Growing long natural hair is not so much a matter of how much money you are willing to spend as it is a matter of finding those things that work for you and your hair. Not every single thing will work for all hair types. And, there is a lot out there product-wise! It can be a confusing and annoying journey if you are using the wrong things but have no idea where to start to get the right things for your own hair.
First, we must toss out the idea that there are products that only one ethnicity of people should be using. If you have coarse and kinky hair and are of Irish decent, then you should be using products best for that hair type. Likewise, if you are of African decent and you have baby fine hair then you should be using items best for that kind of hair. It is the type of hair that is important, not the ethnic background.
Second, and you may not want to hear this… you will probably have to cease using harsh chemical treatments and heat devices to get strong and healthy hair. Fine haired and medium textured folks will find that with repeated use of chemicals like commercial hair dye, perms and relaxers that their hair is quite literally falling in shreds each time they comb their hair. Hot flat irons, crimpers and curling irons may flash fry the hair and in the worst case scenario, melt your hair together. Best case is repeated mechanical damage which leads to split ends and broken hair. Those of us with non-porous and coarser hair will find that they can do a lot more to their relatively tougher hair before it gives up and starts to break and split. If your goal is hair about shoulder length or shorter the damage from dye and heat is not as important. But if you want anything longer it is something important to consider that you will have the same hair strands for up to 7 years. If the strands are damaged they will look bad and will break easier then if they are undamaged.
A last thing to consider with commercial dyes is that many of them (almost all in the US, even the ‘natural’ ones) contain p-phenylenediamine (PPD). This is a chemical that is not approved by the FDA for direct contact with the skin. It has high risk of allergic reaction and possibly causes bladder cancer. Think about that, can you dye your hair without some of that getting on your scalp, face or neck? At best you get a burned scalp, at worst you can die. I personally use henna on my hair. It’s one of a number of non-harmful plants that can be used safely to change hair color.
Non damaging styling tools include damp braids for curls, damp buns for straighter hair, rag curlers, pin curls, twist outs… a web search will give you hundreds of options. No matter what you choose to do always remember that the grass is often greener looking on the other side of the fence. Someone somewhere would love to have what you were lucky to be born with.
Shampoo and conditioner.
These are the basics for any hair care routine. Or, I should say, they can be the basis for a hair care routine. Some people opt for neither and some people opt for just the one. If your goal is long healthy hair then your conditioner is more important then your shampoo and that is irregardless of hair type.
There are four broad kinds of products.
There are silicone and non-silicone products. Silicones in and of themselves are not harmful and can even fulfill a good purpose, they smooth the hair’s appearance and can temporarily make the hair look very nice. They also help with detangling by giving the have more slip. Silicone containing products can be spotted by looking at the ingredients list. Look for items ending in ‘-cone’, it really is that simple. When over-used they can dull the hair, suck the body out and just make the hair look and feel bad in general. Many silicones in use today are water soluble, meaning they will wash off easily. There are still a few that do not and these are the ones that lead to buildup on the hair.
Products can further be classed as being sulfate and non-sulfate. This distinction refers to what what the cleansing agent used in the shampoo or conditioner is. The sulfates in question are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SleS). Both of these are very inexpensive cleansers found in most commercial cleaners, from shampoo to car engine degreaser. The huge controversy with the these products in the natural hair care world is that these cleansers can be very drying to many people. Some people have reported increased hair loss and irritation when using them.
First, a very basic proper washing technique. Do not pile you hair on top of your head. That just tangles it. Wet your hair. Apply the cleanser to the hands and run the hands down the wet hair after first lightly rubbing the scalp with soapy fingers. Using fingers but not nails gently scrub the scalp in a circular motion. You want to remove all the gunk, gently. Leaving gunk on the scalp can lead to hair loss. Work your way down your hair, if it is long enough. Rinse. Condition. If you have longer hair or hair that is very prone to drying out you can confine the soap to the area of the head above the ears and put a bit of conditioner on the length as you rinse soap down it. Last thing, only wash twice with conditioner if you have extremely dirty hair. Most people only need one wash unless they have done something to get dirty.
There are a few different methods for hair washing. There is the traditional shampoo, then conditioner (SC). Next is condition, shampoo, condition (CWC). Some find that a conditioner only method works best for them (CO). Last one I shall touch on is the water only method (WO).
SC- Shampoo then conditioner works fine for most people and is perfectly acceptable for those with shoulder length and above hair. It’s what the back of the bottles suggest after all.
