Detangling, Washing & Conditioning Black Girl Hair: This Is How We Do It

First, let me put this on out there: I’m not a natural hair expert. Though I’ve gone without chemically-altering my hair for going on 13 years and I’m raising two black girls with natural hair—one has locs, the other wears her hair in two-strand twists—I’ve spent more than a decade pulling, parting, braiding, twisting, crying and praying over three heads of thick, curly, kinky hair, most of the time having neither access to products nor the know-how to keep our hair healthy, growing and cute.

But the internet is a mighty place—full of amazing women who’ve studied how to care for natural hair and who happily share all that they’ve learned with those willing to listen. And over the past few years, I’ve gleaned some great information—enough to be able to maintain and style our hair and keep it healthy and even write a bit about our journey.

Which makes it only natural for some to reach out and ask me about my hair regimen, specifically as it relates to doing my daughters’ hair. In the past week, three women—two moms and a sweet lady helping out the single dad of an African American girl with natural hair—asked me for advice on how to wash, condition and style their kids’ curly manes. So I figured if they had questions, maybe a few MyBrownBaby’s readers have some, too. Today, I’m sharing here what I sent to all the moms. My technique may not be perfect, but it’s just right for me and my girls. If nothing else, hopefully it’s a great starting point for you and your babies!

Our Natural Hair Care Regimen

So the first place I want to refer you is CurlyNikki.com. It’s one of THE BEST haircare sites for natural hair and it is on this site that I learned how to really take care of my daughters’ hair, as well as my own. One weekend on that site, and I figured out how to detangle Lila’s hair without tears (hers and mine) just by following some really simple rules. Click here to see Nikki’s posts about how to detangle natural hair: 

The first thing you must know: African American hair is SUPER curly and gets REALLY dry. If it is not properly moisturized, the strands of hair that shed can attach to the healthy hair, creating knots in the most fragile parts of the healthy hair strands—the bends. This is what causes the “tangles.” The shed hair creates almost a web with the healthy hair, and when those tangles/webs/knots are not properly removed, they can cause the hair to break in those fragile parts of the strands.

The most important thing for you to do when washing and styling her hair is to make sure, first, that you get all the shed hair and those knots out—that her hair is properly detangled. The only way you can do that is to make sure that there is enough “slip” for the hair so that the knots can “slip” out without damaging the healthy strands. To do this, you must have the proper tools:

A good detangling comb (Sally’s carries some great ones; do not get inexpensive ones, they can make the process worse.)
A good conditioner (I use Herbal Essences Hello Hydration or Long Term Relationship; it’s at any grocery store)
A spray bottle
Water
Olive oil or coconut oil
hair clips
Your fingers
Patience

You MUST NOT WASH HER HAIR UNTIL IT IS DETANGLED. Washing undetangled curly hair makes the good strands of hair tighten around the knots, making the detangling process darn near impossible and extremely painful. Detangle, wash, condition, then style.

Here’s how I get Lila’s hair done:

First I fill the spray bottle with water and olive oil (you can use coconut oil, too)—one part oil to three parts water. I section Lila’s hair into about 8-10 sections and then work the sections one-by-one.

Take the one section into your hand and spray it down with the water and oil mixture. Then apply a generous amount of the conditioner directly onto her hair, from root to tip. Go nuts with it. The idea is to get the hair as moist as you can with the product, so that it creates that slip I was telling you about. Once the hair is saturated, use your fingers to feel for the knots and GENTLY separate the hair from the knots, working them out with your fingers. Once you can pull your fingers through her hair without feeling any knots, then you can use the detangling come to make sure you can comb through it. Put that section into a loose two strand twist, or just clip it back up, and then move on to the next section until her whole head of hair is detangled.

Once that’s done, you are safe to wash her hair. Now, I don’t wash my hair or Lila’s hair with shampoo. I use only conditioner. This is called co-wash. I do this because shampoo completely strips out all the moisture in curly hair—moisture that our hair desperately needs. You’ll notice that if you wash our hair with shampoo, it gets VERY brittle and helps knot our hair even more. Conditioner, which is designed to put moisture back into your hair, cleans your hair just fine AND adds in more moisture directly into the hair shaft, making our hair softer and easier to comb. If I feel like our hair needs to be washed thoroughly to reduce the build-up of product, then I’ll use a gentle shampoo MAYBE once every six weeks. But I went for an entire year without using shampoo. My hair grew like weeds when I used just the conditioner, because the moisture made my hair much more manageable, which means much less breakage. So, just like you would wash her hair with shampoo, wash it with conditioner. You won’t get suds like you do with shampoo, but really, you don’t need them. You just need her hair to get clean, which happens with water, massaging and conditioner.

