There are some hairstyles that are as beautiful as they are protective, not to mention so easy to achieve. Cornrow braids fall into this category. If you know the basics of braiding, you're already halfway there when it comes to learning how to cornrow. The difference, though, is that while braids or plaits hang freely from their individual sections, cornrows are braided to the scalp. "Cornrows are beautiful and shows our African heritage using some modern braiding techniques," says celebrity hairstylist Yene Damtew. "They represent freedom and have so much versatility—you can create different design patterns, and when they get old, you can take them out and enjoy a new hairstyle before washing your hair." To learn everything there is to know about cornrows, we consulted with Damtew along with pro hairstylist and braid expert Michelle O'Connor.
Meet the Expert
- Yene Damtew is a celebrity hairstylist to Former First Lady Michelle Obama and owner of Aesthetics Salon.
- Michelle O’Connor is a professional hairstylist and the Artistic Director at Matrix.
Keep reading for a step-by-step guide on how to braid cornrows.
Prep the Hair
To prevent frizz and add moisture, O'Connor recommends having this cacao-infused styling butter on hand. Apply to damp hair and let it air-dry before braiding.
Part Hair for Individual Cornrow Section
First, use the tail end of a rattail comb to create whatever size section you want. Skinnier sections will result in smaller cornrows, while larger sections will yield bigger cornrows. Here, a section is parted in front to create a cornrow directed to the side. "There is no one way to part for cornrows," notes O'Connor. "They can be done from the side, backwards to forwards, straight back, braids crossing over other braids, tiny braids beside bigger braids—the patterns available for braiding are endless."
Divide Hair Section into Three Parts for Braiding
At the hairline, divide the first section of hair into three equal parts as you would to begin any braid.
Begin Braiding Small Section
Begin to braid the small section of hair at the hairline. If you're new to braiding cornrows, O'Connor recommends starting with a basic style. "Straight back is the simplest form of cornrows to start with," she says. "After you've mastered it, you can then graduate to patterns, and then on to adding additional hair for extreme lengths."
Add Hair as You Braid
As you continue to braid the hair, add hair from the section you're braiding into the cornrow. This is where a braid turns into a cornrow, and this is what attaches the braid to the scalp. Each time you pick up one of the three pieces of hair to braid, gently pull hair from the parted off section and add it in as you braid. Add an even amount of hair each time for a uniform look.
Continue Braiding and Adding Hair to the Cornrow
Continue to braid the section of hair, adding more hair into the cornrow as you work your way toward the end. "Gradually pick up hair, adding it to the three sections from each side for there to be balance until you complete the style," says Damtew.
Damtew notes that depending on the braider and the style, braiding cornrows can take anywhere from 15 minutes on an easy style to up to four hours on a more intricate style. "Try not to get frustrated. Practice makes perfect and the more you do it, the easier it becomes," she says.
Detangle Sections of Hair
If you're creating cornrows on straightened or relaxed hair, you might not need to detangle as you braid. But natural hair, as pictured, needs to be detangled as you work your way down sections. Simply and gently pull your fingers through the hair to work your way through so that the braids will continue to be neat and uniform. Damtew recommends the Felicia Leatherwood Detangler Brush ($19) for getting rid of knots without breakage.
To really prevent breakage, it may be helpful to have a spray bottle nearby filled with water, a water and leave-in conditioner mixture, or a water and natural oil mixture to help with detangling.
Once you've braided the hair to the scalp, continue braiding if the hair is long. As these braids will not be attached to the head, you can braid them as you would regular braids.
Secure the Ends
To prevent cornrow ends from unraveling, you can curl them around your finger. (This will work better on natural hair.) For hair that's straight and whose ends won't stay together on their own, use snap-free rubber bands or barrettes like these Small Mini Elastics Rubber Hair Bands ($4).
Repeat Around the Head
Repeat the braiding process all the way around the head, making sure to part sections the same size for balance.
This is a simple and basic cornrow style. The parts are straight and the size is uniform. It's an ideal protective style, as it can stay neat for roughly two weeks as long as silk or satin caps or scarves are placed over the hair at nighttime. And, if you're looking to give your hair a break from chemical treatments or heat styling, cornrow braids are a great option.
How to Braid Cornrows with Nigella Miller
How long do you keep cornrows in?
Depending on the size of your cornrows and how you care for them, they could last anywhere between two weeks and two months. Smaller braids will last longer than larger braids.
Taking care of your braids by sleeping in a silk or satin bonnet will help braids of any size last longer. You'll also want to keep your scalp and hair healthy. "If your hair is in a protective style for up to 4-6 weeks, you will need to keep your scalp clean and hydrated," Black hair expert Sarah Sango told us. "After two or more applications of oils are applied to the scalp this creates build-up and a barrier, anything else being applied on top will not get into the pores. Use diluted witch hazel on a cotton pad and wipe the scalp on the partings to remove build-up so that moisture will be absorbed and natural oils from the scalp can be provided. Use a leave-in milk to keep braids/twists hydrated."
Should I straighten my hair before I braid it?
While there is no right or wrong answer to this question, blow-drying your natural textured hair before braiding it will provide you with more length. If you do decide to blow-dry your hair, be sure to use a leave-in conditioner. To avoid excessive heat damage, it's best not to flat iron your hair before braiding it.
Do braids help your hair grow?
"Protective styling is the best type of styling when on a hair growth plan," says Mahisha Dellinger, CEO and founder of CURLS; this includes everything from buns to, of course, cornrows. "No matter what style you choose, make sure the tension is minimal, your scalp can breathe, and that you do not leave your hair styled beyond the expiration date," she adds.