So, you've made the decision to return to natural hair. Instead of going the quick route of the big chop, you've chosen to transition, which allows you to retain length. The time you take to transition is up to you; some people want a very short amount of time and plan to cut off their processed locks within several months, while others want as long a transition as possible, which can be more challenging. To find out the best ways to transition to natural hair, we spoke to the experts.
Meet the Expert
- Naeemah LaFond is the Global Artistic Director of amika:.
- Kiyah Wright is a two-time Emmy Award-winning celebrity hairstylist and spokesperson for Pantene Gold Series and Head & Shoulders Royal Oils.
Ahead, check out 16 expert-approved ways to ease your transition to natural hair.
Plan Your Hairstyles
Usually, processes like transitioning—particularly if you decide on a long-term journey—go more smoothly if you have a plan in place. This doesn't mean your plans won't change. You may get six months into your transition and decide on the big chop then, or you might extend your transition another few months because you don't want to let go of any length.
However long your transition to natural hair will be, you'll need to choose some hairstyles to wear. It's best if you select hairdos that are:
- Easy for you to create, which will be useful on days when you're rushed or not in the mood for a lot of work
- Compatible with your new growth
Pick a few hairstyles, but be prepared to revisit your go-to looks as your hair grows. Options for transitioning styles include:
- Curly 'dos created by flexi-rods or rollers
- Bantu knots and knot-outs
- Flat twists
- Wet sets
You have other options, of course, but the majority of your day-to-day styles should try and either work with your differing textures or blend them together, preferably allowing your natural texture to be just that—natural.
"The process of growing out a relaxer takes a lot of patience," LaFond says. "A gradual cutting off [of] the relaxed hair can be the less drastic route to take when going natural, but it’s definitely not the easiest. Managing two drastically different textures will require special care and attention as to not cause any unnecessary breakage."
Hair grows an average of a quarter to half an inch per month, so as to keep your strands healthy and looking good, you should aim to trim at least a quarter of an inch per month as you transition. As you get rid of processed ends, you make way for more of your natural texture. This keeps your mane healthy and thriving. It also allows you to maintain a uniform length throughout your transition if that's important to you.
Keep a Hair Journal
Unless your routine is incredibly streamlined, chances are you may forget which product gave you a great twist-out or what shampoo left your hair feeling stripped. Many of us try different products, especially during transitioning. Keeping a hair journal can be very useful in helping you remember what worked versus what didn't. If you decide to keep a record of your hair journey, consider keeping track of:
- Favorite products
- Products that were duds
- Products you want to try again
- Favorite hairstyles
- Growth record
Add or subtract from this list, but whatever you record in your hair journal should help you to not repeat the same mistakes and assist you in tweaking your regimen to perfection.
Listen to Your Hair
If you're going to go back to your natural texture, it's worth remembering that sometimes frizz comes along with the journey. Some of the frizz factor is due to climate, products, or just the nature of your hair. Try embracing the frizz instead of fighting it. If you have questions, see a curly stylist. Knots can be another indicator your hair needs a break from manipulation and a little extra care.
To be a happy natural, you'll have to get to a point where you "listen" to what your tresses need. Is it moisture? Less manipulation? More protein? As you become used to caring for your natural hair, you'll gradually learn what makes it look and feel its best. To make the process easier, try and accept your hair for what it can readily do and give it what it needs to thrive, instead of trying to make it do only what you want it to.
Invest in the Right Tools
To make styling more manageable as you gain more new growth, make sure you have the right tools. Wide-tooth combs, clips (very useful for keeping hair out of the way as you work on one section), and metal-free elastics are essentials you'll want to always have in your stash. The Felicia Leatherwood Detangling Brush should also be in your drawer of hair tools.
Deep Condition Weekly
One thing you'll probably notice about your natural hair is that it feels drier than your relaxed or processed ends. Natural textures look and feel different from chemically straightened ones, but they aren't necessarily more dry. They may appear that way, however, because you're used to your hair looking a certain way and expecting a lot of shine or sheen.
Black hair needs a lot of moisture, and you may find that regular deep conditioning treatments help keep your curls and coils soft and supple. A minimum of two treatments per month is suggested, but if you can do these once per week, you'll probably notice a big difference in the softness of your hair. Add low heat in the form of a hood or bonnet dryer (or attachment onto your regular blow dryer) for even more cuticle penetration.
Be Careful with Detangling
"Many natural curl patterns are prone to knotting, so you also have to have a better understanding of the daily upkeep required to keep them at bay," LaFond explains. Tangles in the hair can lead to breakage and lack of length retention. Try twisting or braiding hair at night, sleeping with a silk or satin head wrap, and pre-pooing before cleansing to help keep those knots away.
If you've gotten to the point where you have too many knots, you'll want to gently detangle it. Those fine-tooth combs that would glide through your straightened hair aren't going to work with your new texture, unless you only use the tail end for creating neat, even parts. Instead, opt for a wide-tooth comb and detangle from your ends to your roots.
