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The Products I Use to Protect My Braids Before, During, and After Styling

Illustration: Courtesy of the retailers

For most of my life, I’ve been what many would call a “lazy natural,” hair-wise — I’ve tended to stick with buns and the occasional wash-and-go. All of this changed when I decided to give braids a try last summer, in the hopes of cutting down on my morning routine and looking like the always-on-vacation girls I follow on Instagram. Braids had burned me (or my edges, at least) in the past; the last time I’d tried them, my hair was left broken after a too heavy install. But an editor friend had recently turned me on to knotless braids (the process, she said, puts less tension on your hair and leaves you with a more natural look and feel), and I was curious to give them a try. The result, much to my surprise, was a profound shift in the way I saw myself — so much so, that I found myself getting teary-eyed when Representative Ayanna Presley said that wearing her waist-length Senegalese twists was like “meeting herself for the first time.” I felt that way too — and committed to wearing braids full time.

Since the summer, I’ve developed a routine for making sure my hair is well protected before, during, and after styling. This includes an array of bonnets, scarves, creams, oils, and lotions, all of which have found a place in my arsenal by way of trial and error or recommendations from trusted friends and family. It’s been a long five months, but I feel very confident in my routine — it has allowed me to stretch the amount of time between takedowns and maintain slicked and swooped edges that have people convinced my braids are perpetually freshly done.

Before Braiding

Since I wear braids often, it’s important for me to make sure my scalp is squeaky-clean. That’s where this micellar water shampoo from Carol’s Daughter comes in. It cleanses using micelles, which attract and lift dirt without stripping, a nonnegotiable for me in a shampoo. It has a watery consistency at first pour but then suds up nicely, and it leaves my hair with that ultra-clean, but not stripped, feel. I also like that it has a pointed applicator (seriously, why aren’t all shampoos like this?), which makes it easy to target my scalp directly.

I follow it up with the Wash Day Delight conditioner, which has the most slip of any conditioner I’ve used. The slip comes from the glycerin (it’s the first ingredient), which makes it easy to comb and separate my curls. I don’t use this one alone, however, as it can leave my hair feeling a little dry, and I like to make sure my hair is ultra-moisturized before putting it in a protective style.

That’s where this comes in. My hair wouldn’t be able to handle back-to-back protective styling without a good hair mask, and Shea Moisture makes my favorite. It’s thick and nourishing, and it helps to strengthen my frequently manipulated hair. I like that it’s packed with Jamaican Black Castor Oil (a beloved ingredient for its thickening abilities) and shea butter and adds back the moisture I lose while washing my hair. I coat my hair with this, start brushing out the knots, then leave it in while I live my life for a few hours to let it really do its thing before I wash it out.

I think of my life in two sections: before I purchased the Ultimate Detangler and after. I own four, am terrified it’ll be discontinued, and never, ever detangle my hair without it. It separates without ripping, tearing, or pulling. I use this when I condition and again when I apply my hair mask to ensure I’m spreading the product around evenly and thoroughly detangling my hair. The resulting effect? Separated, hydrated curls that look as good as they feel.

I’ve been using this since I went natural six years ago, and it’s the one product that has stayed with me throughout. It’s thinner than any of my Shea Moisture or Carol’s Daughter leave-ins, which is actually a good thing: It gives my fine strands a little extra moisture without weighing them down. I layer this in after I wash out the leave-in to ensure my hair is as smooth, hydrated, and easy to work with as possible.

Using an oil is the best way to seal in all the moisture your hair has gotten from the leave-in conditioners and masks. I don’t like my oils to be too heavy — this one is the perfect consistency, and a little bit goes a long way. I use it after on my scalp and ends, which helps with the inevitable friction of braiding hair and reduces the likelihood of an itchy scalp.

The last thing I use before blow-drying (to protect my hair from the heat) is this thermal mist from Bumble and Bumble. It ensures my hair is bouncy, not stiff, even after the blow-dry. I spray from root to tip, then all around, to make sure every strand is coated.

Photo: Courtesy of the vendors

I have a pretty consistent curl pattern, save for one patch on the left side of my head that has a mind of its own, and I’m willing to go to the ends of the earth to protect it — hence the Dyson hair dryer. I can acknowledge that it’s pricey, but two things make it well worth it: its “heat control” (basically, it checks in on the temperature 40 times a second to ensure it doesn’t get too hot and fry your hair) and its ability to dry quickly. It takes me about 20 minutes total to blow-dry my hair with this — with my old, cheaper blow-dryer, the process took me 45 minutes or more.

While Braiding

No good braid install is complete without an exceptional jam or paste to keep things in place. I’ve tried many options for this step (like Creme of Nature’s Argan Oil Perfect Edges), but nothing does as good a job of keeping my hair slick and non-frizzy. It offers a flexible hold and doesn’t flake up or cake up, which is a win in my book. Plus, it smells good, which is really just a bonus — it’s so effective I’d still use it if it smelled less pleasant.

After Braiding

The key to maintaining any protective style is to tie it down at night. There’s no getting around it. And since I refuse to give up my cozy cotton pillowcase (which can dry out your hair) in favor of a silkier option, I wear a satin-lined cap from Grace Eleyae (a slap cap to the initiated). I love that it hugs my head and stays in place no matter how much I toss and turn, and it helps cut down on frizz, friction, and breakage.

I’m obsessed with this stuff — it holds my edges down for days and makes shaping my baby hairs a breeze. I will note, however, that too much will leave my edges white and flaky, so I use just a few dots for the entirety of my hairline.

I recently abandoned my big boar-bristle brush for something daintier, and I don’t know why I didn’t make the switch sooner. A smaller brush means I have so much more control, and it lets me get the tiny hairs by my ears without full-on styling my sideburns. I stick to the brush side mostly (although the comb is great for shaping and separating) and use the pointy end to smooth my baby hairs into the right formation. I own this in every shade now and have made my friends buy it, too.

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The Products I Use to Protect My Braids