How to Avoid Fairy Knots, Those Stubborn Little Tangles in Natural Hair

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@aysha.sow / Design by Camden Dechert

If you’ve allowed your hair to grow a few inches in length, you know that tangles can happen. And if you have a bit more texture in your mane, then you’ve probably noticed that it can be challenging to prevent knots from happening. Those waves, curls, and coils can essentially make your natural hair a tangle magnet if you don’t take precautions. 

The occurrence can be so frequent that you may develop a tangle in a single strand—or as the natural hair community likes to call it, a fairy knot (because a knot of this size could only have been created by a mischievous sprite).

What Are Fairy Knots?

Fairy knots are the tiny, stubborn knots that form in single strands of hair, most often in natural, curly, kinky, and coily hair types.

The technical term for a fairy knot is trichonodosis, but the former is certainly the much cuter name. According to the International Journal of Trichology, trichonodosis can be spontaneous or caused by mechanical factors such as "vigorous scratching or combing the hair."

Fairy knots also tend to occur in curly to kinky hair textures more often due to the hair follicles being oval-like in shape, which in turn, encourages tangles within single strands of hair. Fret not, though, because fairy knots can be treated at home. We tapped two experts to share their best tips for preventing and treating these stubborn knots.

Meet the Expert

  • Jamila Powell is the founder and CEO of Naturally Drenched, and owner of Maggie Rose Salon, one of the top texture salons in the country.
  • Shab Reslan is a certified trichologist and hairstylist based in New York City, specializing in hair growth and scalp health. 


Ready for tangle-free hair? Check out nine ways to get rid of fairy knots in natural hair.

01 of 09

Do a Pre-Shampoo Treatment

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A pre-poo treatment is meant for moisturizing your hair before you actually cleanse it with shampoo. Ensuring your hair isn’t stripped of oil will help minimize the chance of fairy knots. You can make a pre-poo at home with essential oils or buy an already prepared one at a store.

"Prior to washing, I like to add pure oil to my hair (shea butter, coconut oil) to reduce the chances of getting tangles during the wash," says Powell. "Typically, I’ll let the oil sit in my hair for at least 30 minutes before getting it wet."

If you need help determining what type of pre-poo treatment you should do, take a look at Byrdie’s instructional guide

02 of 09

Try Braiding Mid-Wash

If you struggle to manage your hair during wash day, you may benefit from working in braided sections. This tactic allows you to shampoo and condition without encouraging tangles in the process. Dividing your hair in half and creating about four medium-sized braids on each side is a good place to start.

Generally, braids hold up better when wet than two-strand twists, but you can go with whichever is easiest for you to do. Just make sure to re-braid or re-twist when your hair gets undone to keep tangles and fairy knots at bay.

03 of 09

Wear a Protective Style

One of the best ways to keep fairy knots away is with protective styles. "Braided styles and double-strand twists are great for preventing fairy knots," explains Powell.

However, if protective styles aren’t your favorite, you can opt for styles that stretch out your natural hair instead. Elongated curls simply tangle less frequently. Just make sure you stretch your tresses evenly all throughout and that you keep it all pulled in the same direction to avoid knotting. "You’ll want a style that stretches the hair strands all the way to the ends to avoid any chances of those pesky knots," says Powell.

For heat-free hair stretching options that'll help you prevent fairy knots before they start, check out this guide for extending natural hair.

04 of 09

Avoid Combing Through the Knot

Even though your first instinct may be to comb through the knot, Reslan says that could make it worse. "The most effective and least damaging method to eliminate any kind of knot in the hair is to first avoid any kind of brushing or combing through the knot as that increases the tensions and only fortifies the knot," she says.

"Instead, you should attempt detangling by separating the strands of hair away from each other. To further describe that, think of using your index and thumb from each hand and separating the strands in opposite directions to help untangle by potentially pulling one strand out of the mess at a time," Reslan explains. 

Your natural hair can be enhanced when you tip your head over and give it a good scrunch. Unfortunately, that movement can make fairy knots happen. Instead, you should stretch your stands downward when you apply your styling products. When your hair dries, you can use an afro pick to enhance volume if desired.

05 of 09

Hydrate With a Deep Conditioner

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Another method to get rid of a fairy knot that you already have involves a keen eye, a bottle of conditioner, a rattail comb, and some diligence. When you have the fairy knot singled out, you’ll need to apply conditioner right on that tiny bulb. Gently rub until you finally see the knot start to part and proceed to undo it with the pointed tip of the comb.

