Afro hair is finally getting the premium, natural, nourishing products it deserves. Meet the boutique brand owners at the forefront of the charge.
I used to rely on high street afro beauty shops to stock everything my biracial curly hair needed. I’d suffer the towering shelves full of products with garish packaging, suspiciously low prices and harmful ingredients (not to mention the poorly labelled bleaching creams masquerading as ‘brightening lotions’) and feel frustrated that my choices were so limited, and that none of these shops were run by people with afro hair themselves. Slathering on thick, silicone-laden formulas that promised to both nurture and grow my hair only led to limp, coated strands and an itchy scalp. Despite the fact that black women spend six times more on hair products than white women, shopping can often be a chore for us due to the lack of premium brands that aren’t just afro-friendly, but specifically cater to our long list of needs and have a trustworthy and decipherable ingredients list.
But there is a movement building, propelled by the DIY nature of the ever-growing natural hair community. Black women are using their knowledge of their own hair needs to fill this gap in the UK market. Boutique hair brands with female entrepreneurs of colour at the helm are tackling issues like lack of representation, misunderstandings around afro hair and ingredient integrity by taking matters into their own hands.
The brand identities of these women-led start-ups, whose products are often small-batch, handmade and sold from their websites or at pop-ups (many founders have been rejected by premium retailers because they ‘don’t suit their customer profile’), are a growing force.
“Things are definitely changing for the better,” says Ekwy Chukwuji-Nnene, the founder of plant-based hair brand Equi Botanics. “In this age, black female owned businesses now have direct access to social media to spread the word. We have to create what we need, rather than waiting for mainstream brands. They do not understand our needs and try to ‘rescue’ us with half-hearted attempts just because they’re realising the power of the afro hair market.”
And she’s right – my hair has never felt better nor have I felt more understood since I switched to using products created by people who know my hair type first-hand.
The products of my past had been suffocating my fine curls with their filler ingredients. They simply oversaturated afro hair, without bothering to consider that there is a diverse range of curly hair types (ranging from 3A corkscrews to tight 4C coils, according to the natural hair community). One formula doesn’t fit all.
The founder of organic brand The Afro Hair & Skin Co, Ibi Meier-Oruitemeka, agrees. “The skills and talents of black women can no longer be ignored or denied,” she explains. “We have felt undervalued and overlooked by mainstream brands for so long, but we have built brands that fill those gaps, providing products that we previously couldn’t get. We’re reshaping the landscape of what it means to be a black beauty business owner, and also to shop beauty as a black woman. We deserve bespoke, luxury, crafted hair products just like everyone else.”
So what products are on offer? Curly and afro-haired members of the Stylist team tried the best creations of the new boutique brands. Read on for our favourite discoveries.
Ibi Meier-Oruitemeka, founder and creative director of The Afro Hair & Skin Co.
Handmade in small batches every week using locally sourced, organic, natural British ingredients, this brand brings total plant magic to your haircare routine. Choose from gently cleansing (read: non-stripping) shampoo bars, extra intensive hair oils and a supercharged clay mask if your skin feels left out of the action.
Stylist’s pick: The Afro Hair & Skin Co. Flourish Totally Nourishing Hair Butter, £24
This lightweight walnut butter nourishes hair while protecting it from external forces. Stylist’s junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitcher says, “I massaged this into my 3B hair then rinsed it out the next day. It felt so bouncy and well-fed.”
Ekwy Chukwuji-Nnene, founder of Equi Botanics
“We avoid synthetic ingredients, opting for potent plant actives for fragrance and conditioning to combat the harmful aftermath of tight hairstyles and chemical relaxers,” says Chukwuji-Nnene. The three-product line-up (a sulphate-free shampoo, leave-in conditioner and hero mask) is your complete hair routine.
Stylist’s pick: Equi Botanics Babassu Deep Treatment Mask, £35
Packed with oils and butters, this mask melts tangles, especially post-braids. “This gives rich nourishment without being heavy and left my 4A curls so juicy I could barely feel the difference after rinsing,” says Stylist’s sub-editor Meena Alexander.
Tammy Facey, founder and director of Jim + Henry
Each Jim + Henry product is named after the number of ingredients it contains, meaning there are no unnecessary fillers. “Celebrities like Nathalie Emmanuel and Jamelia love our simple, potent product arsenal, from the nine-ingredient shampoo to the olive and rosemary hair oil,” says Facey.
