Every part of the care and styling process matters, so let’s walk through it all and learn how to make the most of your protective style, including finding the right protective hair styling products and natural hair care routine to accompany it.
How to Prep for Protective Hairstyles
While your style choice and the care you put into installing it is important, how hair is prepped beforehand is an equal priority. Keep in mind that even if your natural hair is braided or covered under a wig or weave, it’s still going through its normal growth and shedding phase while you’re wearing your protective style.
Naturally, there will be some fallout when you take your style down, but what you don’t want is for your hair to end up knotted and matted. Having to comb through this after the fact can lead to a lot more hair loss than necessary and defeat the purpose of putting your protective style in to begin with. You may even want to consider getting a trim to make sure that all split ends and ragged edges are gone. Overall, you want your hair to be in optimal health and shape before an install. To get started, follow these tips:
Give yourself time. Not all protective styles will require hours to install, but even the quick ones should be done with patience. You don’t want to rush. Too much tugging and rough handling of hair can put your curls at risk of breakage. From start to finish, work slowly and carefully. For each part of your install, it’s best to work in sections.
Wash your hair well. Some protective styles will be worn for a few weeks, and the last thing you want is to be constantly scratching at an itchy scalp. A thorough cleansing using a sulfate-free shampoo, like the Wash Day Delight Sulfate Free Shampoo for Curly Hair, or a scalp cleanser is important. How you wash your curls matters. You want to do it gently so that you don’t cause too much friction or breakage, but you also want to be sure that both your scalp and hair feel nice and clean. Massage the product into your scalp and down the hair shaft, and if there’s enough slip in your shampoo, try to slightly finger comb through as you go.
Do a deep conditioning treatment. After you shampoo and detangle with a regular conditioner, add additional moisture with a hair mask or treatment. Look for really hydrating and strengthening ingredients like monoi oil and shea butter, which will help fill in any weak spots in your strands. The goal is to get your hair strong enough to withstand your protective style. You can do a hot oil treatment or a steam treatment with a mask. Apply the oil or mask to your hair, cover it with a heated cap or regular shower cap and then sit under a hooded dryer or steamer for about 15 minutes. This will allow for the product to really settle into each strand and strengthen it from the inside out.
Apply a leave-in conditioner. A leave-in conditioner layered with an oil is the best primer for a protective style. The conditioner—we like the Black Vanilla Moisture & Shine Leave-In Conditioner—will add additional nutrients to the hair before the oil seals it all in. Applying an oil like castor oil on top of your leave-in (and massaging a little into your scalp too) can also help stimulate hair growth while your style is in. However, don’t apply too much oil to your actual hair (just enough for it to feel moisturized). You don’t want your hair to be too slippery since some protective styles like crochet braids can slip out if the hair is too slick.
4 of the Best Protective Hairstyles
Once your hair is clean, conditioned, and primed, you can gather up your protective hair products and get started on your style. So, what is the best protective hairstyle for natural hair? There are a ton of protective hairstyles to choose from—we certainly can’t name just one that’s the best. These are four popular ones that you might want to consider, including the best protective braids:
1. Twist Out
This style can be done in one of two ways. The first is flat twists, which are like cornrows against your head. The difference is that you only use two strands of hair to twist instead of three like you would for a cornrow. The other way is off the head, so the twists dangle. With both options, the size of your sections will determine how tight or loose of a wave you get when you take it out. You can do smaller twists that look more like box braids, or you can section hair in four large squares and twist. The latter will give you a much looser, chunky wave when you remove the twists.
To install a twist out, it’s best to start with damp hair. After applying a leave-in conditioner and oil, work either a combing cream or a style and hold foam through each section as you twist. It’s better to apply your protective hair stylers just before you twist instead of coating hair with it in one fell swoop. You don’t want it to dry on your hair before you twist since this is what will actually help your style set.
2. Box Braids
Protective hair braids are one of the most versatile protective styles, and box braids are definitely one of the best protective braids. Box braids are three-strand twists that are created by parting hair into boxed sections. The size of your boxes can vary—it’s really a matter of preference. They’re ideal whether you have short natural hair or long natural hair and can be put in by a stylist, or you can DIY box braids.
Because of the small sections that you part to create box braids, be prepared to put some time into installing. Once you get the hang of it, you can move rather quickly, but what’s most important to note with box braids is that you want to make sure that every section is combed through thoroughly before you start to braid. You don’t want any knots or tangles in the hair as you braid. It will make it hard to work with, and it could potentially matte hair up as you wear the braids. This all makes for a nightmare and potential hair breakage when you take it out.
