How to take care of Black hair, from heat damage to breakage

WATCH: Black Canadians give their hair care tips and advice

When Marisa Rosa Grant started her hair journey seven years ago, she never thought she would end up with locs.

The 27-year-old Toronto mother also had no idea how much she would learn about her hair along the way.

“I’ve done and tried every kind of style, every kind of braiding style,” said Grant.

“I’ve done the wigs, I’ve done the weaves, and more recently my natural hair journey.

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“Along the way, I’ve learned a lot of different things that work for my hair and don’t work for my hair — and a lot of that had to do with me finding out my curl pattern.”

This meant overcoming years of chemical relaxers from “Just For Me” boxes and heat damage from flat irons.

Grant’s hair journey is a familiar story to many Black women and men in Canada — a journey about re-learning how to take care of your hair and growing into self-love and acceptance.

Afros, braids, wigs, locs, cornrows and other hairstyles have been an intrinsic part of Black beauty and culture, dating back to the ancient world. You can find some of the most iconic Black hairstyles in engravings and hieroglyphs from Ancient Egypt, experts say.

But Black hair has also long been the subject of social contention and rejection. Its kinky texture, curls and various styles have historically been stigmatized and seen as unprofessional, unpolished and unkempt.

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This type of social conditioning has partly contributed to why some people of colour adopt harmful practices when it comes to hair care, says Dr. Cheryl Thompson, a Ryerson University professor and author of Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture.

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But experts say the resurgence of the natural hair movement has led to an awakening and spread of information when it comes to natural hair care.

Understanding Black hair

Brian Phillips, celebrity stylist and owner of World Salon in Toronto, says when it comes to what Black, chemically-unaltered hair is made of, it is no different than non-Black hair.

“You’ve got the keratin, you’ve got the cortex, the protein, the sort of chemical structure is the same,” he said.

Where it tends to differ, he said, is in the shape of the strands.

Black hair strands are generally flatter and more oval-shaped than Caucasian and Asian hair types, which are usually more circular and symmetrical, Phillips said.

That shape results in hair strands curling as they come out of the scalp, and the more oval and flatter the hair is, the tighter the curl.|

Marisa Rosa Grant (left), Ahmed Dirie (centre) and Courtney Roberts (right). Art by Laura Whelan, Photo by Global News 

This curly disposition leaves the hair less tolerant to over-manipulation and more susceptible to breakage and dryness. Phillips says styling tools like brushes or combs, which stretch the curls, have a much harder time going through as the curls resist, causing friction and ultimately breakage.

It was a tough lesson Ahmed Dirie had to learn. The 24-year-old Toronto youth worker says he has experienced breakage while trying to comb through his thick, shoulder-length 3C curls in a rush. He then discovered wide-tooth combs.

“I found that wide-tooth combs are the only combs that can really work with my hair,” Ahmed said.

“Like, the more teeth, the harder it is for me to detangle anything.”

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Phillips said metallic combs should also be avoided.

“Metal combs are terrible for Black hair because they really break the hair, so like bone or wood are better,” said Phillips.

Phillips says these natural tools do a great job of transporting the natural oils the scalp produces, like sebum, throughout the hair.

Which, in turn, ushers in the next point when it comes to understanding how Black hair behaves.

Black hair thrives on moisture, but the curliness of afro-textured hair often means it is harder for moisture to actually get to each strand.

Everyone’s scalp produces sebum, an oily substance that moisturizes the hair follicle, according to the Canadian Dermatology Association. Water is another important source of moisture for all hair types. Both travel down the hair shaft to lubricate and be absorbed into the strands.

However, that process gets complicated, Phillips says, when that path is not straight.

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“With Black hair, because of the curls — and in many cases they’re really, really tight — you have to make an effort to move through, and open the curls up and stretch it out so that the product and natural oils can penetrate the entire shaft from roots to end,” Phillips said.

That’s why non-Black hair may be prone to greasiness, but afro-textured hair is more prone to dryness, breakage and less-pliability, especially after washing.

As a result, Black hair does not benefit from daily washing. This can put stress on the strands, stripping it of its natural oils and drying out the hair.

