Wearing your natural hair in a protective hairstyle (think braids, twists, wigs, weaves and more) involves styling your hair in a way that blocks it from damage.
A protective style is “any style that allows you to cover your hair and specifically tuck away the ends,” according to African Pride brand educator and celebrity hairstylist Monae Everett. This includes sew-in weaves, two-strand twists, braids and wigs.
Of these options, certified hair practitioner and owner of Absolutely Everything Curly Gaby Nijbroek considers glueless wigs the ultimate protective style. “I’m not a huge fan of protective styles because I think they’re usually too tight, which can cause traction alopecia or scarring alopecia,” she told HuffPost. “A wig doesn’t put pressure on the follicle the way weaves do or some braids can do.”
Protective styles are meant to be a low-maintenance and fashionable way to keep your natural hair healthy and help with length retention, but low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance. If you’re not taking care of your natural hair at its root, the style isn’t all that protective.
Proper hair care can be even more difficult during the winter, when you may need a bit more TLC to keep strands moisturized and avoid breakage. If you’re relying on protective styles, you’ll need to make sure you’re actively treating your own hair to avoid damage or hair loss.
We spoke to the experts to find out how to actually protect your tresses underneath that fabulous protective style, especially in cold weather. Here’s what they said.
Cold weather makes hair susceptible to more damage.
“Cold weather will pretty much leach the moisture out of your hair,” said Dr. Isfahan Chambers-Harris, a trichologist and co-founder of Alodia Haircare. Chambers-Harris who adds that winter clothing is also another winter culprit: “That type of material can leach moisture out of your hair and cause friction. This leads to a lot of overall dryness for the hair.”
This can be especially bad for those who tend to have chronic scalp conditions. “The moisture levels in the hair will go down and you can experience breakage,” Chambers-Harris said.
What steps can you take to protect your hair?
Proper protective style maintenance starts before you get your hair done. To prep your hair, Nijbroek recommended making sure your scalp is free of buildup and strands are properly moisturized and trimmed. “If you haven’t had a trim in a while, get a trim or at least a dusting off the ends.”
Once the style is in, you’ll need a regular care regimen to keep your hair and scalp moisturized. Nijbroek suggests using six to eight drops of jojoba oil daily to lubricate the hair follicle. “You can’t quite reproduce sebum, but the one that comes closest is jojoba oil.”
Harris is a fan of weekly deep conditioning treatments and using thicker consistency products to keep your hair from drying out during the week. “That thicker consistency is letting you know there’s emollient properties such as honey, that are rich and attract moisture to the hair strand,” she said.
At night, tie hair in a silk scarf, bonnet or hair buff as you would your natural hair, and sleep on silk or satin pillowcases. Nijbroek added that you should “try to put the hair on top of your head (in a pineapple) while you’re sleeping so you’re not rolling on it,” as rolling on your hair may pull at the style and cause tension at the root.
She also says you never want to go to bed with wet or damp hair, as this might give fungus a chance to grow. Everett advises using a hooded dryer if possible, to avoid high heat damage and mildew.
As tempting as it might be to make your look last, try not to keep it in too long. Four to six weeks is ideal, but leave it in for more than eight weeks and you’ll risk damage.
When it’s time to take out your style, keep being gentle! Everett likes mixing leave-in conditioner, aloe and olive oil to help remove buildup. “Go one braid at a time and saturate the roots. Use your fingers to break up the buildup before you comb the root,” she said.
Once the style is completely out, she stresses the importance of a trim, even if you are going for length retention. “You definitely want to trim your hair every eight weeks or so,” she told HuffPost. “You want to cut off the damage before it starts. Once you have the smallest amount of damage, combing or brushing the hair will allow the damage to split further up the hair shaft.”
If after cleansing, deep conditioning and trimming, you feel ready to try another protective style, wait a while. Harris says your follicles will need to rest for at least four to six weeks between high-tension hairstyles. In the meantime, she recommends keeping it cute with other low-manipulation styles with your own hair like twist outs, braid outs or anything that doesn’t cause too much tension.