The truth about protective styling? Most people are doing it completely wrong.
If you've been protective styling your hair for months on end with no sign of progress, then you need to take a long hard look at your process.
To grow longer hair or thicker hair through protective styling, you need to do it smart. Here's why most of us usually do it dumb - and the 5 necessary steps to smart protective styling that gets results.
When protective styling is not helping your growth...
Hands up if any of these situations sounds even vaguely familiar:
You've been braided up for 10 out of the last 12 months - and your hair still isn't any longer than this time last year.
You cover your hair with a wig 7 days a week, use a wig cap and rub on that oil recommended by your favourite beauty guru and still your hair hasn't grown.
You've been wearing your hair in twists pretty much exclusively for years now. You wash your hair in twists, condition in twists, do everything in twists - you don't take them down until it's time for retwisting. And still, no length progress to speak of.
Any of these scenarios ring a bell?
Protective styling doesn't always help grow your hair longer. Image by Ogo.
If they do, you've probably asked yourself this already - Does protective styling really grow hair?
Experiencing long-term failure with protective styling might make it seem like this method doesn't work, but here's the short answer: Protective styling does work. If it isn't working for you, guess what? You're just doing it wrong.
Why so many people get protective styling wrong
The biggest mistake most people make with protective styling is that we automatically assume it's something we already know how to do. That's probably because many of us knew how to braid and twist long before the term "protective styling" was coined. When confirmation of the benefits arrived from the natural hair movement, it was easy to think, I got this.
But do we?
Not really. A lot of our habits and practices around haircare are completely off, if we're shooting for longer, stronger or thicker hair.
3 ways protective styles damage hair
Many braided and twisted styles are created in a way that neglects rather than protects and, in many cases, even damages the hair. Too many braiders still braid way too tight. We've all seen the fresh braids with the scalp pulled so taut there are little bumps of traumatised skin popping up among the rows of immaculate plaits.
Then there are the cornrows sewn so tight that they rip and scar the scalp, just to make sure the weave install on top is laid. Tension at the hairline from many protective styles can lead to traction alopecia. And on top of this, sometimes we get so focused on keeping our protective style neat, we forego essential haircare steps just to maintain the look.
How SMART protective styling can help grow your hair longer
If we want to get the full benefits out of protective styling, we have to do it in a way that looks at the long term, and cares more for our hair. So how do we do that?
SMART protective styling won't damage your hair. Image by Vision Perspective.
The simplest way is to start before you even style your hair. Check that your intended style fits SMART protective styling criteria and rule out any style that doesn't. These are the boxes a protective style has to tick if it's going to protect your hair and create the conditions for optimal growth:
Protective styling: Structure
Your strands need a good degree of structure within your protective style. Otherwise, they will start falling across each other at weird angles, causing tangles and matting. That's why it's important to maintain strand alignment from the very beginning.
This is especially true if you are creating protective styles without extensions. Using added hair helps hold hair in the style - when you're just using your own hair you'll need extra help, usually in the form of styling products - to make sure random strands don't leave the style.
Ensure your protective style has good structure, to prevent stray hairs tangling. Image by Caio Cardenas.
Otherwise, you risk leaving your hair to get tangled in your twists, braids or cornrows - increasing the chance that it will break later when you take them down it.
So be careful to section your hair properly - part it with your fingers or a comb to make sure that there are no stray strands ready to cause tangles. Before you braid or twist, detangle and moisturise each section with a leave in that increases strand alignment, like La Aplanadora Leave In.
Then seal it with a soft gel (homemade flax seed gel is a good idea) or a non-greasy butter or cream (you can use murumuru butter) to hold it in place when you braid or twist. Once the hair sets this way, it will help prevent stray hairs later.
Protective styling: Moisture
Then there's the moisture factor. No style is protective if it's not moisturised. Without hydration, your hair's just not going to grow long. Any growth that happens at the scalp, you'll lose in length at the ends because your hair is so dry it breaks off from the slightest touch.
One of the main ways your hair gets moisture is when you wash it. Still, lots of people mistakenly think that they don't need to wash their hair when it's braided up or that washing will mess up their braids.
Washing is the most effective way to hydrate your hair and won't mess up your braids if done properly.
Both of these are false. Your hair gets dirty whether it's braided or loose. Even if you were in a pristine environment with no dirt, your scalp would still be producing sebum and sweat which needs to be washed off before it clogs your scalp and hair.
The irony is, gentle washing and conditioning can actually keep your natural hair neat in the braid because hydrated hair tends to lie smoother.
Hydration from gentle washing and conditioning, helps keep braids looking fresh. Image by Nappy.
Washing is even more important with the current trend for braiding the hair with a lot of product to keep the roots neat. That means even more buildup on the hair - buildup which blocks moisture. The only way to ensure your hair gets enough moisture is to regularly remove all that product residue which can accumulate on your strands. And the only way to do this is by washing it.