Once you’ve washed her hair, wrap it with a cotton t-shirt—NO TERRY CLOTH TOWELS; they rip out our hair. Doing this will help keep the moisture from running into her face, but keep her hair from getting dry. Then follow the next steps, which are EXTREMELY important:

1. Put a leave-in conditioner in her hair while it’s soaking wet. I use Giovanni Direct Leave-in Conditioner. This helps to add moisture to the hair shaft.

2. Generously spray her hair with the water and olive oil mixture. The oil will seal in the moisture you added into the hair shaft with the leave-in conditioner. This helps to retain the moisture while you’re styling and later after it’s all done.

3. Use a hair butter for styling. I use QP Elasta Mango Olive Oil, making sure to add generous amounts to the ends of Lila’s hair. The hair butter adds yet more moisture and is great for braiding or twist styles.

In addition to CurlyNikki.com, you should alsotake some time and really dig into Afrobella.com and BlackGirlLongHair.com, both of which do an amazing job of letting you know which products, tools and techniques would be most helpful for our hair type/textures. For some great styles, you should check out Beads, Braids and Beyond, a great haircare site for little girls with curly hair.

Happy natural hair care!

RELATED POSTS:

1. The Joys (And Pains!) Of Kinky Black Girl Hair
2. The Attack Against Black Girl Beauty
3. A Beautiful Black Girl Finally Says, “I Love My Hair!” 
4. Learning How To Care For Black Baby Hair
5. Little Black Girls With Natural Hair: Lessons On Touching, Rocking and Loving Kinks & Curls

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

15 Comments

  1. I need to print this and handout copies because I’ve seen so many folks butcher their babies’ hair.

    I still shampoo but I use one that is sulfate free so my hair isn’t brittle after the fact. Tresemme Naturals Shampoo and Condish are awesome. The latter has great slip and is great for detangling. Another conditioner I use is Shea Moisture’s Organic Raw Shea Butter Restorative Conditioner. It can be used as a rinse-out or a leave-in and it’s great for retaining moisture.

    Oh and PUH-leze don’t forgot bedtime care. No sleeping on cotton. It dries the crap out of your hair. Satin bonnet or pillow case is a MUST.

  2. Boy, did I need to see this today! My 4-year-old granddaughter who has three heads’ worth of hair on her head is staying with me this week, and I’m going to have to comb it out at some point. This is so helpful.

    As always, Denene, you are right on point!

  3. Another good resource, especially for those with kids is http://www.beadsbraidsbeyond.blogspot.com. She has tons of style ideas, healthy hair tips, product suggestions, even a how-to cornrowing tutorial.

  4. This is a great article…
    Sapphire I LOVE Beads Braids and Beyond…because I know my skills are lacking and that gives me inspiration to do my little one’s hair.

    For detangling, I LOVE the Tame Teezer…I can comb my daughter’s hair in her sleep and she is NOT crying or trying to get away. I swear that thing is a God send…

    KMN

  5. Post BOOKMARKED! Thank you Denene, girl :-)

  6. Princess Smith

    So, I never understood the hype behind Nikki’s website. That’s probably due to the fact that I was hoping to find info on there like what you just shared, but….never did. Thank you sooooo much for sharing that. I stopped perming my hair in 2003. Wow! ….it’s been a decade. Only recently did I switch from straightening to wearing curly styles, so I haven’t found a regimen that works for me. Every week feels like another experiment, so I love getting more information so that I can get one step closer to my go-to products AND methods. :)

  7. I needed this. I have the most amazing niece who has natural hair, and as the “girly” aunt, I have been unofficially put in charge of her appearance. I am also a white woman with naturally straight oily hair ( the opposite of my niece’s ) so I seriously have some homework to do. Her mother, my best friend, is a biracial woman with natural kinky hair and no clue about hair, makeup, or fashion of any kind. She just puts her hair in a ponytail and goes. Her sister, who is also white, has also badly maimed her hair on the few occasions that my friend needed to dress up and be girly. The sister also refuses to learn proper techniques for their ( my friend and niece ) hair, mostly out of a misguided belief that all hair is the same. My friend also has minimal contact with her black relatives and there are no women in her fiancee’s family to help. I do love my niece dearly and look forward to the bonding experience that comes with any little girl getting her hair done by someone they know and love.

  8. Thank you! Great step by step. I’m an adopted white mom, so I’m starting from scratch on the learning process. Thank you for helping me get off on the right foot!

  9. Hello everyone,

    This was great! I am still new to the batural hair world but Naptural85.com is another good resource. Her how-to videos are great! She even has recipes for natural hair products.

  10. Great post. Informative and very detailed. Thanks for sharing your hair regimen. Keep it up!

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