Braided styles are a year-round staple because of their versatility and ability to protect natural hair, but what happens when you need to make them last longer than usual? We gather the best advice for making the most of your braids.
Time and time again, braided protective styles are the go-to hairstyle for black and mixed heritage women across the entire curl pattern spectrum. Bottom-length braids and winding passion twists have long dominated Instagram feeds and Google search results alike, solidifying this kind of protective style as a chic, low maintenance way to switch up your look.
Ryan Destiny, Gabrielle Union and Jorja Smith are just some of the names seen rocking braided looks recently, with countless YouTube tutorials providing endless inspiration. In fact, the hashtag #neatbraids has half a million posts on Instagram alone.
Yes, the versatile protective powers of braids have made them a cornerstone of curly/coily hair styling for years. When I was growing up, the return to school each September was always pre-empted by a braid appointment, without fail. For my mum, braids were the answer to caring for the different curl patterns of her three daughters with the most ease.
Years later, and my own transition from chemically relaxed hair to a fledgling ‘naturalista’ has given me a new appreciation for the process of ‘resting’ my hair. This past summer, braids definitely occupied significant real estate in my own haircare routine – but as someone whose hair tends to remain on the brittle/dry/another-dry-word side, protective styling is a must. Armed with a few packs of synthetic X-Pression hair extensions in colour 1B (the darkest shade) and a few hours in my hairstylist’s living room, I can protect my coils and look forward to enjoying an extra twenty minutes of snooze time in the morning.
But the ultimate test of convenience is the longevity of your braided style. Braids may be fuss free, but without TLC your #neatbraids can start to unravel or loosen very quickly. Although as a rule of thumb, braids should never be kept in for more than 6-8 weeks, right now, we’d understand if you were looking for a way to extend their lifespan. And that’s exactly why we’ve pooled the best tips for caring for braids.
If you already have braids in, scroll down for our advice on refreshing them, but if you’re lucky enough to live with a braiding expert and you’re about to try your next braided style, start here.
Okay, so you may not be able to visit your regular stylist right now, but if you live with a resident braider, then take note: the lifespan of your braids is very much dependent on the prep.
Washing your natural hair and prepping both your scalp and extension hair all contribute to the shelf life of your braided style. Depending on your hair type, scalp sensitivity and thickness, the pre-braid process will differ – and make sure to consider the current condition of your hair.
Washing and treating your hair
Ask yourself before your regular wash day: do I need to worry about my particularly flaky scalp, dry ends or endless knots to detangle? If so, when washing before a braid installation, it is important to address each of these concerns before your appointment. For dry scalps, we recommend Sunu Ker’s Rosemary ‘N’ Argan Oil Hair Mask, £6. For kinky and easily-tangled hair, this Shea Moisture Raw Butter Extra Moisture Detangler, £10.99, is a personal favourite of both me and the pick tool on my hairdryer.
Dry ends can be remedied with a deeply moisturising product filled with natural nourishing ingredients and silk amino acids, such as the Twisted Sista Leave In Conditioner, £5.89. Following the ‘LOC Method’ (an abbreviation for leave-in conditioner, oil and cream, the ABCs of curly hair) when washing can also do wonders in the quest to retain moisture throughout your braided hairstyle.
Sunu Ker Rosemary ‘N’ Argan Oil Hair Mask
Shea Moisture Raw Butter Extra Moisture Detangler
Prepping your scalp and hair with moisturising oils and lightweight lotions can also help your hair strands to retain moisture, which will serve you well when your hair is twisted into beautiful braids away from your natural oil production. Use a dry natural oil to nourish, but ensure you don’t overly grease the scalp as this can actually block pores and make the scalp even more uncomfortable.
Before the braiding begins (with your thoroughly-washed hair), also be sure to pre-treat your attachment hair extensions correctly to counteract that infamous braid itch.
During the braiding
So, you’ve now settled down in your cosy living room with the latest music surrounding you – or in my case you’re propped up with an episode of Greenleaf blaring in the background – and it’s time to begin the rewarding marathon that is braid installation.
If you opt for box/single braids, go for a knotless style. Knotless braids are now the most sought-after method of hair braiding because of its exclusion of the knot at the base of the braid by feeding in the extensions bit by bit (rather than one single chunk) as the hair is braided down. This will release unnecessary tension on your natural hair, as well as make it easier to sleep, style and refresh your hair. The elimination of the knot allows for complete movement and less tension on your scalp – my current hairstylist Vicki swears by this method, and my scalp and paracetamol stores will be eternally grateful for its existence.
From the first night after your new braid installation, it is crucial to begin properly caring for your braids to ensure they look fresh for the weeks to come.
Night time protection
Just add moisture
Unless completely necessary, avoid over-washing (no more than once a fortnight) the lengths of the braids as this can dry out both your extensions and natural hair. Also, due to the intricate nature of your plaits, getting moisture throughout the strands to your natural hair can be difficult.
To moisturise your braids, Hair Lounge salon founder Charlotte Mensah recommends using a hair oil to lock in moisture and give any new growth elasticity when the braids start to tug at the roots. If that seems like too much work for your fuss-free look, invest instead in a moisture spray like this one from Afrocenchix and say no to long, submerged hair baths to keep your braids looking almost brand new.
When you do need to wash, make sure you wash the braids in sections to give you control over the hair. Using lightweight shampoo such as Aveda’s Brilliant Shampoo, £20.50, or this vegan-friendly one from As I Am can allow you to cleanse your hair without leaving behind any product build up. Rather than just jumping under the shower head, try shampooing with a small wet flannel so you can glide between your partings.
Refresh by section
If you’re after smaller refresh steps, consider re-dipping your ends in hot water to rid your braided style of that dull matted look it gets after a couple of weeks, and use a lightweight styling mousse (yes, a mousse) to help tame flyaways on the body of your braids. Opting for a mousse rather than a gel prevents product buildup while taming fuzz.
For everyday styling, laying your edges with a good edge control such as this Crème of Nature one and experimenting with fun styles/hair accessories can all help to extend the life of your braids. Finish off with a sheen spray for extra shine on the greyest of winter days.
And for when you can braid again…
Finding a braid stylist
Now’s the time to do your research, and connect with your future favourite braid stylist.
Before Instagram and YouTube revitalised the curly/afro hair movement, word of (mums’ and aunties’) mouth was the only way to find out where and who could plait your hair. Although accessibility is at an all-time high with the success of salons such as the TrapHouse Salon and freelance braiders including @braidedbygilly via Instagram, I still opt for my at-home hairdresser ‘Auntie Vicki’ for comfort and familiarity.
Before an appointment, doing your research on where and who to go to is just as important as picking a style. Making sure your hair stylist understands your hair and preferred style can save you both time and the trek to another panic-appointment. My hairstylist works best from Instagram photos for reference, but some stylists prefer it if you use the correct name and method, like Sengalese twists.
Unlike the waist-long canerows and twists that ruled the summer, thinner box braids last longer and are perfect for winter when switching up your look may seem less appealing – however different styles and length equals different pricing and time spent, so make sure to confirm this with your chosen stylist.
Aveda Brilliant Shampoo
As I Am Curl Clarity Shampoo
Crème Of Nature Perfect Edges Black With Argan Oil
Afrocenchix Sheen Natural Moisturising Spray
Amara 100% Mulberry Silk Pillowcase
Images: Getty/Courtesy of brands