Luckily, washing your hair in braids is actually easier than washing loose natural hair. And if you have the right method, even sew-in weaves can be washed.
Braid hair fibres can suck moisture from your hair
Neglecting your hair by leaving moisture to evaporate on its own from your strands is bad enough. But some styles with extension hair fibres actively leach moisture and oils from your hair. Braided and twisted styles are the biggest culprits, because most of the fibres used in these extensions are very absorbent, and because they are wrapped down the entire length of the hair.
If you choose this type of protective style, make sure you take every necessary step to stay hydrated. You'll need to wash your braids regularly and moisturise often too. That way, you can maximise the amount of length you're able to keep at the end of the style.
Protective styling: Access
Access to your own hair to cleanse and moisturise is key with protective styles. Image by Bestbe Models.
Access is also important for cleaning your strands since buildup on the hair itself leads to matting, dryness and breakage. And access matters for a third reason: moisture. If you can't get to your hair to moisturise it, then your hair is going to break off in your so-called protective style.
So avoid any wigs or weaves that glue a covering over your hair which you can't remove every day to care for your hair and scalp underneath. If you're wearing a sew-in, don't be overzealous with sewing your cornrows up. Too tight and it will make it nigh on impossible to get moisture to your hair or get residue and impurities out. And remember, your scalp needs air, too.
Cornrows should be sewn looser on sew-in weaves to minimise tension. Image by Samantha Steele.
Access is a major point when it comes to protective styling. If a style doesn't give you access to your scalp to cleanse - which you should be doing as normal when you have braids or other extensions - then it's simply not worth it. Healthy hair doesn't happen without a healthy scalp, and a filthy scalp is rarely healthy.
Braids that are too small or that have too much hair added also make it difficult for moisture to penetrate. They can also be hard to remove at the end, resulting in breakage, so should be avoided.
Likewise, with cornrow extensions, don't make them too small or too close together. If it's hard to reach the hair in each individual cornrow or the scalp in between, then you know your cornrows are too small.
Protective styling: Resistance-free
Where there's gravity, like here on Earth, nothing can be 100% resistance-free. Friction is a fact of life in non-laboratory conditions. But when it comes to our hair, we need to minimise it. Hair naturally gets some low-level damage from its own interfibre friction, when strands rub against each other.
Anytime you add a new fibre, whether thread, a weft or extension hair, you heighten that friction. Constant rubbing from a rough surface can even create micro-cracks in your hair shaft.
How to minimise resistance or friction
To lower the friction your hair's exposed to, make sure the fibres that you add to your hair are as smooth to the touch as possible. The same goes for any hats, head wraps or scarves you are using to cover up your hair, too.
For extension braids and twists, use the best quality hair you can find. Cheap quality extension fibres are one of the most damaging things you can do to your hair when you braid or twist it because they will be rubbing and scratching against your hair, all the way down from the scalp to the tip.
The same applies if you're using a weave and plan on blending your hair with the new hair: make sure it's not rougher than your own strands. And remember extensions need care too, so they can remain supple and not compromise your own strands. With wigs, make sure they're well-fitted and worn with a wig cap to minimise friction.
Run your fingers along extensions to check the texture. Image by Uñas Esculpidas Mara Natural.
Tension-free protective styles
A purely tension-free style is also more of a goal rather than a reality. Apart from leaving your hair completely loose, all hairstyles take some tension to create.
But the level of tension shouldn't be so high that you can feel it.
A weave shouldn't be so tight that you can't scratch your scalp if it itches, braids shouldn't be so stiff at the root - even a fresh set, that you can't put your head down on a pillow to sleep. Ponytails and buns shouldn't leave you with a dull ache or a permanently surprised facial expression.
We all know that braiding too tightly is a big source of tension. One less considered is the size of the braid. The amount of hair added should roughly match the amount of hair that naturally grows in the section it's being braided onto. Otherwise the extension could be too heavy for the hair to hold, causing hair loss.
Wigs and weaves have caused some of the most eye-watering cases of traction alopecia. Lace fronts especially can cause serious, irreversible damage to your edges. The pressure to have your hair laid is real and a lot of women are sacrificing their hair and hairline just to get to it.
Pressure to make hair weaves lie as flat as possible can damage hair. Image by Frankie Cordoba.
But if your focus is on protective styling, you know that's not for you. You're using these styles as a means to an end - healthy hair that grows long. Anything that goes against that will take you off your mission and should be avoided.
When it comes to tension, there is only one rule: if it feels tight or hurts, take it out - immediately. No style, protective or not, is worth going bald over.
If you're serious about growing your natural hair long, you need to be serious about SMART protective styling too. Take care of every letter on this checklist, from Structure to Tension-Free, and keep growing your hair longer - and retaining every single inch, too.