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June 2020 marked my last relaxer. I'd had my hair chemically straightened for 12 years, and I was tired of the upkeep. The relaxer touch-ups every few months, experimenting with pixie cuts, and the random bouts of breakage that I put my poor strands through, were all getting old. It finally felt like the right time to transition to my natural curls and let my roots do their thing.
The small upside of quarantining was that I had a natural excuse to hide as I underwent the famously awkward stage of transitioning. I was confident with my decision. (For the first few months, at least.) But as time went on, and my curls grew in, I got to know the coils that I hadn't let free in over a decade. And let me tell you, they're beautiful, but the maintenance is a journey. Getting used to managing my much thicker locks—always remember, comb and brush from ends to roots—let alone styling two vastly different hair textures, and experimenting with various curly hair products and deep conditioners, was a lot to add to my daily routine.
I finally understood why my cousin went for the "big chop" during her transition a year earlier, and why my sister spends hours in front of the mirror on wash days. If your goal is healthy, voluminous natural hair, it takes time, effort, and education to tame your mane. "The key word is patience," Latoya Moore, a DevaCurl stylist told me. "You have to have patience because if you don't, you're going to revert back to having relaxed hair."
To answer my growing list of questions, I spoke with Janell Stephens, CEO of Camille Rose Naturals, Gillian Garcia, a Brooklyn salon owner and creator of Ju Poppin haircare products, and Moore, all of whom offered valuable words of wisdom. I got all the details, including the timeline to expect, the products I needed to keep an eye out for, and whether or not the "big chop" was necessary.
Find a stylist you trust.
Both starting—and continuing—the journey from relaxed to natural hair can be overwhelming. And the thing is, there's no set timeline because everyone's hair is different. If you choose to cut a majority of your permed tresses, your transition is basically done. But if you'd like to grow it out over time, transitioning could take as long as a year.
During this time, in order to receive the best service in the salon and to make the smartest decisions for the health of your curls while at home, find a stylist who will be in your corner.
"You need to research and find a great expert that will guide you through this transition period," Moore says. "They will educate you on how to take care of your hair at home after leaving the salon. You have to have a stylist that will give you that confidence before you leave their chair."
Moore advises that DevaCurl's "Find A Stylist" tab on their website is a great starting point, as it helps you locate a professional in your area. In addition, Instagram accounts like @TheCutLife, @VoiceofHair, and @healthy_hair_journey feature the work of stylists from across the country that may be in a city near you. And when in doubt, if you see someone on social media or in person with a healthy head of hair that's #goals, why not ask them about their stylist.
It's possible to transition without the big chop.
Over the years, "going natural" has become synonymous with "the big chop," which means cutting off your permed, straight strands, to start fresh with cropped curls. Not only is it a practical, swift way to get to your natural roots, but many see it as a spiritual journey as you do away with the Westernized idea that smooth locks are the key to beauty.
"I feel like all women should experience a big chop," Garcia says. "It's such a great time to just learn to love yourself, and look in the mirror and say, 'It's just me and you.'"
But it's also a personal decision. If you're not quite ready to be rid of your length, it's totally okay to wait a few months to allow for an inch or two of new growth or to transition to your natural hair without cutting off your relaxed ends. However, the obstacle that comes with this decision is learning to style and take care of two different hair textures. As your hair grows out, the area where your curls meet the permed strands becomes thinner and weaker, making your hair prone to breakage, which is bound to happen throughout your hair growth process. We have the keys to lessening breakage ahead.
Using moisturizing products is essential.
If there's one magical word associated with easing your transition, it's moisture. All the experts I consulted emphasized the value of hydration. Your coils can easily become dry and susceptible to excessive breakage if you don't take the time to invest in products and an at-home hair routine that puts moisture first.
"Sulfate-free products are key," Stephens says. "Stay away from drying ingredients, such as all of the alcohols and ingredients that will disturb your true pattern. You want ingredients that are rich in emollients, like oils and butters. They penetrate the hair and infuse it with moisture."
