Braids are a great protective hairstyle, but taking them out can leave you with a massive challenge. If left in for 10 or so weeks, braid extensions can lead to matting at the roots and a lot of yucky buildup. This can leave you with greasy hair and tangles that are hard to wash out. Plus, you might experience a ton of shedding. If you've run into this problem during removal before, or are looking to learn more about cleansing while wearing braids, we’ve got you covered. There are steps you can take to prevent the unseemly buildup while wearing braids and during the removal process.
Don’t fret; many people experience buildup when wearing braided styles and during post-removal. All it really entails is a few extra measures to ensure your scalp is healthy while your braids are still in. We spoke to natural hair expert Nigella Miller regarding product buildup, the importance of hydrating oils, and what to do if you have a sensitive scalp.
Keep scrolling for answers to all the major post-braid questions, plus the additional steps you can take to get your hair back to where you want it.
Meet the Expert
- Nigella Miller is an NYC-based natural hair and grooming expert. With over 13 years in the industry, she has worked with various hair textures, lengths, and styles, and ultimately, wants clients to feel good about their hairstyle.
What Is Buildup?
When braids have been left in for a while, buildup is inevitable. Typically, braid buildup is a combination of dirt and debris, your scalp's natural oils, and any products you may have applied since putting in your braids. It can occur with any protective hairstyle, not just braids, and can be quite the hassle to remove.
How Long Should Extensions Stay in For?
Miller says it depends on your hair type and scalp, but suggests washing braids every two to three weeks or every three to four weeks. “I think the best way to do it is to wash your braids in between,” she says, though she understands wanting to keep braids in for an extended amount of time to prolong the style.
“For some people, a month is a long time, but if you want to extend a natural style that you were intentionally trying to keep in for two to three weeks, I would say four weeks is the max,” she says. As long as you wash in between and take care of your scalp, you should be okay, though she wouldn’t recommend anything over two months.
Some buildup is likely to happen, even if you're diligent about shampooing while wearing your braids. Miller feels like this buildup can block hair from getting the nutrients it needs because you’re trying to regularly hydrate and nourish your hair while you still have your protective style in. She notes it’s important to cleanse or co-wash and comb through braids if buildup does become visible. However, a greasy, gunky buildup is probably due to wearing extensions way past their prime. The longer your hair is covered and unable to be combed through, the more shampoo, conditioner, scalp oils, and other products will build up on your hair and scalp, particularly around the roots.
Take Your Time
Removing your braids takes time and patience. If you rush the process (and tug too hard on your hair), you risk hair breakage.
In terms of keeping your braids clean while they’re still in, Miller says it’s important to prep your hair for the cleansing process and recommends using an antiseptic oil, like tea tree or peppermint, to soothe your scalp. Then, she suggests taking a fine-tooth comb to the root to try and get out any excess dandruff, flakes, or product buildup. A fine-tooth comb like a rat tail comb works best when your hair is still braided to remove buildup, as you can use the tail to “maneuver in between the braids,” and get rid of tiny flakes visible on the top of the hair shaft or between the braids.
To remove buildup after taking braids out, Miller recommends applying some loose pressure or rinsing hair lightly with water to hydrate the ends that were tucked away before shampooing. Then, take a wide-tooth comb and “lightly detangle from the bottom of your ends to the root of your hair,” working your way to the shaft of your scalp. As you detangle, you can go in and remove a lot of that dead hair and product buildup, she says.
Using a wide-tooth comb to detangle will help get rid of dead hair and product buildup without “damaging your curls or using too much tension” and slowly removes what needs to come out in order for you to cleanse without any detangling issues. Just work your fingers or a wide-tooth comb through any mats and pull matted sections apart. If you happen upon stubborn areas, use a natural oil or lightly mist your hair with a conditioner so you can ease the comb through. Don't saturate your hair at this point and don't be surprised if you encounter oily flakes in the buildup.
Shampoo and Condition Your Hair
When you’re washing your braids in between, Miller says a co-wash would be great as it’s super hydrating and moisturizing but still cleanses your hair. After you’ve removed any excess buildup from braids, Miller suggests going in with either a hydrating or clarifying shampoo or rotating between the two.
If you don’t want to use a hydrating cleanser you can lean towards a co-wash, she says. With co-washing, you’re cleansing your hair with something that’s moisturizing without having to go through the entire cleansing process. Miller says co-washing works well in place of using conditioner to hydrate because co-washing moisturizes and cleanses.
For washing hair after removing a style, make sure your hair is thoroughly saturated before shampooing. Even if you routinely wash your hair in a sink, it's recommended to perform this shampoo in your shower, where your hair will hang down straight and not get tangled on top of your head
Focus on your scalp first and take your time working in the shampoo. Depending on your level of buildup, you may have to lather up anywhere from two to five times. This is perfectly normal. Only work the shampoo through the rest of your hair when you shampoo for the very last time. At this point, you can also use your regular moisturizing shampoo if your hair seems dry.
For people dealing with a sensitive scalp, a dry scalp, or psoriasis, Miller notes you might not be able to keep braid styles in for as long as you’d like because there’s more skin growth there. She recommends using oils to soften and hydrate because with oils, you can remove buildup and excessive flakes without feeling like you’re irritating already sensitive skin. Be extra careful if you have scalp issues and use a tail comb to remove weight regularly.
A lot of people typically try to stay away from oil because it penetrates through the hair, but your hair takes what it needs from it. Some of it will sit on top of the hair shaft, but you’re still hydrating your hair as much as is needed.
In terms of natural products you can find at the store, if you’re aiming for hydration, jojoba oil or avocado oil will do the trick. Look for certain ingredients mentioned on the labels, which Miller says is helpful if you know your oils or natural products. She notes that curly hair is typically dry and can depend on a bunch of factors including the weather, scalp conditions, what type of hair type you have, and type of curl pattern. These factors matter, but Miller says “all curly people can agree on just having a hydrating shampoo.”
Jojoba oil is a natural oil produced from the seed of the Chinensis plant, a drought-resistant shrub native to southern Arizona, California, and Mexico. It mimics natural sebum and conditions and seals moisture in the skin without clogging pores or exacerbating acne.
Once you've gone through all the steps mentioned so far, rinsing with apple cider vinegar is an option if you feel your scalp needs additional clarifying.
Now, brands are taking notice of this DIY trend and have started to incorporate apple cider vinegar into their own lines. They’re creating bottle packaging and new products for braids in an effort to capitalize on what potential customers are already making at home, and, as Miller points out, if something is working as an at-home treatment, why shouldn’t it be on the shelves, too?
Also, you can use a regular rinse-out conditioner after shampooing, but deep conditioning treatment is highly recommended. Remember, your hair hasn't had a deep treatment in a long time and is probably in desperate need of some conditioning. Make sure you use clean tools when combing any conditioner through your hair because you don't want to add any dirt or buildup back into your hair. Consider using heat to deeply penetrate hair strands for maximum conditioning. Your hair should now be clean and soft, and after wearing extensions or braids for a long time, it's always good to give your hair and scalp a break from the extra weight.
This moisturizing shampoo is non-stripping and gentle. It contains a nourishing blend of avocado, coconut, and jojoba oils, and shea and cocoa butters to add deep hydration and shine while reducing frizz.
Using the same hydrating ingredients as the shampoo, this conditioner can be used in three ways: rinse-out, leave-in, or co-wash.
Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-inflammatory and skin barrier repair effects of topical application of some plant oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;19(1):70. doi:10.3390/ijms19010070