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What You Need To Know About Natural Hair Shrinkage

Of the many styling dilemmas that taunt those with natural hair, shrinkage has to be one of the most frustrating. You spend hours twisting, stretching, picking, and pulling to get every single curl to reach its full potential—only to have it retreat toward your roots as soon as it dries.
As annoying as it can be, shrinkage is a natural part of any curly hair journey. It may feel more frustrating if your hair is already on the shorter side or if you are working toward a specific style, but it’s honestly one of the easier natural hair concerns to solve. With a full understanding of your hair texture, why shrinkage happens, and how to coax your curls into staying put, you’ll be on your way to some serious hair hang time in no time at all.

What Is Natural Hair Shrinkage?

Even if your hair has been the same length for a long as you can remember, you can still experience shrinkage. Natural hair shrinkage is pretty much exactly like it sounds: It’s when curls go from a more lengthy, stretched out form to a tight, more compacted coil.

To be clear, your curl pattern isn’t changing when it gets tighter. Instead, as hair dries or loses moisture, each strand contracts. Shrinkage isn’t a sign of unhealthy hair. In fact, it’s what makes your hair texture curly. You might lose some coveted length when your curls get tighter, but with the right anti-shrinkage products for natural hair, you can recreate it without an entire hairstyle overhaul.

What Causes Natural Hair Shrinkage?

The best way to think about hair shrinkage is to compare it to a sponge. The little holes in a sponge that absorb water to both soften and expand the sponge are very similar to the cuticles on a strand of hair. Moisture goes in, and the hair expands—it can also stretch out each strand a bit. Similarly, when you wash a garment, before you wring the water out, it can get a bit heavy and stretched—hair functions in the same way. Water goes in, making each strand more pliable and adds a little bit of weight to it, causing it to elongate and expand. When you leave a sponge out and the water evaporates from it, the sponge shrinks back to its original size.

In the case of hair, when moisture is removed, whether it’s through the natural air drying process or if you’re physically removing water with a hair dryer, the hair will no longer have that weight keeping it stretched out and puffed up. The good thing about shrinkage is that it acts as somewhat of a natural moisture barometer. When curls are hydrated, you’ll notice that they are more plump and elongated.

Style-wise it may not be the look you’re going for, but when you begin to see your curls retreat, you’ll know it’s time to rehydrate. It’s also a good way to determine your hair’s porosity; how well your hair absorbs and retains moisture is an important factor in determining your hair health.

How Do I Stop My Natural Hair From Shrinking?

No matter how healthy your hair is, there will always be some level of shrinkage—and that’s completely fine. Exactly how much really depends on a few things: your curl pattern, how well you care for your hair, how often you moisturize it, and the type of anti-shrinkage products you use at each phase of your hair care routine. While there are a few steps that you can take to reduce the amount of shrinkage you experience, the main anti-shrinkage remedy is moisture. Here’s what to keep in mind.

Moisturize while you wash.

The key to ensuring your hair stays hydrated as long as possible starts in your shower. You may not notice it in the moment, but the type of shampoo that you use can impact how much and how quickly your hair dries out later on. To help retain moisture, start with a sulfate-free shampoo like the Cactus Rose Water Sulfate-Free Shampoo that will cleanse without stripping hair of its natural oils. This formula, in particular, is made to not only remove dirt and debris, but also keep hair voluminous and bouncy, which is exactly what you want when shrinkage is a concern.

Banish knots and snarls.

Hair that isn’t properly detangled and completely knot-free will also experience curly hair shrinkage. This has more to do with tangles standing in the way of showcasing your true length than moisture, but the two actually go hand-in-hand. Hair that hasn’t been properly detangled won’t get the proper distribution of hydration that it needs when you apply your products. So make sure you use a wide-tooth comb and the Hair Milk 4-in-1 Combing Creme, and work from the ends to the roots to help prevent any unnecessary tugging and breakage.

Condition and then condition again.

Once you’ve created a clean foundation, you’ll want to start layering on the moisture. Use a traditional rinse-out conditioner like the Monoi Repairing Conditioner to both impart moisture and help detangle. The emollient and moisturizing ingredients, like glycerin and coconut oil, in this conditioner will help make the process a lot smoother and can start the stretching even before your stylers. Apply the Monoi (Repair + Protect) Multi-Styling Milk before the Hair Milk Nourishing and Conditioning Styling Pudding. The leave-in Multi-Styling Milk works as a primer to infuse more moisture while the styling pudding provides added hydration, which helps smooth each strand to keep frizz away.

Deep treat when you have the time.

If your hair leans toward the dry, more porous side, incorporate a more intensive moisture treatment like the Coco Creme Curl Quenching Deep Moisture Mask into your monthly mix. With ingredients like coconut oil and mango seed butter, you’re infusing moisture and then sealing it in. You don’t want to weigh down your curls with too much oil or cream, but a bit of layering will help stretch each coil, which helps reduce hair shrinkage once it’s dry.

Stretch your curls.

Speaking of stretching, you’ll have to do a bit of manual elongating both while hair is wet and once it’s dry. While your hair is wet, it’s best to stretch as you apply your styling products. Try the LOC method (the leave-in, oil, and cream product application process) for layering, and finger comb as you work the products through from root to ends. Once your hair is dry, use a pick just at the roots to pull any compacted curls loose.

Style while you sleep.

Even though your hair should be covered in a bonnet or scarf for bed, you can style it in a way that will keep curls loose overnight. How you sleep on your curls not only impacts their look but also how healthy your hair stays. If long enough, gather your hair into a pineapple by loosely gathering your curls into a scrunchie at the top of your head. This will stretch it out a bit and add some volume once you take it down in the morning. Remember that shrinkage may be frustrating, but it’s not a bad thing. It may temporarily interfere with your style goals, but overall it’s a helpful marker of how well-moisturized your hair is. It also helps add character to your curls.

Braids and twists are another easy way to keep curls stretched. Here’s your guide to protective hairstyles for natural hair.

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