When shopping for shampoos, deep conditioners, and styling products, always keep an eye out for cream-based formulas and stay away from anything that contains silicone or parabens.
Also, you also shouldn't be afraid to use a few tried-and-true DIY remedies. Stephens emphasizes the healing benefits of the natural gel from the aloe vera plant, which she used on her hair throughout her own transition. Massage the plant's oils into your scalp and strands for hydration, letting it sit for up to 10 minutes before your weekly shampoo and conditioning routine.
Garcia also shares two recipes for an at-home protein treatment (to strengthen hair) and a moisture treatment to be done every four to six weeks.
DIY Protein Treatment
1 ripe banana
1 raw egg
3-4 pumps of vitamin e oil
Mix and apply to hair. Cover with plastic cap, and let sit for up to 30 minutes. Rinse and follow immediately with moisturizing treatment.
DIY Moisture Treatment
2 tsp. of honey
1/2 an avocado
3-4 pumps of vitamin e oil
Also, you know how in the "Directions" section on your new deep conditioner label it advises to section-out your hair during application? As tempting as it is to skip over that step, Moore says that parting your hair into four sections throughout your wash day routine (shampooing, conditioning, and styling) make all the difference to ensure all parts of your hair are receiving equal moisture treatments.
But, be mindful of when you apply oils to your hair.
While oils are essential to a healthy mane, it's important to be aware of when and how you apply them.
"Apply your creams or your gel first," Moore says. "Oil doesn't moisturize if it's applied directly to your scalp. It just sits on your strands, and whenever you put any moisture into it, the oil will block it, creating a barrier. I always say to apply oil after to help loosen up your curls and give them a little bit more shine."
Experiment with protective styles.
One of the biggest adjustments when transitioning is figuring out how to style your hair, particularly when you've forgone the big chop and are dealing with two vastly different textures. That's where protective hair styles come in. A few basics include:
Twist outs with rod sets
Each come in a variety of stylish variations that allow you to mix up your look. Both Moore and Garcia like twist outs with rod sets. It's a style that's easiest for those who still have relaxed ends. They can twist their roots and curl the ends using rods.
"When you do rod sets, you are temporarily creating the same curl pattern," Garcia says. "They're one of the easiest, best ways for styling and also rod sets and flexy rods are easy to apply yourself."
She also advocates for weaves and braids—particularly knotless braids, which use your natural hair at the root and weave in extensions further down, reducing the stress on your scalp. (Keep in mind: Any style using synthetic hair should be removed after four to six weeks.)
Worried that the strain on your strands will cause more damage and breakage? Consider this tip from Garcia: "Anything that's painful and uncomfortable for you to lie on the pillow with is too tight."
Have the proper detangling brush and wide-tooth combs on hand.
Garcia says to invest in these essential styling tools, which are best for managing coils. And Moore swears by a silk bonnet or scarf, silk pillowcase, and microfiber towels. Each help to reduce breakage.
Get regular trims.
The stylists all agree that you should trim your ends every four to six weeks while transitioning with relaxed ends. Getting rid of dead, split ends will reduce further breakage.
Pay attention to the temperature of your water on wash day.
Yes, details as small as this have an impact on the overall health of your curls. And a golden rule? Stay away from hot water.
"Wash your hair with lukewarm water to open up your follicles. Once you've finished putting all your product in, that's when you're going to rinse and seal it with cold water," Moore explains.
"I would not encourage someone to stop using heat altogether because people love switching up their look," Moore says. "But, once your hair is healthy and grown out, keep it to a minimum.
If you're looking to blow dry or straighten your hair for a special occasion, use low temperature settings and always use a heat protectant. Professional silk presses—a styling technique using heat to maintain your natural curl—are also okay if your hair is healthy, but only have them done once a month, max.
And if you ever (understandably) get discouraged throughout this process, and think about reverting back to your permanently straight strands, remember this last bit of advice from Moore:
"If you keep holding on to that dead hair, it's going to break off eventually. So make up your mind and give yourself confidence. It's just dead hair weighing you down. And once you take that off, the spring factor of your curls will come back," she says.
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