Protective Styles Definitive Guide

There’s nothing like the glorious beauty of natural hair. Natural hair blogs are filled with gorgeous examples of all of the beautiful natural hair styles that can be created with natural hair. Springy, coily, full of life that can barely be contained. It’s beautiful, life affirming and….and fragile!

Natural hair, the beautiful kinks, coils and curls that spring from our scalps like an army of beautiful tendril warriors,  may look like it can tackle enemies in battle and take down flat irons, silk presses and hair dryers while simultaneously fending off environmental damage, but it is, in fact, very fragile.The curlier a strand of hair is, the more prone it is to breakage.

Why is curly hair so fragile?

The reason curly hair is so fragile boils down to its construction.  A strand of curly hair has uneven fiber, resulting in a hair shaft that has uneven lifted areas where the cuticle is raised up vs laying flat and smooth the way it does with straight hair. These lifted cuticles are completely exposed, making them vulnerable to all of the elements that can cause hair to break and dry out. Sebum, the natural oil produced by the scalp’s sebaceous glands and the key ingredient that helps keep hair strong and moist, has difficulty running down the curly hair shaft, making it dry and weak. This dryness causes breakage. This is why natural hair forums are filled with inquiries and searches like, "how to grow edges" and "how to deep condition natural hair. People are trying to fix the damage. The key is to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

How can you prevent natural hair breakage?

Preventing breakage is job number one for people with curly hair. This is why people who wear relaxers also experience lots of damage and dryness to their hair. The hair cuticles are broken down, leaving the hair exposed and vulnerable to everything that can damage it. People with relaxed hair need to come up with ways to protect their hair so that it doesn't break and shed. Products like leave-in conditioners and moisturizers can help protect the hair, keeping it soft and supple so that it's less likely to break while keeping it drenched with moisture. The problem is even with all of these products, hair can still be exposed to the elements that can damage it.

This is where the the idea a protective styling was born. People realize that they needed to come up with a way that would help it protect their hair strands so that the hair would not break and length would be retained. Thus, the idea protective styling was born.

What is protective styling?

Protective styling is the use of certain hairstyles that will help protect hair strands and ends from breakage and damage. As mentioned above, the idea came about when people realized that in spite of all of their efforts to keep their hair well moisturized and conditioned, they were still running into issues of breakage and dryness. With protective styling, people realized that they could enjoy beautiful hairstyles while protecting their hair at the same time.

Wanakee Pugh - Mother of Protective Styling

Wanakee Pugh was a supermodel in the 1980s and 90s. She was known for her gorgeous features, big beautiful eyes, and beautiful hair. Her hair during her modeling days was roughly shoulder length, nothing too spectacular but still beautiful.

Black hair equals slow hair growth?

Flipping through black beauty magazines in the early ‘00s, many black women were surprised to find Wanakee suddenly  talking about protective styling. At the time, no one knew what that phrase even meant. Wanakee was selling her hair products were intended to moisturize curly, kinky African hair. She pointed out that in addition to moisturizing their hair, black women needed to protect their hair by sealing and protecting the fragile ends. She pointed out that exposed ends were the reason that many black women appeared to experience slow hair growth. She pointed out that hair was always growing, but you’d never see it if it was also always breaking.

The corn silk analogy

Wanakee compared black hair to the silk on an ear of corn. She noted that when you look at an ear of corn in the husk, the silk threads that were wrapped in the husk were still soft and silky, while the threads that were on the outside of the husk were dry. She pointed out that the reason that this happened is because the outside pieces of silk were exposed to the air and damaging environmental elements, causing the strands to become dry and brittle. She pointed out that the same thing happens with black women's hair when it’s left exposed. Black women were so intent on having their hair out and down that they didn't realize that they were exposing it to the very environmental elements that were causing it to become dry and break off.

A revolution

Her words were revolutionary. No one had actually made it that clear before, but once people realized it, they realize that what she said was true. Hair that was tucked away seems to thrive with moisture and health and length retention, well hair that was left exposed seems to dry up as time went on, with the ends breaking off and the hair itself becoming dry and wispy.

Years later, her wise words have revolutionized the way that women look at their hair. Protective styling today is just a natural part of maintaining healthy hair for black women everywhere.

Protective styling is any hairstyle that protects the hair and tucks it away, keeping it safe from the damage that comes from excessive styling, heat, and manipulation. With a protective style, your ultimate goal is also to ensure that the ends of your hair get particular attention and care since they are the gateway to long length. If your ends break off, your hair will appear to not be growing. It is absolutely vital and critical that your ends being protected during protective styling. Terms like "acv rinse" (apple cider vinegar for hair growth) and searches like "best hair moisturizer for natural hair" quickly became the norm as people realized the importance of babying their natural hair.

