If you weren’t thinking about transitioning to natural hair before COVID-19 hit, the past few months of 2020 might have been a big wake-up call for you. With hairstylists in uncertain limbo around the country, squeezing in a salon visit is no small feat. Our current moment has caused countless people around the country to slow down, take stock of our beauty routines, and do it ourselves. We’re cutting our own bangs! We’re waxing our own legs! Our beauty routines are taking on a pointedly DIY feel, making now the perfect time to experiment with (or rediscover) your natural hair.
I transitioned from relaxed hair to natural after my first semester of college in Boston, where the Black and Afro-Latinx community at my alma mater kept a closely guarded list of the six (!!!) tried-and-true salons in the entire city that could be reliably trusted with our locs and natural curls. The prices were extortionate, and the results were often inconsistent. It wasn’t long until I jumped headfirst into a sea of YouTube tutorials, endless product reviews, and weekly misguided trips to Ulta.
I’ll admit, my natural-hair journey began in earnest more out of practicality than a desire to unlock the powers of my natural texture, but the last 10 years of self-discovery have been more revealing and affirming than I ever could’ve anticipated. Still, there are few ground rules and natural-hair tips I've picked up along the way that would have been helpful to know from the get-go. Here's everything I wish I knew before transitioning to natural hair, with expert advice on how to make your transition out of relaxer as painless (and knot-free) as possible.
Be kind and patient with your hair—and yourself.
While so much of transitioning to natural hair can be exciting, like when you first see your curls in all their glory or finally find a detangler that drastically cuts down the amount of time you spend on wash day, it can also be absurdly frustrating. You'll probably spend hours and far too much money in search of products that work for your curl type; although options for the best curly hair products these days are thankfully so much better.
But when your twist-outs end up a tangled mess or a $50 curl cream leaves your hair sticky instead of soft and defined, it's really hard not to get annoyed. What I found to be most personally helpful was to make sure I was in a good headspace before starting my routine. You really can't rush the process.
So if you're a morning person, pour yourself some coffee, then start your wash day. And if you're a night owl? Settle down with a glass of wine, a full Netflix queue, and your detangling brush. Planning your natural-hair-care sessions based on the time of day that’s best for you will keep it a positive experience when you’re dealing with and discovering your curl pattern.
You still need regular trims and haircuts.
It seems obvious, but this wasn't something I'd considered before I decided to grow out my relaxer. But as I quickly learned from my deep dives on YouTube, experts all said the same thing: Getting a trim every 8 to 10 weeks will help keep your hair healthy as you're growing it out.
“It's really important to cut your split ends on a regular basis, especially in the first few years,” says Takisha Sturdivant-Drew, the stylist behind Kerry Washington's immaculate curls. Hair grows an average of a quarter- to a half-inch per month, so getting the same amount trimmed off your processed ends will help you maintain your length while making room for your natural texture to come through.
You don’t have to do the “big chop” if you don’t want to.
We all love a drastic before-and-after hair transformation, but as you embark on your natural hair course, remember that cutting off your ends isn’t your only choice. Affectionately known as the “big chop” in the natural-hair community, some people choose to cut their relaxed or processed hair in one fell swoop, as opposed to “transitioning,” or growing your hair back inch by inch until you’re left with your curls in their 100% natural state.
It’s up to you which road you take, as long as you keep your new growth deeply moisturized. Remember, if you choose to transition your hair, your strands will essentially be two different textures. Opt for protein-rich and moisture-packed hair treatments that’ll protect your strands and prevent breakage. Wearing your hair in protective styles can also help mask the demarcation line of your new grow-out.
The right tools will make all the difference.
Detangling brushes! Wide-tooth combs! Silk bonnets! You’re not imagining things—your bathroom counter space is shrinking. Arming yourself with the best tools possible at the onset will save you headaches (literally—good headbands are a must) down the line.
If you plan to manipulate your hair on a daily basis, a reliable detangling brush that doubles as a wide-tooth comb is crucial to getting started. You’ll be using it every single wash day. Just know that using it might feel different at first. One thing I really had to train myself on at the beginning was to make sure I was detangling from the bottom up—since with relaxed hair, I ran my brush through from top to bottom. Making this switch will help prevent breakage and single-strand knots that can crop up when the hair shafts are tangled during combing.
And when it comes to hair accessories, opt for all silk everything—silk pillowcases, bonnets, and scrunchies—to keep your hair from breaking and losing moisture.
$75.00, Grace Eleyae
$60.00, Cee Cee's Closet
$20.00, Glow By Daye
Experiment with protective styles—carefully.
“The goal with protective hairstyles is to minimize manipulation and keep your hair in a single state that won’t cause any further damage," says Sturdivant-Drew. A protective style can be just about anything you can dream up that decreases the amount of manipulation your hair experiences: Fulani braids, box braids, faux locs, puffs, flat twists, wigs—they’re all fair game.
Aim for your at-home protective styles to last a week and for professional-grade wig or braid installations to last about three months at most. “It can be tempting to play with your hairline while it’s in a protective style, so choose one where there’s flexibility at the crown and your edges," Sturdivant-Drew says. Also think about the timing of when you're trying new protective styles. Summer is a great time for trying braids, while the best time for a wig is wintertime, when our hair naturally gets drier and sheds. "A wig or weave will protect your scalp against the elements,” she says.
Try to avoid heat styling as much as you can.
One of the best things about protective styles is that they can help cut down on heat damage, which can make your transition take longer to complete. Not only can it damage your natural curl pattern, experts warn it also keep you from feeling more comfortable with your newly discovered texture.
If you do prefer to wear straight styles on your natural-hair journey—I mean, I get it; having two totally different textures in your hair isn't an easy transition!—you’ll need a flatiron that does as little heat damage as possible. I tried the Dyson Corale and can confirm the hype is real and well-deserved, while T3's new Lucea Smart Flat Iron lets you program in customized information about your hair, so it can suggest the appropriate heat setting to prevent damage. Also make sure you invest in a good heat-protectant spray.
Natural hair requires a lot of extra TLC, and the best way to baby it is to give it lots (and lots) of moisture. Not only will it help keep your curls healthy and full of life; it's also the key if you're noticing your edges are taking a beating from your protective styles, says Sturdivant-Drew. “When you have stress areas, the best thing you can do is show them love by saturating them with moisture,” she says. (And make sure in the future that you're not braiding your hair too tight. “There's a difference between tight and secure,” she adds.)
To help your deep-conditioning mask work overtime, Sturdivant-Drew recommends putting it on roots to ends and sitting under a heating cap for at least 20 minutes. Doing this once a week will help moisturize, strengthen, and hydrate your curls.
Consider holding off on color until your transition is done.
Sturdivant-Drew warns that keeping up a new hair color and a new natural-hair routine simultaneously can be expensive. “Maintaining color requires a whole other set of hair care and upkeep," she says. "You want to make sure you get to a good place with your natural hair before adding color.”
If you already have color in your hair, show it some extra love by choosing a low-manipulation protective style that won't damage your hair further—which brings me to my last piece of wisdom to share.
When in doubt, simplify.
On the days when my hair journey feels like more of a slug than a full-blown adventure, I like to take a deep breath and go back to basics. Two universally flattering and fool-proof styles I swear by? A simple middle part paired with a low chignon or a ponytail hair extension clip-in.
After that, just give it time. I promise the process is worth it—tangled twist-outs and all.
Brionna Jimerson is the associate social media manager at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @brionnajay.
Originally Appeared on Glamour