you might use on your natural hair. Instead, Gerestant recommended Mizani’s leave-in conditioning spray that features a moisturizing, coconut oil blend. The water-based product can easily penetrate the gap of your braids and reach the hair underneath, keeping it soft and supple until you take down your protective style, according to the brand.
Aquis Microfiber Hair Towel
“I love microfiber towels like the ones from Aquis to dry my braids,” says Challenger. The towel’s nylon and polyester fabric dries your braids while reducing the friction that’s typically caused by regular body towels. It also helps keep your hair strong and eliminate frizz, according to the brand.
Gerestant says it best: “We wash our faces everyday, why don’t we use that same logic for our scalp?” It may take some adjusting, but cleansing your scalp weekly will ensure that your natural hair continues to flourish underneath the protective style. “[The braids] are not your hair, eventually [they] have to come out. [So] it all goes back to the health of your scalp,” says Gerestant.
Pattern Beauty Jojoba Oil Blend
“I think there’s this huge obsession with oil,” says Gerestant, who particularly highlighted the popularity of castor oil. “The problem is, those fattier oils just sit in the scalp and they don’t absorb.” Instead, she recommended sticking to lighter oils with antifungal and antibacterial properties like jojoba, tea tree, or peppermint. I use this lavender and jojoba-based option from Pattern Beauty on my braids. Its small pump makes it easy to apply directly to my scalp and quickly soothes the itching that can arise a few weeks after installing braids.
Thayers Witch Hazel
If you’re anything like me, you’re guaranteed to skip a wash day or two. “At the very least, put witch hazel on a cotton pad and wipe down your scalp weekly,” says Gerestant. While you may be more familiar with witch hazel as a skin care ingredient, it can provide the same soothing and cleansing benefits for your scalp. In addition to relieving dryness and flakiness, witch hazel is a great tool for breaking down sweat and oil buildup at the base of your braids.
Whether you prefer elaborate swoop designs or are simply looking to keep your baby hairs tamed, edge styling is an essential part of keeping your protective style looking neat. Luckily, with a good brush and the right edge control for your hair type, you can easily maintain that salon-style sleekness at home.
Baby Tress Edge Styler
Gerestant recommended the Baby Tress’ Edge Style as her all-time favorite edge tool. “I should work for them,” she says. “It’s just perfectly shaped.” It features three tools: a comb for detangling and separating your edges, a natural boar bristle brush for shaping and a fine-tooth comb for any intricate designs or details.
Eco is a preferred name in the world of gels and edge controls, however, it’s not always the best option for thicker hair types due to its looser consistency, according to Gerestant. While heavier creams and butters may be more successful at laying coarser edges, Eco provides just enough hold to easily tame looser curls, she says. This olive oil-based formula also works to hydrate and lock in moisture to your hair, according to the brand.
Mizani Coconut Soufflé
When Challenger first started styling my hair, she recommended this lightweight, moisturizing Mizani Soufflé to help keep my silk presses healthy. Over time, after noticing its ability to slick down my hair without the sticky consistency of a gel, I’ve started using it as an edge control. After applying a few dots to my edges and brushing them down, I tie the perimeter of my head with a silk scarf for a few minutes to help the hair set. Then, I enjoy my neat edges for the rest of the day.
Maintaining Your Ends
With a fully-braided style like traditional knotless braids, your stylist will seal the braids by dipping them in boiling hot water. However, when experimenting with partially-braided styles like bohemian braids or french curls, you’ll need to be more proactive about keeping your ends looking as fresh as they did on styling day. Below are some products to help you detangle and add sheen.
Innersense Styling Foam
“I prefer human hair for loose pieces on the ends because it's easier to detangle them,” says Challenger. She recommended tackling any human hair styles with this curl foam, which not only promises to separate and smooth your ends, but also contains a pequi oil blend that smooths frizz, according to the brand. Challenger recommended applying the product to your hair and then using a wide-tooth comb to work it through the strands.
Creme Of Nature Replenishing Sheen Spray
“Everyone is chasing shine,” says Gerestant. She recommended this Creme of Nature option, which adds gloss while remaining lightweight and formaldehyde free. “It’s also a scent that I love,” she says.
When it comes to styling your braids, you can certainly let your hairstylist’s work shine and leave them loose throughout the summer. However, if you’re wanting to pull your hair up on a particularly hot day, during a workout or just to spruce up your look, there are plenty of styling accessories to choose from.
Ponytails and buns are great up-do options for braids, but pulling your hair back too often can lead to issues like traction alopecia and hair loss, says Gerestant. To combat this, she strongly recommended changing up your styling methods daily and refraining from sleeping in tight styles.
Blissy Skinny Scrunchies
“I love satin-lined mini scrunchies for ponytails,” says Challenger. These thin hair ties, from Select-favorite brand Blissy, come in a convenient three-pack and in a variety of bold colors. They’re also made from the same 100% mulberry silk that the brand uses for its popular pillow cases.
Lululemon Large Claw Clip
When it comes to the ever-popular claw clips, Challenger gave them the green light, but recommended avoiding “smaller, metal ones as they can snag your braids.” I love this large option from Lululemon for half-up half-down styles as it’s large enough to keep everything secure, and has thicker, rounder teeth that don’t irritate my scalp.
