Every time I get some braids, you basically can't tell me nothin'. Then when you take the cute factor up a couple of notches due to how convenient braids are, sometimes I have to literally talk myself into taking a break from 'em (like now). Anyway, while I'm not sure if I'm going to get my signature box braids in for the summer that is only a few weeks away (can you believe it?!), I definitely know that if I do happen to book an appointment, I'm going to do all of the things that trial and error have taught me is an absolute must.
A wise person once said that she who learns, teaches. Keeping that in mind, if you're seriously considering getting some braids soon, please take a moment to run through this 10-point checklist. That way, you can be confident that your hair will turn out just the way you want it to—and that your natural hair will be good and protected in the process as well.
1. Find Someone on Referral (or Meet with Your Potential Braider First)
I can't think of one time when I didn't go to get my braids done based on either a referral from a friend or by doing a thorough amount of research beforehand. When I got them as a teen, I only went to one person. When I got them a couple of years ago (and wore them for a few "rounds"), I not only read the online reviews of that particular salon, I also met up with my braider before booking an appointment. Listen, you're going to be spending too much money, sitting in that chair for far too long to be out here wingin' it. You need to go to someone you trust, so that you can get the best results. The extra time it takes to look into who is qualified is definitely well worth it.
2. Discuss the Types of Hair That Are Available
A huge mistake that a lot of women make when it comes to getting their hair braided is believing that all hair is the same. IT. IS. NOT. I remember once getting my hair braided by a dope braider yet the quality of hair was on the cheaper and itchy side (which is oftentimes the case when synthetic hair is packaged poorly and/or it's coated with a base that can trigger an allergic reaction). That's why it's also a good idea to ask your braider what kind of hair they have available and what would be the best kind for the style you want to have. Sometimes they may have the right hair on tap. Sometimes they may not.
For instance, the last set of box braids I got, I wanted a really natural ombre look, so I ordered some ombre-colored braiding hair online myself. It was one of the best decisions I ever made because the hair was good quality, felt really light on my head and the color ended up looking fabulous once the braids were in. I also got to knock some of the price off of my braiding appointment since, most times, the hair is factored into the prices. That made it a win, all the way around.
So yeah, don't just hop in a braider's chair without knowing what kind of hair they'll be working with. It matters just as much as the price, style and how long they presume everything will take.
3. Be Open to Getting More than Just One Style
Not all braided styles are created equal. That said, if you've got a good braider, while it is their job to make sure that you're happy as a customer, they should also offer up a few options that could be more complementary and/or take less time and/or could last longer than what you initially have in mind. Shoot, there have been several times when I thought I wanted something like Janet Jackson's hair in Poetic Justice, only to walk out with smaller braids in a lob (long bob) and I had absolutely no regrets.
I've also had moments when I thought I was married to jet black (my favorite color) braids and yet wound up with some random white and brown braids throughout my look and adored every minute of my reflection. Sometimes, the style we're after isn't the best when it comes to our face structure. Or, it's going to end up being heavier and hotter than we thought. Or, we just aren't aware of how many different braided styles actually exist. That's why going into a braids appointment with a couple of looks and also an open mind can never ever hurt. I can certainly testify to that.
4. Understand the Required Maintenance Beforehand
There are a couple of people in my world whose braids end up looking crazy about three weeks in while mine don't really need a retouch until week seven or so. The difference? They seem to think that braids require no type of maintenance at all and chile, that couldn't be further from the truth. Braid sprays can help your hair to retain moisture. Hot oil treatments can soothe and nourish your scalp. I don't know why folks think that they don't need a silk or satin scarf or bonnet to wrap their hair up at night (it reduces frays and frizz). High ponytails and top knots can put too much tension on the middle of your head and lead to breakage.
Wash days are still required (kinda; more on that in a sec). You definitely need to care for your nape and edges (more on that in a sec too). And, if you know that you're going to experience a good amount of regrowth, getting your edges tightened (which basically means getting the front and sides of your hair re-braided) is something that you need to schedule in too. While all of what I said may not hold a light to what you currently do, my point is you shouldn't overlook that braided hair still requires a regimen. Just something else to keep in mind.
5. Exfoliate Your Scalp
OK, now the prepping for the braiding itself. Remember how I said that sometimes the kind of hair that you use can lead to itching? It can cause a lot of irritation too. That's because our scalp is used to natural strands not synthetic fibers. Oftentimes, our scalp is already not in the best shape on braid day, so maybe 2-3 days before your braid appointment, consider prepping your scalp by exfoliating it. That can help to detox it and also remove any flakes.
Some people do detox their scalp by giving their scalp a massage with a bit of a warm carrier oil (such as jojoba, avocado or, my personal favorite, grapeseed which is great at treating dandruff) with a few drops of lavender (it cleanses the scalp) or peppermint (it invigorates the scalp) essential oil.