Pay Attention to Nurturing Scalp Health
Your hair is not the only important part of your transition journey—your scalp is a huge part of it, too. You want to make sure that your scalp is build-up-free, so frequent washing is something you'll definitely want to incorporate.
Another way to keep your scalp healthy is to avoid tight hairstyles—we know, a good high bun is an easy way to style transitioning hair—but if you keep the style in too tight and too long, it can cause stress to your scalp.
Use Protein Only as Needed
You'll probably need protein as you transition, mainly because the line of demarcation is a very weak area prone to breakage. Protein helps to strengthen the hair, but it shouldn't be used too often because, while it strengthens, it doesn't add moisture. Too much protein can lead to dry hair. It may sound difficult to figure out the right moisture-protein balance to maintain healthy locks, but as long as you provide plenty of moisture, a small amount of occasional protein should keep a lot of breakage at bay.
Stay Away from Texturizers
Some products have no place in your natural arsenal, and texturizers are among them. The problem is that they're not always clearly marked as "texture-altering" products. Even some hairstylists will apply these weak relaxers, in an effort to make your tresses "more manageable." Because today's texturizers can hide behind vague language, be on the lookout for any product that says it will:
- Loosen your curl/texture
- Give you added manageability
Several modern brands work with heat in the "loosening" (i.e. straightening) process so if you pick up a box of something and the directions instruct you to apply the product and then use a flat iron on top to "seal it in," chances are you're dealing with a texturizer.
Many texturizers make these claims while also stating they're "natural." No all-natural product or ingredient permanently straightens the hair. All texturizers have chemicals in them and these chemicals are designed to break down the protein bonds in your hair in an effort to straighten it—permanently.
Take a Break with Extensions
If you're going through a particularly rough time—you can't find an easy hairstyle, you're frustrated with the different textures, you're thinking about relaxing again because you don't know what else to do—give yourself a break. Extensions come in many different forms, so don't feel like you have to wear a weave if you don't like them. "Braids and wigs are a great alternative. Bantu knots and cornrows are great, too," says Wright.
Wright says wigs are a great option because they allow you to put your natural hair away and switch things up easily. "Braiding hair under the wig helps keep the heat off the hair, but you have to be sure to put a wig cap on to avoid any friction from the wig," she explains.
You can also sport braids, loc extensions, or Senegalese twists. You'll also find weave hair that mimics natural textures, for women who want to give their own tresses a break but still showcase a natural vibe. Putting your hair up and away for a few weeks can take the hassle of day-to-day maintenance away and allow you to explore more options once your extensions are removed.
Take It Easy with Heat
It can be tempting to fall back into straightening habits, especially if your hair is going through an awkward phase or you're becoming frustrated with the transitioning journey. Some women reach for the familiar and heat style their hair. There's nothing wrong with this if you only do this on occasion; otherwise, constant straightening isn't helping you become more comfortable with your own texture.
"Wearing your hair natural with no heat is the way to go," says Wright. If you are going to apply heat, Wright recommends a curling wand (with heat protectant) if you're going out for a special occasion or a night on the town. She says you can also do a double-strand twist-out with a gel or curl cream if you want to skip the heat.
Bantu knots and roller sets can also be a good no-heat alternative. Both styles help stretch the roots of your hair, keep manipulation to a minimum, prevent too much heat styling, and leave you with a style you can wear for up to a week.
Postpone Color Until You're Done Transitioning
While your hair is transitioning, it can be quite brittle—especially in the area between your relaxed hair and your new growth. To keep your hair healthy and as strong as possible, you'll want to avoid any dye jobs until after you're fully natural.
But don't fret if you still want to experiment with color. There are lots of options to achieve a blonde, red, or purple look. The easiest—slap on a cute synthetic wig. If wigs aren't your thing, you can use a temporary hair chalk or a wash-out hair color like Curl Smith's Temporary Wash Out Color ($15)
Cut Out Drying Ingredients
Sulfates and silicones are two of the ingredient types that can make your hair dry. Sulfates can strip away moisture from your strands, while silicone forms a coating over your hair, which doesn't allow your other hair products to penetrate. This causes your hair to feel and look dry.
So now is the time to take a look at the ingredient lists on your hair care products and weed out any potentially drying ingredients. And when it's time for new products, look for brands and products that are sulfate-free, including Pattern and amika's Normcore Sulfate Free Shampoo ($21).
The Big Chop is Optional
Don't think that the big chop is the only way to transition to natural hair. Yes, it can potentially be a fast way, but if you don't want to go through the styling stages of growing out your hair, you don't have to.
Instead, focus on getting regular trims to keep your hair healthy and tangle-free.
Pay Close Attention to Protecting your Edges
One of the most frustrating things about a natural hair transition is your edges. While you're growing out your relaxer, your edges are the first thing revealing your natural hair texture—and that can mean edges that won't lay down or lots of flyaways.
And on top of that, too much manipulation on your scalp (ahem, trying really hard to slick them down with tons of product), can result in even more damaged hair.
So, instead, focus on low-manipulation styles like braids and twists to keep your edges flourishing. Wearing a bonnet, bandana, or a silk scarf at night and while you're working is the best way to protect your hair from breakage.