CWC- Conditioner, shampoo, conditioner works well too. It works on the principle that the SLS and SleS or other cleansers in shampoo can strip the hair too much and cause drying. Therefore you ‘soak’ the hair in a cheap conditioner to protect it before washing. Shampoo then condition as normal.
CO- Conditioner only folks are following the ‘curly girl’ method. This is a method designed for those with curly hair to prevent their hair drying out and to emphasize their natural curl. Since most conditioner also includes low levels of cleanser it works well. They take a nice big glob of a cheap conditioner without silicones (a favorite ‘washing’ conditioner is the Suave Naturals line) and massage it into their hair being sure to scrub the scalp well. Then they allow it to sit in their hair to work. A general time is around ten minutes. Then rinse. Many will then apply a heavier conditioner, also silicone free to the length but not the crown. Garnier Triple Nutrition is a popular choice but is not the only one.
WO- Water only is just what it sounds like. These folks only use water to cleanse their hair. These use a number of techniques to move the natural oils down their hair such as boar bristle brushing and ‘scritching’ between washes. This is the only hair washing technique I have not personally tried as it can have a notoriously long transitional period.
Don’t be afraid to try a non-standard washing method. It may be the one your hair prefers. I personally use a mix of CWC and CO on my fine/medium thick curly hair. The normal shampoo/conditioner left it frizzy and drier feeling. But the other methods really improved how it looks. A last note on hair washing techniques. It is beyond my scope to go into ‘curly girl’ in depth here. If you self typed as 3 or above or used LOIS to describe your hair then that method may be worth learning more about.
Oil for hair? Yes! The sebum you produce naturally contains essential fatty acids. These are required by hair to remain soft and pliable. But those of us with longer hair or curly hair do not often get enough of those EFAs into the lower lengths of our hair. We either ruin out of oil before we run out of hair or our hair bends and the oils are unable to further coat the shaft or we have thrown our natural production off with the use of cleansers. No matter, this is what hair oils are for.
There are a number of oils that work well on hair. A few commonly used hair oils are coconut, extra virgin olive oil, jojoba oil, argan oil and mixtures of castor oil with lighter oils. Coconut oil is at room temperature a solid and can be found in many box stores cooking sections. It is used to ‘seal’ the ends of still damp clean hair after a wash, as an all-over prewash treatment on dry hair and can be rubbed into the scalp to relieve the feeling of dryness. Coconut is often the first to be recommended to a new hair oil user as it is inexpensive, easy to find and use and very versatile. Food grade is the preferred kind for hair, even better if has a smell of coconuts to it still. To use on takes enough to make a small melted puddle about dime sized to start off with in the palm of the hand. Starting at the ends of the hair you just gentle rub it in.
Jojoba is technically a liquid wax. It is one of the few natural oils to be able to truly soak into the hair shaft and help condition from within. It can be found in some box stores and health food stores. It is one of the better hair oils for porous hair I’m told. Argan oil is a more expensive oil and is currently enjoying a lot of popularity. It is often mixed with other oils to keep cost down but still provide benefits.
Castor oil is a very thick oil with a million skin and hair care uses. In hair care it is often rubbed into the scalp mixed with olive oil a half hour or more before washing it the hair to provide deep moisturization to the scalp and because it may help a person grow more hair. (The theory is that since it is anti-fungal it helps kill fungus that may be on the scalp. I do not know if this is true or not, however anecdotal evidence says there may be something to it.)
Extra virgin olive oil has a lot going for it. It’s cheap so you can use it for warm oil treatments and not break the bank. It’s easy to find anywhere, unlike other oils. It has a long shelf life… and you can use it to cook with as well! A common way to use this oil is to soak the hair with warmed oil till the hair is well saturated. Wrap the head in plastic wrap and leave it for at least a half hour. Wash and condition as normal.
There are of course less commonly used oils such as almond oil, grape seed oil, shea butter, wheat germ and flaxseed oil. People often add essential oils to their treatments or use commercially prepared oil blends too. Rosemary and tea tree are popular for this but do your research! When searching for your preferred oil you may have to try a few before you get the one your hair craves.
A word of warning. You may wish to avoid mineral oil and sunflower oil. Mineral oil can give sensitive people an itchy scalp and requires a sulphate to remove it. Since it is not water soluble, it will not let moisture into the hair shaft until removed which will lead to dried out hair unless done regularly. Mineral oil is found in many so-called ‘ethnic’ products. Sunflower is both unable to penetrate hair and it does not protect the hair from loss of moisture or protein. It also has a short shelf life which means it goes rancid fast.