Who should do protective styling?

Anyone can benefit from protective styling:

  • The person who wants to maintain hair length and allow it to grow as long as it can benefit from not having to come and touch their hair every day, preventing the damage and breakage that comes from over-combing and over-styling.

  • The busy person who simply does not have enough time to spend on their hair on a regular basis can use a protective style to reduce the amount of time they need to spend on their hair each day.

  • People who are trying to repair damage that has come from improper and damaging styling techniques and products can use protective styling to give their hair a chance to rest and heal.

  • People who have relaxed hair can also benefit from protective styling. Plenty of people permanently straighten their hair. There are certain styles that they can adopt to help protect their hair while ensuring that it looks its best.

What are some popular protective styles?

There seems to be an endless amount of protective styles out there, so people are pretty much only limited by their imagination. From short natural hair styles to those that work on long, natural hair, there are some great options available. Some of the most popular protective styling methods are listed below.Some of the most popular protective styling methods are listed below.

Braids

Braids are some of the most popular protective styling methods around. Long box braids, intricate cornrows, Ghana braids and crochet braids are just a few of the many different braid styles available. You can choose to braid your own hair, moisturizing and conditioning it before creating an intricate design. You could also choose to have extension hair added into the braids far more versatile styling options. The extension braids are great for people who have very short hair and who are trying to grow it out.

If you're going to be using braid extensions for your  protective style, you’ll want to use hair that is soft and safe when intertwined with natural hair. Some types of extension hair is too rough, causing your own hair break in the process. If you're going to be using synthetic hair, use brands  like Kanekalon or soft Marley braids that won't cut into your own hair.

You also need to make sure that you don't braid your hair too tightly which can result in having your hair pulled out by the roots. You’d then have another problem entirely!

Weaves

Weaves are another popular method of protective styling. They’re well loved due to their ability to allow the wearer to completely cover their own hair while wearing whatever style and texture they choose.

There are many different weaving style techniques, but you need to find one that will actually protect your hair for it to be able to be used for protective styling. One of the best ways to wear a weave is to braid your own hair down securely, cover it with a net so that your hair can continue to breathe underneath the extensions, and apply the extensions hair. Many people wear hair weaves and then leave the top portion out of their hair out so that it can blend in with the weave. This “leave-out” created a more natural look. The problem with leave-out is that it’s left out! The hair not protected by the braided base is exposed to the elements,  manipulation and styling products that can damage it. Many women would find that when it came time to remove the hair weave, their own hair underneath was healthy and had grown much longer, but the leave out was exactly the same length as before or even shorter.

Today, many women use closures with their weaves. A closure allows them to completely braid their hair underneath the hair weave. The closure, featuring a silk or lace base, lies on top of their head at the front of their head, mimicking hair that is growing from the scalp. It can be parted and made to look genuine. This allows the weave to provide full protection and coverage for the wearer’s own precious locks.

As with wearing braids, the most important thing that you need to remember when wearing hair weaves is that you need to continue to take care of the hair underneath. Have the type of installation done that allows you to reach your own hair underneath so that you can wash it, apply moisture and condition it on a regular basis. It's also a good idea to get a deep conditioning before the weave so that your hair is strong enough to handle being tied away for so long. Some deep conditioning hair products that you can find in your own kitchen include apple cider vinegar and coconut oil. 

Twists

Twister another excellent protective style technique. Whether you do short hair twists, use your own long natural hair or you add extension hair, you can make beautiful two-strand twists that allow you to let your own hair rest while protecting it from the elements. Again, moisture and conditioning is key. Applying products like tea tree oil for scalp massages and avocado oil for hair ends will help keep your twists plump and hydrated.

Buns

Buns are another excellent way to enjoy  protective styling. With a bun, you can moisturize and condition your hair before tying it back into a bun. You want to ensure that the ends of the hair completely tucked away. Apply extra moisture and oils to the tips of your hair, before rolling it up into a bun. This will prevent the ends from breaking off, helping you retain length as your hair grows.

Final notes about protective styling

Some people are under the impression that with a protective style, you simply need to tie it up in your chosen style and forget about it until you're ready to redo it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Protective styles need to be cared for as much as regular hairstyles, and some people would even say that they need to be taken care of more than regular hairstyles.  Depending on the protective style you choose, it may be difficult to reach your scalp & hair in order to wash and condition it, so you'll have to make special allowances and effort in order to ensure the healthy, continued growth of your hair. Speak with your stylist to develop a healthy maintenance plan that will prevent hair shedding, hair dryness and breakage, allowing your hair to thrive.