Transitioning to Natural Hair? Cool—Read This First

Photo credit: Raydene Salinas Hansen
Photo credit: Raydene Salinas Hansen

From Cosmopolitan

Even though going from relaxed to natural hair can be a super-empowering experience, I’m going to be real with you—it can also be a struggle. If you’ve straightened your hair, worn extensions, had a perm, or had a relaxer in your hair for your entire life, transitioning back to your natural roots is not going to be easy. Thankfully, the natural hair movement has gained a ton of momentum over the past decade, which means there’s a lot more resources out there. Tons of people have been there and done that, so it takes out some of the guesswork.

But still—all that information can be overwhelming if you don’t know exactly where to start or what to do. So, to help clear some things up, I reached out to four experts—Larry Sims, celebrity stylist, Salwa Petersen, founder of Salwa Petersen Haircare, and Dailey Greene, owner of H2 Salon in Brooklyn—as well as two women who’ve been through the process of re-discovering their natural hair—Nana Agyemang, CEO and founder of EveryStylishGirl, and Elisa Johnson, founder of Selected by Elisa—to help guide you through the process.

What does it mean to transition to natural hair?

Basically, transitioning to natural hair means you’ve stopped chemically straightening your hair (aka getting relaxers) and you're now letting your natural texture grow out, says Petersen. When someone decides to go natural, you can either let it grow out or you can cut off all your hair (also known as “the big chop”). Petersen decided to grow her hair out, but noted that it was hard to manage her new natural growth with her already relaxed ends.

Agyeman and Johnson both decided to cut all of their hair off. Agyeman had been relaxing her hair since she was three years old, and she wanted to see what her natural hair, from her roots to her ends, would feel like. “I just didn’t want to deal with the breakage that comes with having relaxed ends,” she said. Johnson said that a lightbulb went off in her head one day, and she realized that she can be beautiful with short hair, too.

Also, something to consider: When your ends aren’t relaxed, they’re stronger, says Sims. “You won’t have ends that are breaking off, so your hair will look and feel healthier,” he adds. Ultimately, the choice is up to you and what you’re comfortable with. “There’s really no right or wrong way to make the move to natural,” says Greene.

What are the do’s and don'ts of transitioning to natural hair?

When it comes to making the switch from relaxed hair to natural curls, here’s what you should keep in mind (and, you know, what you should try to avoid).

DO: Take time to figure out your hair type and texture

Regardless of what you might’ve read on Instagram, most people don’t have one single curl type, says Petersen. “I probably have two or three different curl types on my head—and if you’re transitioning with relaxed ends, you need to take that into consideration when it comes to your product picks,” she adds. And just because your hair is naturally textured, doesn’t mean it’s thick.

“A lot of people are surprised to hear that my type 4 hair is very fine,” says Petersen. “Products for thick hair will weigh down fine curls, and products for fine hair won’t give thick curls enough moisture and hydration. There’s also curl porosity—your hair’s ability to get, and stay, hydrated—to take into consideration. (If you don’t know WTF, I’m talking about, we have a guide for you right here.)

That's all to say that it's going to take a lot of trial and error to figure out your hair type. My recommendation? Watch a ton of YouTube videos to help make the process a little less painless. You'll be able to find countless tutorials, how-to videos, and product reviews from natural-hair gurus. All you have to do is find a blogger who has a similar hair texture to yours and delve into their videos to figure out exactly how to care for your hair.

DO: Use heat protectant

Using excessive heat on your hair is basically a recipe for breakage. You need to use the least amount of heat on your hair as possible, says Sims, so it's best to air-dry your hair if/when you can. But if you do decide to use heat on your hair, be sure to layer on a heat protectant spray before you turn on the blow dryer or flat iron. Even though heat protection sprays can’t reverse damage, they can help prevent split ends, dryness, and serious breakage.

P.S. If you decide to wear your hair straight, Agyeman recommends wrapping your hair every night to keep your hair sleek. “I wrap my hair every single night—I put two bonnets on, then a scarf on top so my hair stays smooth,” she says.

DO: Remember that you are not your hair

Instead of dealing with two different hair textures, Greene decided to buzz it all off. “A lot of people are afraid of what they’re going to look like, who they’re going to be, how people are going to react,” Greene says. “If you’re old enough to pay and go to the salon, you’re old enough to make your own decisions and not care what anybody else has to say about you. This is the way you were born, with curly, wavy, textured hair on your head, and if you can’t stand to look at yourself that way, then you’ve got some work to do, and maybe transitioning to natural hair isn’t for you."

For Johnson, after years of experimenting with her hair in middle school and high school, she went through a phase in college where she was consistently wearing long extensions. “I think people glorify long hair as sexy, and I bought into that for a little bit,” she said. But after she cut off all her hair, she began to start loving herself more without hair. “I liked the shape of my neck, I liked that you could see my face, and I felt a sense of freedom,” she said.

Johnson also mentioned that one anxiety she had before cutting all her hair off was the idea that men prefer women with longer, straighter hair. “That was also something that actually scared me, you know? The male perspective. How will I be perceived?” she says. Now, she has a completely different mindset. “I’ve had situations where a guy’s like, ‘Oh, I love you with your longer hair’ or ‘What happened to the long hair?' and it’s an automatic block.”

