In the world of protective styles, there’s one that has been worn in the media for at least three decades—we’re talking about box braids. Janet Jackson definitely played a role in popularizing the style statewide with her debut film Poetic Justice in 1993.
More recently, popular celebrities like Beyoncé and Solange have worn the style, as well as Gabrielle Union, Zoe Kravitz, Tia Mowry and many others. But box braids and several other braided styles originated in Africa as far back as 3500 B.C. And if you’re a real history buff, you might be pleased to hear that experts say the box braids of today aren’t that different from what was worn by the people of Namibia and the Nile Valley all those years ago.
Ahead, we've rounded up everything you need to know before you schedule your hair appointment, along with expert tips from a certified trichologist (aka a hair specialist).
What are box braids?
For the uninitiated, box braids are three-stranded plaits. They aren’t too different from standard braids, but they are certainly more defined since the tension that is applied to the braids are enough to prevent fly-aways. And unlike cornrows, box braids are not braided flat against the scalp—hair is sectioned off into precisely shaped squares (or boxes) all throughout the scalp and gets braided down its entire length, so you can shake your freestanding plaits to your heart’s content. To get added length, volume, and protection, many naturals and relaxed heads opt for extensions.
Kanekalon, a synthetic fiber that is used in most braiding hair packs, is commonly used to achieve the style due to its affordability and ability to withstand extreme heat for sealed ends (if rubber bands aren’t used). However, bulk human hair can also be used for a more natural look that’s environmentally friendly and sustainable. Though, this option is pricier and takes a bit more work since it’s real hair.
Whichever, hair extension type you choose, it can be reused for future box braids or other braiding styles.
Which braid size is right for your hair?
The hardest part about getting box braids is deciding on the thickness of your plaits. Making a decision becomes easier when you take consideration of your environment, says trichologist and stylist Bridgette Hill of Paul Labrecque Salon and Skincare Spa.
Meet the Expert
Bridgette Hill is a colorist and certified trichologist, referred to as "The Scalp Therapist" by her clients. As a certified trichologist, Bridgette works to bridge the gap between inner habits toward scalp and hair health through trichological scalp analysis and treatment. She divides her time between Paul Labrecque Salon and Spa in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.
In her own words, “The right size depends on your goals and purpose of choosing a braided style. Are you looking for a Bohemian beach beauty look for your week-long girls’ trip to the Caribbean? Or are you looking for a protective style to give your hair fibers a break from styling and manipulation?”
Aside from thinking about the climate you’ll be in, Hill stresses that your planned box braid duration should be discussed with your stylist. “The longer you plan to keep them in, the smaller the sections should be,” she says, though, she advises her clients to stay away from micro-sized braids. “I suggest that sections, at minimum, [should] at least be two fingers in width.”
What should a person do to prep their hair?
Since your hair will be tucked away for a few weeks or months at a time, pre-treating your locks are of utmost importance. Hill advises that anyone who gets box braids should do a scalp and protein treatment on dry, unwashed hair prior to the braiding appointment.
“Let these treatments sit on the hair for 30 minutes and shampoo and deep condition with an intense moisture-based conditioner for 10 to 15 minutes,” she says. And when it comes down to the actual braid install, Hill suggests that stylists spray a lightweight oil like almond or shea oil from root to ends "so that the fibers are protected with moisture and lubrication."
When it comes down to the age-old question of whether you should straighten your hair to get it braided, Hill admits that it does make the process easier and quicker, which is important since box braids take several hours to install.
Hair doesn’t have to be bone straight and sleek. A simple blow-dry or similar hair stretching method that elongates kinks and curls are enough to make a box braid session a breeze. It also minimizes tangling and breakage, which we’re sure nobody wants with their protective style.
Is there discomfort?
As many protective stylers know, traction alopecia can occur if your braids are too tight. To ensure that your hair stays intact, you’ll have to monitor your stylist’s technique for any discomfort.
If discomfort does occur, Hill advises clients to speak up. “Address the discomfort immediately,” she urges. “The braider should loosen any braid in real-time to reduce discomfort.”
In her line of work, she says any reputable braider will want to know a client’s scalp sensitivity, so they’ll know how much tension to use throughout the service. Therefore, the instant you feel uncomfortable, you should let your stylist know. Box braids shouldn’t be painful.
How long does it take to get box braids done?
Box braids are not a monolith. The style can be long or short, thick or thin. And depending on the look you’re going for, the hours you spend in a stylist’s chair can vary.
“The time it takes depends on the skill and technique of the braider and the hair type of the client who is getting the braids—not so much on the braid style,” Hill says. “On average, a quality braid style can take anywhere from four to eight hours.”
Real talk: If you’re going for a really elaborate or Rapunzel-length box braid style, you might want to bring a few magazines, a phone charger, and snacks with you.
What is the maintenance like?
Although box braids are meant to be a low-maintenance, protective style, there is still some upkeep that’s needed to ensure both your plaits and scalp are in tip-top shape.
Hill advises that the physical braids get spritzed with a moisturizing oil at least three to five times a week. The scalp, however, needs a little more TLC since it is the foundation for healthy hair.
“The scalp should be cleansed with natural cleansing oils such as citrus-based rosemary, which should be applied with a nozzle applicator bottle weekly,” she says. “Some scalps may need a diluted shampoo every other week or so.”
If that’s the case for your scalp, Hill suggests mixing shampoo and water in a nozzle applicator bottle and working the contents onto your scalp before getting into the shower. The mixture can sit for five to 10 minutes before it needs to be rinsed under a shower head.
Post-shower, you can apply a moisturizing oil spray and let the braids air-dry to completion. If you feel a hooded dryer or blower dryer is necessary, Hill says to make sure it is at a cool temperature.
How long do box braids last?
It might be tempting to leave your box braids in for as long as possible. Especially if your braids still look good months after the first installation. However, if you keep your braids in for too long, it can cause breakage, matting, and buildup on your new growth, which completely defeats the purpose of a protective style.
“Braids can last a maximum of 10 weeks if the hairline and nape are redone at the six-week mark,” Hill explains. “If the hairline and neck are not re-done at the six-week mark, eight weeks is the maximum amount of time you can keep your hair in a braided style.”