Friction throughout the night leads to frizz and, thus, quickens the deterioration of protective styles — making it essential to prepare your hair before getting a good night’s rest, according to Gerestant. Below are some products that will help you wake up with neat, tangle-free braids.
One of the first things coily-haired kids are taught is to use a bonnet to protect your hair while you sleep. However, your hair is still loose underneath a bonnet and, as a result, is subject to friction and frizz, says Gerestant. Instead, she recommended wrapping your braids as you would a silk press. “[Start by] taking your hair down the middle, gathering the braids, and wrapping [them] to the shape of your head in one direction,” she says. Then, add pins where they crisscross and secure with a scarf. I initially purchased this one from Parade to wear as a bandana, but now use it to protect my hair nightly.
If you’re too tired to wrap up your braids, sleeping on a silk pillowcase is the next best option, according to Gerestant. This Select Wellness Awards winner is a personal favorite, as it eliminates any friction throughout the night and allows me to start my day with less frizz.
Both Gerestant and Challenger agree: If there’s one thing you need when taking down your braids, it’s patience. “A lot of damage and breakage happens during take down,” says Gerestant. People are eager to get the process over with, making their approach too rough.
When you’re taking on the grueling task at home, “set up your snacks and a marathon of your favorite show to keep yourself motivated,” says Challenger. Gerestant suggests starting by filling a spray bottle with water and your favorite conditioner. As you undo each braid, spray the mixture directly onto any knots and work it through with your fingers. This simple step will make all the difference when you’re ready to detangle.
Kazmaleje Paddle Comb
Growing up, detangling my hair post-braids was always a painful, tear-filled experience. Learning the importance of adding water, as Gerestant outlined above, has made a huge difference in my adult life, but it’s this paddle comb from Kazmaleje that’s been my holy grail. Challenger highly recommended this brush as it’s “amazing for getting out big tangles without excessive pulling,” she says. The Kazmaleje paddle also doubles as a fine-tooth comb that can help you section your hair while detangling, and features a curved handle that molds to your hand’s natural shape — making an uncomfortable process a bit more bearable.
What’s the difference between knotted and knotless braids?
In recent years, knotless braids have overtaken the more traditional knotted, box braid technique. Below, Gerestant shares their major differences and explains why knotless styles are actually healthier for your hair:
- Knotted. “Even when done well, the problem [with knotted box braids] is their bulkiness,” says Gerestant. The knots that connect the braiding hair to your natural hair are danger zones “where sweat, product, and things can just hide,” she says. Challenger also adds that these knots can make the braids feel tighter, potentially irritating those with tender scalps.
- Knotless. Gerestant acknowledges that traditionalists may need time to adjust to the increased scalp visibility that comes with knotless braids. However, this “scalpiness” increases airflow throughout your hair and provides easier access for cleansing. As a result, she says that knotless braids will “always be the better, healthier option.”
When is it time to take my braids out?
It depends. “The thing is, braids will last,” says Gerestant. “They’re interlocked, they’re not going anywhere. The better question is a suggested time frame that won’t compromise the health of their hair,” she says. While Challenger recommended only keeping your braids in for four to six weeks, there are some additional factors, below, that may impact your braids’ lifespan, according to Gerestant:
- Hair density. Those with thinner hair “probably have less opportunity to stretch out their styles,” says Gerestant. As a result, they should plan to remove their braids closer to the four week mark.
- Braid length. “Length is weight,” says Gerestant. “As the hair grows out at the root, the braids just get heavier and heavier.” Thus, you may need to take out longer braids sooner as well.
- Maintenance level. If you successfully follow the best practices for washing, styling, and sleeping, you should have no problem keeping your braids in-tact for at least six weeks, she says. However, if you aren’t doing any at-home maintenance, you may experience frizz and scalp buildup quickly, which will result in needing to take your braids down after just a few weeks.
How do I take care of my hair between protective styles?
Sometimes, when you are tired of the work it takes to maintain your natural hair, it can be easy to hide it in back-to-back protective styles. However, Challenger strongly advises against this. “Resist the urge to have braiding be your only styling option,” she says. “There’s no way of [properly] shampooing and deep conditioning with braids in your hair constantly,” she says. [As a result], braiding should be a seasonal event, meaning try not to do it more than every three months.”
Gerestant adds that any protective style “should be a reward for your hair, not something to cover it up.” So, to keep your natural coils feeling healthy in-between protective styles, Challenger recommended both oiling and deep conditioning every week to keep it soft and supple.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Kamilah Gerestant, is an accomplished hairstylist and knotless braid expert. Her styling credits include Beyonce’s “Black is King,” “And Just Like That,” and Madonna’s Madame X Tour.
- Jaxcee Challenger is the founder of New York City salon The Coily Collective and has been styling Archer’s hair since 2020.
Why trust Select?
Mikhaila Archer has been wearing protective styles — including knotless braids to cornrows – for her entire life. In addition to recommending the products that have helped both her braids and her natural hair remain healthy and neat, she interviewed two curly hair care experts for guidance on braid care best practices as well as the products they frequently use at both their salons and in their own routines.
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