Caring for African Hair Lesson 1: Basic Overview |

Caring for African Hair Overview

Caring for African HairWelcome to Caring for African Hair!

I know that some of you out there have already had the experience of doing African hair.  If you’re here, then it means this experience might have been difficult.  Because of the curliness, many people view it as hard or tough, but in actuality, type 3c to 4b hair is quite fragile.

African Hair Textures
3c Springy, spiral curls of about 9 to 12 mm diameter.
4a Very tight zig-zag waves with peaks from 5 to 7 mm apart.
4b Very tight spiral curls of a diameter of 7mm or less.
4a/4b Relaxed or “Kinky Straight” Straight to mildly wavy, but with damaged cuticle, so it usually appears more fluffy than type 1 (bone straight) hair.

Hair follicles for curly hair are different than those of straight hair.  They shape the hair from the root so that it will grow in a wavy or spiralled direction.  So even if the cuticle (outer layer) of a very curly hair is very healthy, it is very thin, to allow the hair to curl without being too brittle, while allowing it to break off easily after it reaches a certain length.

So, before we begin, it is important that you acquire the proper tools.  You can find most of these at your local beauty supply.


The basic supplies you need to care for natural African hair are:

  • A large toothed comb.  Not the regular sort, but the kind that is usually half comb and half handle called an Afro Comb.
  • A rat-tailed comb.  This is a comb that will have somewhat closely spaced teeth at one end, and a long narrow rod or rounded pointy handle at the other.
  • A strong bristled brush.
  • A silk scarf or “do-rag”.
  • Moisturizing shampoo.  This can be a brand made specifically for African hair, or a mainstream brand that has a moisturizing shampoo that is labeled for damaged, permed or color treated hair.
  • Detangling conditioner.  Most conditioners are detangling, but a few are not.  Deep conditioners are usually not.  White Rain, Suave, and Swiss Formula (my favorite), and almost every one labeled for African hair are. Just be careful of the pH in hair care products. Above 7 can damage the already thin cuticle of most curly hair because this is too alkaline. By the same, a pH below 4 can also be damaging as this is too acidic.
  • Hair wax/hair food/hair grease/hair oil or clear leave-in conditioner.  What they are called varies.  For pen-springy (4b) hair, you will use a more solid hair oil.  For looser curls (3c) you will use a liquid oil or a clear leave-in conditioner.

The Method

African textured hair comes in quite a few textures, from curls about as thick around as one’s pinky finger, to as tight as the spring in a retractable pen.  The key thing to remember if you are starting out is to be patient.  Done carefully, African hair is extremely easy to care for.

The basic steps are:

  • Wash twice.
  • Condition with a detangling conditioner.
  • Apply hair oil to the shaft.
  • Comb through it while it is still damp.
  • Apply the hair oil.
  • Braid into large braids (about 6 to 10 for the whole head).

The steps may vary depending on the situation, but the hair should be washed once a week.

If you live in a cold climate, you will not want to let the hair air dry.  You may blow dry the hair with a blow dryer that has a comb attachment.  This will loosen the curls though.  Also be careful as even though it is strong, African hair can burn just like anyone else’s.  Additionally, you can braid the hair while it is still damp and use a hood dryer.

If you absolutely do not want to use heat on the hair, then you can wrap it with a good towel and let it air dry in a warm room.  Let the towel soak up most of the excess moisture, and then take it off after about a half hour, but stay in the warm place until the hair is totally dry.

If you will be cornrowing it, while it is damp is the time to do it.  Keep a spritzer of leave in conditioner, detangler, or water mixed with the detangler nearby to remoisten the hair as you work.

Boys generally wear their hair short, so it’s not that much trouble.  What little hair they do have, though, should be clean and conditioned.  Just be careful not to overdo it with oils.

Dealing with Knots

Sometimes kids want to be independent and they don’t always take care to comb thoroughly like they should.  Then their hair will get matted and knots in places.  When this happens, take the section of hair, spray it with the detangler, and holding it in your hand with the thumb and forefinger securing it, gently brush until the knots loosen.  It will take a little time, but it’ll happen.

The Afro

Wearing the hair loose in a sort of a cloud is called an Afro.  To care for an Afro, you will need a special comb called a “pick”.  They have a handle at one end, and long teeth that are a bit spaced apart at the other.  Don’t use the metal ones on children.

The hair needs to be braided every night without exception.  It is best to also wear a scarf or do-rag over the braids every night.  A hat or “koufia” should be worn whenever there may be exposure to sand, or other dirt.

Styles for Kids

As said before, boys usually wear their hair short.  Usually this is a very short cut of graduating thickness called a “fade”.  Some boys prefer to wear cornrows.

Girls generally wear pigtails or cornrows until they hit puberty.  Cornrows are worn even after, but the ornamentation changes.  Before puberty, cute beads and barrettes and twisters with cartoon characters and animals are worn.  After, the girl you’re caring for will likely only want pony beads if any.

It is inadvisable to use a chemical relaxer on a child’s hair before the age of 10.  They’re not a good thing even up to age 14, but it at least won’t be a total disaster that could leave the child balding before they’re even 16.


Relaxing is a term used for chemically straightening the hair.  It is very hard on the hair, so a special regime is needed to care for it. Since it came out that it increases our risk for cancer, we don’t recommend it at all, but include these instructions as a means of damage control. We understand not everyone has the luxury of a safe school, workplace, or social sphere. If you’re going to do it, at least do it in a way that causes the minimum damage.

One must be extremely gentle with it.  Hair must still be washed weekly, but a leave in conditioner should be used on the scalp and shaft, and  oil should be used on the ends before heat drying or styling.  It should be combed and brushed gently, and blow dried or roller set using a setting lotion.  The relaxer also has to be redone every two months in order to keep the relaxed hair from falling off at the end where the new growth of natural hair has grown in. Application should be done very carefully. Try not to let the cream or solution touch the scalp directly. It may be helpful to give it a coat of petroleum jelly first.

When exposed to moisture or humidity, relaxed hair will frizz or sometimes “revert” to being curly again.

Relaxed hair should be deep conditioned once a month, but for regular use, normal conditioners should be used exactly as instructed in hot climates.  If they are used longer than directed, the sun plus the residue from the conditioners will split the hair badly.

A note on safety, henna should never be used on relaxed hair, and hair that has been treated with henna should not be relaxed.


Texturizing is a term used for partially loosening the curl.  It is much less harsh than complete relaxing, but will still break down the hair somewhat.  A product called “curl activator” which is also called “oil gel” should be used on texturized hair right after washing, to keep it moist and bouncy.  In cold weather this can be problematic, so one may opt for just a leave in conditioner and hair oil.  The latter option is also less messy.

Curl Perm

A curl perm or Jheri curl or “leisure curl” will have its own set of recommended products including conditioners and activators, and will be labeled as such on the packages.  I would advise against mainstream substitutions and stick with Black hair care products for these.  There are a few sites that have them online or your beautician will have supplies, if you are currently outside of the the Americas or Europe.

And that about covers the basics of Black hair care.  The rest one will have to learn through experience and experimentation, but we will cover more of the specific in the next articles. 

Next Lesson: Natural Options and Beading | Lesson 3: The Art of Parting

© 2005 Sis. Nicole T. Lasher

About Sis. Nicole Lasher

Webmatron of and other sites in the network.

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