One of the most beautiful things about having natural hair (and there are many) is the versatility: From cornrows to afros, box braids to dreadlocks, natural hair really can do it all. And for many people with kinks and coils, straight styles—including silk presses and blowouts—are part of the rotation.
But as anyone with natural hair knows, maintaining hair health is of the utmost importance—and that includes reducing the amount of heat you use. To achieve a straight style, however, many naturals will have to both blow-dry and flat iron to get the look. Call it a follicular catch-22.
To find out how to safely straighten natural strands, we reached out to trichologist Bridgette Hill and natural hair experts Jamila Powell and Jessica Houston. Keep reading for their ultimate blow-dry/flat iron playbook.
Meet the Expert
Should You Blow Dry Natural Hair Before Flat Ironing?
If you have curls or kinks and are looking for a smooth silk press or sleek blowout, you're going to want to get your hair totally dry before taking a flat iron to it—and that requires blow-drying.
"While air drying will work great for curly or kinky hair in its natural state, to flat iron curly or kinky hair the outcome would not be a silky and shiny finish," says Houston. "If you are intending to flat iron your naturally curly or kinky hair, it should be blown out as much as possible to avoid any tangling and frizz. Blow-drying on curly or kinky hair would also make the flat ironing process a lot easier."
Who Should Avoid Blow Drying Before Flat Ironing?
If your natural hair is type 1 or type 2, there's no need to plug in your dryer before turning on your flat iron. "When using heat to restructure or straighten hair, natural hair textures that are loose waves or straight are, more likely than not, able to allow their hair to air dry 100 percent, and flat iron in sections," says Hill. "These hair textures would benefit from skipping the blow-drying step, reducing the hair fibers’ exposure to unnecessary manipulation and heat." She suggests the Dyson Airwrap ($550), which "allows wavy and straight textures to go from wet to smooth using one tool."
Second, is your hair relaxed? If so, there's no need to blow dry before ironing it. A better bet is for you to wrap your hair while wet and sit under a hooded or bonnet dryer until it's nearly dry. Once it's completely dry, then you can feel free to further straighten it with a flat iron.
You should also step away from the blow dryer if your hair isn't in its best health. "If you have damaged hair or are in need of a haircut due to split ends, you should avoid blow-drying your hair before flat ironing it since your hair is much more sensitive to damage," says Powell. "Whenever possible, it's best to avoid using direct heat on your hair to keep it healthy and strong."
How to Safely Blow Out Hair at Home
Do the Prep Work
It's important to give your blowout or silk press a strong foundation, and that starts before you even hit the shower. "Before blow-drying and flat ironing hair, it’s really important to prep the hair," says Powell.
While your hair is still dirty, Hill suggests applying "a pre-shampoo scalp treatment for the health and protection of the scalp," followed by a pre-shampoo oil or mask (still on dry hair). "Allow this to process for a minimum of 15 minutes—the more time, the better," she says.
Then you're ready to wash. "I use a moisturizing shampoo and I will always do a hair mask to make sure my hair is hydrated and protected," says Powell. "After showering, I’ll use a leave-in conditioner, followed by a heat protectant."
Spray Your Heat Protectant, Then Detangle
All three of our experts stressed the importance of using a heat protectant before you start drying. "If you will be blow drying before flat ironing, you will need a lightweight thermal spray or leave-in spray," says Houston. "While using heat, avoid using any products that may be too thick to avoid weighing down the hair." Then, detangle the hair and section it off into smaller sections
Powell recommends Mizani's Thermasmooth Smooth Guard Serum, "the perfect option for anyone with curly hair. The anti-frizz serum will help heat tools easily glide through hair—a must for anyone with natural hair."
Time to Blow Dry
After detangling, it's time to blow dry; all our experts recommend dividing your hair into sections, using styling clips to hold each section in place as you work.
"It’s dependent on how much hair you have, but I usually do four sections," says Powell. "With each section, I do tension drying with the blow dryer. Essentially, you gently pull the hair away from the head and wave the blowdryer about 1-2 inches away from the hair in up and down motions."
"Afterward, I’ll use either a comb attachment with the dryer, or I’ll use a paddle brush with a nozzle on the dryer to blow out the hair and get it as straight as possible. I find that this is the best way to get a perfect canvas for the flat iron."
Use the "warm" or "cool" setting on your blow drier to minimize the amount of heat on the hair, says Houston.
Ready to Flat Iron
Here's where our experts diverge a little. While Powell firmly caps heat at a ceiling of 400 degrees, Hill says it depends.
"Be mindful of how much heat you are putting on your hair because once heat damage is done, there is no going back," says Powell. "You never want to go over 400 degrees for the blow dryer or the flat iron. For natural hair, the lower the heat, the better."
Hill, however, says there are a few factors at play that dictate how much heat your hair can handle: "There has been so much advancement in heating tool engineering," she says. "From ionic, ceramic, porcelain, infrared, titanium—all of these technologies are more hair health-friendly." Similarly, Houston notes that how much heat you should use is dictated by how much hair you have; the thinner the hair, the lower the heat setting.
One thing they all agree on—you want to minimize the number of passes you make with both your blow-dryer and your flat iron. "There is a huge debate over heat settings. My philosophy is to use the heat setting that allows you to get the desired result without too many passes with the blow dryer or flat iron on each section of hair," says Hill. "Keep the flat iron at two passes max," adds Powell.
To get your hair as straight as possible, while flat ironing "make sure to use a heat-resistant comb to help glide through the hair," says Houston. "Starting at the roots and taking the iron down the hair shaft."
Powell likes to wrap things up with a little gleam and gloss. "It is always a great idea to finish everything off with a lightweight oil for some extra shine," she says. "Hask’s Keratin Oil Smoothing Shine Hair Oil is great because it’s strengthening and reduces frizz."
Maintaining the Look
As for keeping your look as straight as possible for as long as possible, all of our experts recommend wrapping your hair and sleeping in a silk or satin scarf (and/or using a silk or satin pillowcase). This "helps retain the moisture in the hair and keep the cuticle flat," says Hill.
Powell and Houston also stressed the importance of not using heat excessively—so instead of flat ironing every day, get a little creative as your roots start to return. "Have fun with your freshly flat-ironed hair!" says Houston. "Wear it straight for a few days, then you can switch it up by styling in more protective styles such as a high pony or French braids."