It can also lead to split ends which can travel up the hair shaft, leading to more breakage, Phillips said.

How to take care of Black hair

Moisture retention for Black hair is key.

It’s a point that hairstylist and natural hair growth and care expert Whitney Eaddy stresses in her own methodologies.

“We tend to put heavier products on our hair because it does defy gravity, and it helps contain it,” said Eaddy, who also heads several hair companies, including the Juices N’Berries product line.

But she says there is a difference between hydration and moisture.

“A lot of people will reach for thick butters and oils in hopes of retaining moisture, but our hair ultimately requires hydration,” she said.

“In my definition, this is a mix of water, soft-natural proteins such as oats, rice, silk-amino acids and also vitamins.”

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Eaddy encourages the use of products that are water-based to hydrate the hair, and to bolster the moisturizing process with the use of steam treatments.

“What the steam does is open up the hair shaft and the cuticle and the follicles so that it can receive moisture,” said Eaddy. “You want to use a lighter conditioner as opposed to a heavy mask so that your hair shaft can open up and receive the moisture.”

Next comes locking in that moisture.

This could mean applying the “LOC” method (leave-in conditioner, oil and cream) or LCO method (leave-in conditioner, cream and oil) to help seal-in moisture.

Eaddy discourages the use of the heavier products because they will “just sit on top of the hair.”

“I like light oils,” she says. “I don’t like Jamaican black castor oil, it’s far too heavy … I don’t like coconut oil, it’s not water-soluble.”

Phillips has his own list of holy grail oils that includes grapeseed oil, jojoba oil and argan oil.

Healthy hairstyling is also important

As a result of the delicate nature of afro-textured hair, experts agree the choice of hairstyle can either promote healthy hair and length retention or hinder it.

“Women of colour tend to focus more on hairstyling than hair care and that has been a huge factor for a lot of damage that I see,” Eaddy said.

Luckily there are ways to style Black hair that won’t have you sacrificing healthy strands for style.

Natural Black hairstyles like flat-twists, two-strand twists, braids, bantu-knots, buns, cornrows and locs, also known as protective styles, are great for locking-in moisture and keeping your hair free from constant manipulation.

For Eaddy, these protective styles are vital for encouraging healthy hair, unlike other styles including sew-in weaves and box-braid hair extensions.

“With sew-ins, you have the thread and the tension the track sewn-in…that cause thinning and damage…if they were truly protective, they would help you retain length, they would help you retain health and moisture.”

Eaddy alternatively suggests doing styles with your own hair or wearing low-tension hair pieces.

“A wig worn properly, a wig that doesn’t damage your edges or have harmful clips or combs — anything that hurts going in is not good,” she said.

For 31-year-old content marketer Courtney Roberts, having wigs and weaves is considered protective style.

“When I had my wig or unit, I noticed that it definitely helped my hair grow out because your hair is kind of sitting there for a while under the unit.”

Her positive experience was conditional, however. She advises from personal experience to give the hair extra special treatment and care before installment, and of course, afterwards.

“Definitely prep your hair before you’re doing a protective style, since it’s probably going to be in the same style for about four to six weeks. I would do an overnight condition and I would also do like a co-wash,” Roberts said.

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The rules and expectations when it comes to moisture, however, are slightly different when you have locs, according to Grant.

She says naturally with locs (“dreads” or “dreadlocks”), the idea is to continue to have the hair actually “lock.” As a result, Grant believes adding conditioner or any types of creams that are oil-based makes it difficult for those locs to form.

But head stylist Sondra of Loc’N Twists hair studio in Brampton, Ont. told Global News that point is only true for tinier dreads like “Sisterlocks” or “Microlocks.”

“If you have regular-sized dreads, you may use a conditioner, but try to dissolve it as best as possible so it does not stick in your hair… with water, just add some water to it, so it becomes more liquid and not a paste,” she said.

No matter the texture or state the hair is in, Whitney Eaddy agrees the journey and learning experience towards healthy hair will be entirely unique to each individual.

“Patience is key,” said Eaddy.  “Learn what works for your hair and compare your hair to other people, because your hair journey is going to be different than your sister’s or your mother’s or your friend.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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