For the vast majority of my life, my hair was relaxed, just like my mother’s. We spent countless weekends in hair salons getting our relaxed strands touched up and styled, all in an effort to keep our manes as curl-free as possible. Which is to say, when I finally went natural in my mid-twenties, I was a bit lost. After spending years perfecting my straight hairstyles, I had no idea how to style my transitioning hair that wasn’t quite straight and not really curly. Then, I came across protective hairstyles. It was just the style solution I was looking for, a look that protected my transitioning strands without having to sacrifice on style.
It’s been a few years since I went natural, but protective styles are still a staple in my hair care and styling routine. Whether you’re newly transitioning, or have been natural all of your life, you’re going to want to add these protective styles to your arsenal.
Keep reading for our ultimate guide to protective hairstyles for natural hair.
What is a protective hairstyle?
Simply put, protective hairstyles safeguard your ends and help reduce tangling, breakage, and shedding. Protective hairstyles run the gamut from messy buns to box braids, but they all exist for the same purpose: to give your strands a break from the wind, pulling, tugging, and heat styling.
It’s important to know that not all protective styles are created equal. If your protective hairstyle is installed or styled too tightly, it could do more harm than good. If you’re styling your own hair, refrain from putting too much pressure on your strands. Heading to a salon to have your protective style installed? Don’t hesitate to speak up if you feel like your stylist is pulling a little too tightly or adding more hair than necessary.
Do protective styles help hair grow?
Protective hairstyles cannot help your hair grow. Your DNA determines the rate at which your hair grows, and there are no products, hairstyles, or treatments that can change that. However, protective styles can help to reduce breakage, and less breakage can help you achieve longer hair.
What is the purpose of protective hairstyles?
The purpose of a protective hairstyle is to protect the oldest, most vulnerable part of your hair (your ends) from unnecessary environmental and styling stressors. Whether you’re tucking your hair away from heat and humidity in summer or the cold, dry winds of winter—no matter the season, there’s a protective style to enjoy.
While protective hairstyles do not help your hair grow, they can help your strands retain length and maintain moisture. Lastly—and this is a favorite of mine—the best protective hairstyles are low maintenance. If you’re a fan of lie-ins or rolling out of bed ready to go, then give both yourself and your hair a much-needed break.
What is the most protective hairstyle?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all protective hairstyle. While styles like messy buns are fairly universal, other protective styles such as box braids or Senegalese twists may do more harm than good if you have very fine, thin, or fragile hair. The most protective style for your hair will be a style that safeguards your ends while ensuring the rest of your hair is cared for. Braided protective hairstyles tend to be the most popular method of hair protection due to their incredibly versatile nature. Find a protective style that is safe for your hair and you’ll reap the benefits.
How do you maintain your protective style?
If you’re keeping your protective hairstyle in for longer than a week, you’ll need to wash your hair while it’s still installed. Shampoo your hair like you usually would, making sure to be gentle so as not to disturb your style too much. Follow your shampoo with a hydrating conditioner to ensure your hair looks and feels moisturized. We recommend Mizani’s Moisture Fusion Moisture Rich Shampoo and Intense Moisture Mask.
Once you’ve washed and conditioned your hair, you’ll need to make sure it is completely dry before styling. Because many protective styles require you to add extra hair to your style, you may want to use a blow dryer or hooded dryer to make sure your mane is 100 percent dry. If you leave your hair damp (particularly near the scalp), you run the risk of developing dandruff, fungus, or even mildew.
If you don’t have time to wash and condition your hair regularly completely, invest in a good astringent—we recommend witch hazel. It can help remove dirt and buildup, keeping your scalp healthy between washes. Apply the astringent with cotton swabs to ensure you clean every nook and cranny of your scalp.
If your scalp becomes itchy or irritated, reach for a soothing scalp treatment like Kérastase Specifique Potentialiste Serum. This antioxidant rich scalp serum has a fast absorbing gel-texture helps soothe dry scalp and leave it feeling healthier and hydrated. As well as keeping your scalp soothed, you’ll also want to keep it moisturized.