Agyeman had similar anxieties when it came to chopping off her hair. “I thought that having straight hair would give me more career opportunities and that more men would be attracted to me,” she said. However, after the cut, Agyeman felt more liberated and at peace with herself. “It made me realize that if you’re not attracted to my energy, and you’re only attracted to the way my hair looks, you're not someone I want to be associated with. My biggest piece of feedback is that you should embrace whatever look feels most like you,” she says.

DO: Get regular trims

If you choose not to cut off all your hair at once, you’ll need to trim it until your damaged or chemically treated ends are gone. "The reality of it is, you have to allow your natural curls to come out and be reborn," Sims says. "If you’ve been using a lot of excessive heat on your hair, muscle memory can kick in over time and it will have a tendency to be a bit more straight along the mid-shaft compared to the hair near your roots."

But eventually, as your hair grows out to a comfortable length, you’ll have to slowly trim and get rid of the over-processed hair that’s a result of heat damage. That’s the only real way you’re going to get your natural, organic curl pattern back, he says. To give yourself a dusting (aka a tiny trim without changing the shape), simply snip off the very ends where you see splits or frayed pieces.

You’ll need to give your hair time to grow. If you’ve been perming, relaxing, or straightening your hair for years, you aren't going to be fully natural in a few days. Expect to be growing your hair out for four months (or more!) to fully get back your natural texture. Sure, it seems like a long time, but if you’re moisturizing, trimming, and conditioning your hair properly, you’ll see results before you know it.

DO: Keep your curls moisturized

Moisturizing your hair will become your main priority, says Greene. Since curly hair is naturally drier than straight hair, it’s important to moisturize on the regular. You’re going to need to wash your hair, at least once a week, with a sulfate-free shampoo, says Greene. They won’t strip your hair of its natural oils. Sims recommends looking for hydrating ingredients like jojoba oil, glycerin, aloe vera, shea butter, and avocado oil on the label of hair products to make sure you’re getting the maximum moisture.

DO: Try out different hairstyles

Protective styles, like cornrows, twists, braids, weaves, and wigs, give your natural hair a break from everyday styling, which can help prevent dryness and breakage. No one style is necessary better than the other—it just depends on what look you want to try out. Johnson loves to switch things up with wigs, while Agyemang has done wigs, weaves, and box braids while transitioning.

When you’re not rocking protective styles, try out simple styles like topknots, wash ’n gos, or braid-outs first. "I like doing really great topknots or double-strand twists, because these hairstyles aren’t too tight and don’t disrupt the natural curl pattern of your hair," Sims says.

DO: Remember that your journey will be unique

Everybody’s hair transitioning process is a little bit different, says Greene. “There’s an array of things that people do in order to get through growing their relaxer out—wigs, weaves, braids, twist-outs,” she adds. You might also start to compare your curls to other people's hair, but don’t. Natural textures come in an array of curl patterns.

The form, color, shape, and texture of your hair is yours—so own it! It’s easy to look at other people's curls or natural styles, and wish your curls would coil or bend the same way as theirs, but yours probably never will and that’s okay. It’s all about understanding your hair, figuring out what works for your texture and shape, and embracing it.

DON’T: Be ashamed to go back to relaxed hair

If you try to go natural and decide it’s not for you, there’s no shame in returning to your relaxer. A lot of people believe that natural hair is healthier, but that’s not necessarily true, says Greene. “Natural hair is not a get-up-and-go thing. Natural hair requires more attention and it takes a lot of work, like detangling, washing, braiding, moisturizing, and styling your roots,” she says. “And if you’re not doing all of that upkeep, your hair isn’t going to be healthy."

After about two years with her natural texture, Johnson decided to relax her hair again. Not because she didn’t love her curls, but because she’s really into the look of a sleek pixie. “It’s just my preference,” she says.

DON’T: Neglect your hair while it's in a protective style

Just because you have your hair tucked into braids or under a wig doesn’t mean you can forget about it, says Greene. If you choose to rock a protective style and don’t wash your hair or use a leave-in conditioner spray, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice, she says. “If you’re not doing anything to your hair for one or two months, it’s going to be super dry and prone to breakage,” adds Greene.

DON’T detangle on dry hair

You have to pay attention to the way you detangle your hair. With natural hair, you can’t comb it out however you want. Sims recommends detangling only when your hair is wet using a nylon-bristle brush or a wide-tooth comb. "Also, make sure that while you’re detangling, you add a little bit of moisturizing conditioner to your strands, and work from the bottom of your hair up to the roots using your brush," Sims adds. That way, the knots are untangled at the ends and you can make smooth passes through your hair as you continue to brush.

The final verdict

Natural hair requires a ton of trial and error when it comes to finding the right products and hairstyles that work best on your hair texture. And you may even end up deciding that it's not for you—which is 100% okay, too. Everyone goes on their own journey to figure out what works best for them. For me, even though it’s not fun spending the extra money and time on the right shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, oil, and spray for my curls, I think it's worth it. When you invest effort into your curls, it shows. Transitioning to natural hair may not the easiest thing you've done, but if you stick it out, it can be one of the most rewarding.

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