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How to Help Natural Hair Retain Length, According to Hairstylists and a Trichologist

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

I think back to my first hair memories — where I’m lying on a countertop in a kitchen, my neck suspended, coils wet or sitting in between my mother’s legs while she braids. Even then — I must have been 4 or 5 years old — I knew I wanted long hair. I’d wrap a towel around my head and let it flow down my shoulders. I thought short hair was ugly. By high school, I wanted nothing more than to have my hair swing in a ponytail or graze my back.

Black girls in pursuit of long hair are aware of just how tedious the process can be. Much of it is a waiting game dependent on how quickly your hair naturally sprouts from your scalp. And even though many of us know that all you can do is wait, that doesn’t stop an entire industry from claiming they can speed up the process. There are vitamins, growth oils, powders, and supplements, all of which are supposed to thicken, lengthen, and strengthen hair. But does any of it actually work? And why do we care so much about long hair in the first place?

Black hair has been shunned, sought after, politicized, and villainized across time — sometimes all at once. Black hair has been tucked away, pressed out, cut off, permed straight, all in service of a beauty standard that held up long hair as a prize — something to be euther proud or envious of. Girls who had it were told to protect it at all costs — cautioned against cutting it, against even a quarter-inch trim. It has bred an industry obsessed with chasing potential, selling the promise of results, with the reward being proof of your ability to get closer to a Eurocentric idea of beauty. And while long hair isn’t the exclusive domain of Rapunzel and her descendants, the ideal of straight, flowing tresses is not rooted in Black beauty traditions; it’s in contradiction to the way our hair grows. “Our hair grows out before it grows down,” explains trichologist and former stylist Bridgette Hill. “We need to shift the conversation to acknowledge the reality that healthy looks different for various textures and celebrates shrinkage. We need to make that beautiful.”

Making Black hair beautiful has been a decades-long project that has occurred in fits and starts. The most recent attempt can be located within the modern natural-hair movement, which began in the early aughts and encouraged lots of Black women (myself included) to stop relaxing their hair in favor of wearing their natural texture. It was intoxicating to watch big-chop videos where TWAs (teeny-weeny afros) turned into waist-length hair over the course of a few years. Plus long hair was happening across texture categories — from 3B to 4A to 4C, dispelling a decades-long myth that long hair was only achievable for a few. For the first time, people were turned on to their hair’s potential and also its ability to grow. This only increased the amount of hair-growth-specific tutorials and product recommendations — some of it helpful (moisturizing, regular trims, good nutrition), some of it not (never washing your hair). It was a new approach to a long-held beauty standard, and while it isn’t problematic to want to grow out your hair, it’s important to keep the ultimate goal in mind: hair health.

So what of the vitamins and supplements and oils? These things can certainly assist in your journey, but your hair is already growing — you just might not be retaining that length or, because of shrinkage (a hallmark of healthy hair), you might not be able to really see it. While it might seem like curly and coily hair types don’t grow as quickly, the biggest difference in growth rate is actually friction and fatigue. Straight and wavy hair types don’t experience friction in the same way as curly hair because it lays flat and doesn’t bounce and curl into itself. “As curls spiral around, certain parts are stronger while others are weaker. When you brush through them with enough pressure, you get mechanical damage, also called hair fatigue, and the hair breaks,” says Jon Reyman, a hair stylist and the founder of Spoke and Weal salons. Curly hair is incredibly fragile. Hill likens it to a cashmere sweater. “It is the most delicate fabric and should be treated the way you treat your dry cleaning,” she says. “We need a more gentle approach.”

Gentle means limiting manipulation like brushing, combing, and processing, detangling carefully, moisturizing regularly, and maintaining a clean, healthy scalp. All of these things, in addition to being healthy overall, creates an optimal environment for hair to grow. Reducing manipulation is one of the reasons protective styles are so popular, the logic being: the less you touch your hair, the more it will grow. And while protective styles are great, and can be an effective tool in the length retention and hair growth tool box, it’s important to still be attentive to your scalp while you’re tucking away your ends. Many of the stylists we spoke to also stressed the impact of lifestyle on hair and how that has more to do with growth and health than a magic pill, serum, or growth method. “Hair growth is based on genes, lifestyle, diet, and whatever else is going on with your body.” says Hill.

But there are products that can help in one way or another — whether it’s preventing split ends or stimulating your scalp to encourage growth. To find out the best of the bunch, we spoke to stylists and a trichologist about their favorite products, below.

Products

Reyman recommends looking for surfactants, which add slip to the hair and make sure it stays detangled. If you’re detangling wet, Reyman recommends using something with lots of surfactants — think a conditioner or oil or cream — to lubricate the hair. He likes this prewash from Aquis, which he says adds a hydrolyzed coating of coconut oil on the hair that stops the hair from absorbing as much water, which means it’s less likely to get damaged while wet. “It acts as a semipermeable membrane that stops the water from coming and leaving. It’s what the hair does naturally,” he explains.

It’s important to keep your scalp clean and build-up free, which is why cleansing is an essential step. Hill recommends alternating between detergent-based shampoo (think sulfates) and gentle scalp rinses. “Creating a hair regimen where you have a proper balance is going to be essential for anyone with curly and coily hair,” she says. Hill is a fan of this scalp tonic from Design Essentials, which she says can be used daily. “It doesn’t build up, and I love the way that it removes the debris,” she says. “It disintegrates nicely into the hair fiber and really penetrates into the scalp.”

She also likes this rinse from Renee Furterer, which uses a blend of cherry vinegar and plant extracts to cleanse the hair without stripping while also making it shiny. “I like applying this directly to the scalp,” she says. “I’ve found that my clients have seen great results.”