How long should you leave your hair in a protective hairstyle?
While there are a whole host of benefits to protective styles, leaving a style in for too long can undermine those positives. Even when installed correctly, leaving protective styles in for too long can put unnecessary stress on your scalp and strands. Too much pulling at the scalp can weaken your hair and cause thinning—or even hair loss. But don’t panic. You can still enjoy amazing styles—you just need to exercise moderation in how long and how often you wear them.
How long you should leave a protective style in your hair depends on which protective style you choose. If you opt for a simple protective hairstyle like a bun or a wig, you should undo the style before you go to sleep. For a more long-term style like box braids or faux locs, you can keep that style for anywhere from six to 12 weeks (as long as you properly care for your strands). Once you remove your protective style, it’s recommended that you wait at least three to seven days post sew-ins or braids before getting extensions redone. However, if your style is done with your natural hair i.e. two-strand twists, then a one or two day break is a good idea.
The Best Protective Hairstyles To Try Now
Now that you know what a protective hairstyle is and how to care for it, we’ve rounded up 11 of our favorite protective hairstyles. Your strands—and your Instagram feed—will thank you.
Knotless box braids
These braids are a variation of box braids that cause less tension on the scalp, due to their lack of a knot commonly found at the base of traditional box braids. With less scalp tension, it’s much easier to move the braids upwards and style them in a cute updo. If you have fine hair or just want to wear a top knot with ease, then this is the style for you.
Fancy more of a boho-chic look? Check out goddess locs. These appear nearly the same as regular faux locs, with the addition of curls in the loc and at the tips. If you’re interested in protective hairstyles for curly hair then goddess locs can represent the best of both worlds; a fresh new look with a reminder of your natural curls.
Braids are some of the best protective styles around, and we love this crown variation. Wrap your hair with a silk scarf before you go to sleep if you want to wear this regal style all week long.
If you’ve ever wondered what you would look like with locs, now you can see with the help of faux locs! Faux locs are a semi-permanent style in which yarn, synthetic or human hair is wrapped around your natural hair to give the appearance of locs. Faux locs are often considered a protective style because they allow your hair to remain natural and untouched beneath the added hair.
When you hear the term “protective hairstyle,” many people think of long-term styles like faux locs and box braids—but you don’t have to slay a style for weeks at a time for it to be protective. If you’re looking for a simple, everyday protective hairstyle, look no further than the messy bun. The messy bun tucks your ends away, keeping them protected without unnecessary pulling or tugging.
Bantu knots are one of the most stylish protective styles out there. Our favorite part about Bantu knots is that you can get two killer styles out of them. Slay your Bantu knots for a few days, before unraveling them for flawless heatless curls.
Cornrows are great for anyone to wants a style that will keep their hair out of their face but still allows for a lot of versatility. If you want a simple style, opt for straight back cornrows. If you’re looking for a style that’s a bit more intricate, get creative with the way you part your hair—the options are limitless!
When you think of protective hairstyles, box braids almost always come to mind, and for a good reason—they’re absolutely stunning. Box braids are great for anyone looking for a protective hairstyle they can wear for a few weeks. Now you’ll have an extra 30 minutes to sleep every morning without having to worry about what to do with your hair.
If the point of a protective hairstyle is to keep your ends hidden away from unnecessary stressors, then wigs are the ultimate protective style. A wig not only protects your ends, but it also keeps your entire mane safely tucked beneath its perfectly styled barrier. The best part? Wigs allow you to try out any hairstyle, cut, or color your desire without altering your natural hair.
While box braids may not be a great choice for anyone with fine or fragile hair, it doesn’t mean the look is completely off-limits for anyone with thin hair. If you love the look of box braids but need a style that doesn’t add as much weight to your mane, consider crochet braids. Crochet braids are pre-styled braids that are installed into your cornrowed hair. You can slay any style with ease without putting unnecessary weight on your strands.
If you love the look of box braids, you won’t be able to get enough of Senegalese twists. This simple two-strand twist is one of the most popular styles around, and it won’t be going out of style anytime soon!
Shop all of your protective hairstyle must-haves at Hair.com.