After you’ve installed your braids, be sure to smooth down any loose hairs around your hairline with edge control. If you’ve ever wondered which protective style lasts longest, the sheer nature of how box braids are created makes this one of the longest-lasting natural hairstyles. You can keep it in for a few months if desired, barring any significant root grow-out or improper maintenance.
3. Faux Locs
If you don’t want to put in the time or commitment it takes to actually loc your hair, you can do an easy in and out faux version of the style. These are usually installed using pre-twisted loc pieces that you essentially wrapped or crocheted around pieces of your own hair. Hair is parted in the same way that you style box braids, and the individual twists are attached at the root of your hair. Much like protective hair braids with extension hair added in, your own natural hair is hidden underneath the faux loc.
4. Wigs and Sew-In Weaves
This is where protective styling can take a huge stumble down a rabbit hole. The options with wigs are vast, and depending on your style goals, you can choose a wig that leaves part of your own hair out or one that completely covers it. If your hair will be covered, you can simply cornrow your hair underneath. The same base style is used for sew-in weaves. Your natural hair is braided up (usually in a spiral shape around your head), and the weave tracks are then attached with thread to your braids.
With a U-part wig, which is the type that requires some of your natural hair to be exposed, hair is still braided underneath, except for one section that will be used to help blend in the wig. The one thing you need to keep in mind is that, depending on the wig’s texture, you may need to consistently heat style the section of natural hair you leave out in order for it to match the texture of the wig.
What’s most important for the health of your hair when wearing any type of wig is to moisturize your scalp well before your install and to not keep wigs or weaves in for too long—two months is usually a good time frame. After those two months are up, you should take a break before switching to your next protective hairstyle. You want to give your hair a chance to be properly cleaned and your hair and scalp room to breathe.
How to Care for Hair With a Protective Style
The whole point of a protective style is to give your hair a chance to rest from the constant handling, washing, and overall tension that daily styling can cause. The prep work and the take down are going to be the most time consuming and will require some work, but once it’s in, all you’ll need to do is make sure it stays clean, frizz-free, and in the case of a twist out or flexi-rod set, you want to give it ample time to dry and set properly. A couple of things to keep in mind:
Wrap it up nightly. This may sound like a no-brainer, but even with the best pillowcases, you want to avoid a lot of rubbing against your style while you sleep. Keeping hair contained in a bonnet or scarf is the best solution. Particularly with protective hair braids, a scarf is a better option. You can do a light coat of a non-flaky hair gel or a pomade like Mimosa Hair Honey and then tie hair down with a silk scarf. This will help keep your hairstyle sleek and frizz-free and can even extend how long you keep your braids in.
Grease your scalp. If you’re wearing a style where your scalp is exposed, you can do a light moisturizing treatment with a hair oil once a week or so to keep it hydrated. This is a good idea to do when you first install since the tightness of braids and twists, in particular, can make your scalp itch. Just work a light coating of the product across your parts.
How to Take Out Protective Hairstyles
The care that you put into installing a protective style is the same level of care needed to remove it. You don’t want to destroy all of the hard work and growth that went into styling it in the first place. Here’s how to properly take out a protective style:
Step 1. Use a tool. Get a rattail comb to help unravel braids and twists. If you used braid hair to add extensions in, you can snip the tips to help loosen the braids or twists. Of course, just be careful to cut far away from where your actual hair begins. Don’t use a fine-tooth comb to unravel as it will cause your hair to tangle and break off.
Step 2. Add moisture. When removing braids, add a bit of moisture in the form of a conditioner or water to each braid as you take them out. This will help loosen things up and will make them easier to take out. If you’re taking out a twist out or any other style that should leave you with a workable, wearable natural style, you don’t want to add any water since it will undo the curl or waves that were set.
Step 3. Work slowly. Using your fingers, work from the ends of hair and move your way up to the roots. If you’re removing braids, finger comb through each section as you unravel. This will make for an easier detangling process later. If you’re taking out a twist out, smooth a lightweight oil or pomade over each section as you loosen it to help slick any frizz or flyaways.
Step 4. Wash and detangle. Once your style is fully removed, you’ll want to give your hair a good washing to remove product residue, debris, and grime that got stuck on your strands while you were wearing your protective hairstyle. Before hitting the shower, detangle hair. It will be a lot harder to do once you shampoo, so coat hair in a conditioner and comb through in sections, working from the bottom up. We recommend using a conditioner that can help prevent breakage, making the Monoi Repairing Conditioner a perfect fit. Once hair is knot-free, you can wash it with a sulfate-free shampoo, and follow up with another dose of conditioner or a deep treatment.
Next: 25 Stunning Braided Hairstyles for Natural Hair