Stylist’s pick: Jim + Henry Eight Leave-In Conditioner, £23.50
Shea butter, rosemary and chamomile make this leave-in a treat for all hair types and a firm favourite of ours. “My 3B hair basks in this like it’s the nectar of the gods,” says Stylist contributor Elena Chabo. “You can really see the difference when you use natural, minimal ingredient products.”
Melissa Sinclair, founder of Big Hair + Beauty
Born out of frustration at the lack of transparency around ingredients in afro hair products, Big Hair’s range makes choosing your product easier. “I’m obsessed with the science of black hair – how differently ingredients affect it and the amazing variances in types and textures,” says Sinclair.
Stylist’s pick: Big Hair + Beauty Clean SLS-free Shampoo, £14
“As someone with fine, curly hair who wants volume without stripping my scalp and strands, it’s hard to find a sulphate-free shampoo that does both,” says Ava. “This removes product build-up and rebalances troubled scalps – plus the citrusy scent lingers for days.”
Charlotte Mensah, hairstylist, salon owner and hair range founder
Twenty-six years of expertise and winning Best Afro Hairdresser three times has made Mensah a total powerhouse. “After discovering the powers of manketti nut oil in my native Ghana, I needed it for my product range, trying it on devoted clients before expanding it into a fully fledged company,” she says.
Stylist’s pick: Charlotte Mensah Manketti Hair Oil, £48
Organic, sustainably sourced manketti and ximenia oils feel light and mend damaged hair, sealing in moisture. “My 4A hair loved this: heavy-duty but with a non-sticky texture,” says Aletha Davis, Stylist’s special products executive.
Loretta De Feo, founder of Dizziak
Former Stylist beauty contributor De Feo wanted products that would work wonders on textured hair and look chic in her shower. Enter Dizziak, an ‘aphrodisiac for afro hair.’ “There was a gap in the market for attractive and effective products,” she says. “I trialled my mask on 30 testers and got 10/10 from everyone.”
Stylist’s pick: Dizziak Deep Conditioner, £22
“Just over a year old and with a cult following, this transforms frizz, reverses heat damage and stimulates growth,” says Ava. “It’s my holy grail, working wonders in post-bleach crises and everyday dry spells alike - read my full review here.”
Carine Mbala, founder of Elenge
Natural, organic, handmade, organic and vegan. Elenge ticks a lot of boxes as a brand, but their hero Shea Butter ticks the biggest by far. “Black women have always been the backbone of our community, and were seeing that same strength to support each other in business and care,” Mbala tells Stylist. “Were embracing our beauty and strength and using it to support each other and build opportunities so the younger generations will find it easier to move through this world with lustrous hair and divine melanated skin!”
Stylist’s pick: Elenge Shea Butter, £12.99
Although this was designed for your face and body, all the ingredients work wonders on hair, too. Shea butter, coconut oil. grapeseed oil, aloe vera gel, and rose hip oil really feed strands and scalp, and the smell rivals most designer perfumes. Get ready to gleam quite literally from head to toe.
Michele Scott-Lynch, founder of Bouclème
If the candy-hued bottles don’t draw you in, then how about the promise of a hair detox that promises bouncier, shiny strands in one month? Bouclème’s products are free of sulphates, parabens and silicones - the latter of which coats hair and initially add shine, but dulls and weakens it over time.
Started by Scott-Lynch in 2014, the brand has successfully transformed the way many curly girls value their hair. “We continue to outdo ourselves every year, but we still need to level the playing field,” Scott-Lynch tells Stylist. “We need more magazines like Stylist and buyers at key stores to step up their support for inclusion and diversity in the products they promote, then curls and coils will become normalised.”
Stylist’s pick: Bouclème Curl Defining Gel, £15
Rake a 50p-sized dollop through soaking wet strands (trust me), then scrunch the excess out with a microfiber towel or old T-shirt. Leave to air dry, or diffuse, and prepare for the beautiful combo of shine, movement and hold (that isn’t crunchy or crispy at all) that’s guaranteed, every single time. Who needs gloopy gels?
Main image: Getty
Images: Courtesy of women featured