The process should be reminiscent of all the times you’ve used a stick-like object to remove a knot from your shoelaces. Though you should avoid any jabbing movement with your rattail comb or you might risk causing frays along the hair shaft.

06 of 09

Get Trims Regularly

You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth noting again that getting regular trims can help prevent the need for a more drastic haircut you might not want (in the event of an incurable fairy knot). The ends of your hair are older than the hair that is growing from your scalp, and therefore they require a fair amount of TLC due to their fragility. "Split ends, although at the ends of hair, can be a reason all on their own for causing two strands of differing lengths of hair to link," explains Reslan. "Whether it’s the split ends getting caught together or one split end hooking into the cuticle of another strand." 

On average, most people grow around six inches of hair per year. If you have hair that is 12 inches long, then your ends are roughly two years old. This means those ends have gone through every wash and detangle session, every heat or chemical process, and all of the friction and tugging from styling. The longer your hair, the more your ends have endured in their lifespan.

"I would recommend getting a trim every three to four months at the latest," says Powell. "The more time you wait between cuts, the more vulnerable your ends become. Maintaining healthy ends will really help prevent fairy knots."

The wear and tear that comes with everyday styling can not only hurt your ends, but it can travel up the hair shaft and cause splits and tangles in areas that aren’t ideal for length retention. All this can be minimized with a small trim. Removing a half-inch is a good starting point, but you may be able to get away with more or less depending on your hair’s condition and overall length goals.

07 of 09

Sleep in a Silk Bonnet

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"There are so many ways to prevent fairy knots, but in my opinion, sleeping with a satin pillowcase or silk bonnet will really help avoid these tangles at the ends of your hair," says Powell. "I love Grace Eleyae’s Silk Twist Turban because it is double-lined silk and also helps evenly distribute the hair’s natural oils. I wake up without bedhead or frizz!"

A silk pillowcase can also help as it is proven to reduce friction (as compared to traditional cotton), which can prevent your hair from tangling and losing moisture while you sleep.

08 of 09

Use the "Search and Destroy" Method

Although it’s a good practice to get trims, cutting any significant part of hair can still be an emotional trigger for some. That’s when the search-and-destroy method comes in handy. If you haven’t heard the term before, don’t worry, it’s harmless. All you need are your fingers, eyes, a pair of scissors, and patience.

To effectively search-and-destroy, you’ll have to part your hair into small, manageable sections and glide your hands throughout. While you are doing this, your fingers will have to “feel” for the fairy knots, which typically causes a slight snag on the fingertip from the knot’s tiny bead-like shape. With your eyes closely following your fingers’ movements, you’ll hone in the fairy knot in question and quickly snip above the knot to permanently remove it.

Repeat the process for every fairy knot you come across. Like anything else in life, the more you do it, the better and faster you’ll get. But, to be completely honest, it is a time-consuming method. If you can remain dedicated, your crown of glory will reap all the benefits that come from stopping hair damage in its tracks.

09 of 09

Detangle While You're Still in the Shower

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Getting rid of knots in natural hair is typically much easier when it’s wet and slathered in conditioner. The moisture (both from the water and the conditioner) helps your detangling tool glide effortlessly through hair while loosening fairy knots.

"It’s vital to use a moisturizing shampoo and conditioner that can penetrate your strands," says Powell. "When washing, I will load up my ends with a conditioner, like the SeneGence HairPlenish Conditioner ($35), which is great for dry hair, let it sit for about five minutes, and then stretch the ends with my fingers and comb out the hair by hand. This helps align the strands and detangle them."

As far as brushes go, Powell says to use one with flexible bristles. "I would heavily recommend only using your fingers for this process, but when I do use a brush, I use the Brush with the Best because the flexible rubber bristles minimize the chances of additional breakage."

FAQ
  • Can fairy knots damage hair?

    These knots can cause damage and breakage to your hair, especially if they get caught on other pieces of your hair. For that reason, it is good to prevent them from forming in the first place, and properly remove the ones that have already formed.

  • Why is 4c hair so prone to fairy knots?

    4c hair is curly and coily, therefore, when hairs naturally shed or fall out, they tend to get knotted up into other hairs, versus falling out of your hair.

  • Do you have to cut out fairy knots?

    Getting regular trims will help prevent fairy knots, but trying some of the techniques above, such as using conditioner to help loosen the knot, may remove the knot without requiring you to snip it out.

  • Will fairy knots go away on their own?

    Most likely not. Once your hair has a knot, you must either snip it off or attempt to detangle it. 

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