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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.