Natural Treatments and Clarifying.
Henna. Alma. Cassia. Catnip. Indigo. Aloe Gel. Honey. Apple Cider Vinegar. Lemon Juice. These are just a few of the natural substances which we can use to improve the condition of our hair. While the majority of people find these items to be completely safe never use something you know yourself to be allergic to and if you have never used an herb, do an allergy test of the proper sort.
Henna, or Lawsonia inermis is on e of the longest used plants for hair care. It has been in use since at least the time of Ancient Greece. It yields an orange-red dye but that is not its only benefit. It is a superb protein treatment. It coats the hair, helping to fill in damaged areas and to strengthen and thicken individual hair strands. People with all hair types can benefit. The dye it deposits is called lawsone. It is a direct deposit dye which means it does not damage your hair when you use it. It also has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It’s good for your scalp, helps with dandruff and the dye is very permanent.. unlike most red dyes. It even works on gray hair! It gives my gray a lovely Irish red. It is absolutely stunning in the sun and gives great three dimensional highlights.
There are some negatives. The dye is very permanent. Most people will have to cut their hair to remove it. It can loosen curl. It does stain the skin of the hands very easily. Some very few are allergic or have a medical condition that precludes them using it. See your doctor if you are unsure! It is not something you can do in a half hour; this stuff is an all day thing. (I use it as an excuse for a ‘spa day’ at my house!) It can be messy to apply to your first time. It cannot lighten your hair. Blondes get bright reds, brunettes get auburn and deeper red and black haired folk get lovely red highlights.
If you decide to use henna always use body art quality or at least 100% henna powder for your mix. A few popular brands are Jamilia, Rajasthani and Mumtaz. You can find them on-line or if you are lucky, a local Indian grocery.
Cassia obovata or ‘neutral henna’ gives many of the same benefits of henna but without the red dye. It will give grays and dull blond hair a more golden gleam. Indigo is sometimes called ‘black henna’ (BEWARE: use a reputable source. Some sellers will try to pass off a chemical mess full of PPD as ‘black henna’.) It yields a long lasting blue-black dye which is often mixed with henna to give a full range of browns. Honey and cinnamon are used to naturally lighten hair.
Herbs can be used for more then just dying. A catnip tea rinse (yes, the stuff your cat loves) can help prevent split ends and condition hair. Alma is another traditional Indian herb for hair conditioning. It is often found in commercial hair oil treatm ents. It can be added to henna and cassia dye mixes to help curly hair stay curly. Aloe gel (not the numbing kind) is a humectant. When used in mid to high humidity it draws moisture into hair and is a very nice light hold gel to boot. A teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in a half liter of water makes a nice after wash hair rinse. It reseals hair cuticles and can help with dandruff. A few drops of lemon juice in the same amount of water helps many people with frizz. (Most people rinse these out after massaging them in.)
These are just a few of the natural substances out there that can help give lovely healthy hair. As always, do your research and remember any natural herb or product can be as dangerous as any man-made product if you are sensitive.
Clarification. Chelation. Deep Treatment.
So you’ve been taking good care of your hair, avoiding the heat, using a good oil and it still looks unhappy? You may need to clarify, you may need to chelate or you just may need a good deep treatment.
Clarification refers to the process of removing a few kinds of buildup on the hair. Protein and silicone buildup are easy to remove with a cheap clarifying shampoo. Protein build up will give you dry, snarly ends and tangle prone hair. Silicone build up is recognized by a lack of body, ‘flat’ dull hair and a general dry feeling. If the silicones are bad enough you can use a water and baking soda mix followed by a vinegar rinse to remove all the buildup. This can be very drying though.
Chelation is used to remove mineral build up. This is done with a special kind of shampoo. Your hair may look like a fluffy, mat prone, tangly mess. Mineral buildup is common in areas with hard water.
Perhaps you just need a good deep treatment. You can use any number of commercial products. You can use your favorite oil liberally and allow it to soak in over night. You can even use your own mixtures. Common ingredients in homemade mixtures are silicone free conditioners mixed with honey, oils, avocado, coconut milk and clear non-numbing aloe vera gel. Often these are heated till warm, slathered thickly on the hair and wrapped up in plastic for 30 minutes or longer. A very effective mixture goes by the name of Snowymoon’s Moisture Treatment. It is basically four parts silicone -free conditioner to one part honey and one part aloe gel. See the links section for more information on this treatment.
In Part Three I will finally get to good tools. Stay tuned!