Others opt for making their own scalp scrub out of ingredients like brown sugar, sea salt or even lemon juice. If you'd prefer to go the second route, there are some easy recipes that you can try here.
Speaking of scalp irritation, another tip to keep in mind is to keep your scalp nourished once your braids are in. Sweet almond oil is great when it comes to providing moisture. Chamomile is wonderful if you want an oil that will soothe your scalp. Just get a bottle that has a nozzle for its top (that makes it easier to apply the oil in between your braids) and commit to oiling your scalp, eh, every couple of days or so. A soothed scalp means your braids can remain in longer without you being bothered by them.
6. Deep Condition Your Hair
Braids are definitely considered to be a protective style. The main reason why is because, two of the main benefits of getting them is 1) you literally don't have to do anything to your hair for 4-8 weeks and 2) your natural hair can get a break from constant styling and manipulation. However, there's no point in getting braids if, when you take them out, your own hair is a hot ass mess because it's dry and brittle due to lack of proper pre-hair care. That said, your natural hair needs as much moisture as possible before it's covered up in synthetic strands. That's why it's so important to deep condition your tresses, 1-3 days before braid day.
It will hydrate your hair. It will make it soft and manageable. It can also make it easier to either find fairy knots or prevent them. I've shared before that I like to deep condition my hair by mixing some regular old conditioner (pretty much any braid will do) and then adding some Chebe powder and sometimes some Jamaican black castor oil. After shampooing my hair, I'll apply the mixture and leave it all on for at least a couple of hours. My hair feels so amazing, every time I do it (which is every wash day). If you'd prefer to take another approach, check out "8 Hair Masks & Deep Conditioners That Revitalize Dry, Damaged Hair" and "5 Deep Conditioners Your Curls Deserve". You should be able to find a conditioner that you like there.
Irina Ivanova/Getty Images
7. Prepare to “Baby” Those Edges
I know someone who was so used to wearing braids that she no longer has any edges left. Y'all, if constantly pulling, tugging and even brushing and combing your hair can weaken your edges, just think about the weight of what braids can do over time. This is why your braider shouldn't braid your hair so tightly that you basically look like you got a free facelift. As far as the kinds of styles that can take some of the pressure off, feed-in braids or halo braids are ones that can do it. Whatever look you decide to go with, definitely keep the updos to a bare minimum.
Oh, and the baby hairs that so many of us still try and make happen? Please don't make that a daily occurrence and, when you do go with an edge control, make sure it has no alcohol in it (alcohol can dry out your hair and lead to breakage). One more thing, "feed your edges' follicles" by applying some olive, coconut or that Jamaican black castor oil that I already mentioned. Since your edges will still be (somewhat) showing, they need to be "babied" a little more than the rest of your hair does; especially while your braids are in.
8. Understand What Your Wash Day Requires
Wash day is interesting when you've got braids. The reason why I say that is because some people prefer to shampoo their hair, pretty much like normal while their braids are in while others would actually like to cleanse their scalp only (so that their braids can remain as intact as possible). Me?
Usually, I just keep my scalp clean by either parting my scalp and cleansing it with something like Sea Breeze astringent or Cantu's Apple Cider Vinegar Root Rinse (I really like it because it has a nozzle that makes it easy to apply to the scalp). If your braids are only going to stay in for about a month or so (and you don't typically experience a lot of flaking when it comes to your scalp), focusing on your scalp only can reduce the chances of your braids frizzing up.
Oh, and if you're thinking that dry shampoo can do the trick, please avoid that at all costs. It will definitely have your braids looking dusty and could irritate your scalp as well. If you do decide to all out wash your braids, it's probably easiest to do it in the shower. Be sure to go with a mild shampoo (preferably one that is sulfate-free because you still need to protect your natural hair and sulfates can dry it out). Put your shampoo into an applicator bottle (that's one that has a nozzle attached) and apply the shampoo directly to your scalp.
While you are washing, use your fingertips on your scalp and DO NOT rub your braids together. Let the shampoo naturally flow down to your braids, let it sit for a couple of minutes and then rinse your hair thoroughly. As far as conditioning goes, spraying some leave-in conditioner onto your scalp and braids is probably all that you will need to do. I won't lie to you—wash day with braids (especially if you've got a lot of 'em or your braids are long) can take several hours.
Many people just let them air dry; however, you can sit under a hooded dryer (or put on a hood attachment to a handheld dryer). Just make sure that your braids dry thoroughly because they can get mold in them (yuck, I know). Anyway, if you're more of a visual learner like I am, the YouTube channel Shanique Buntyn has a video that can walk you through the steps of how to wash your braids so that they come out looking as frizz-free as possible. You can check it out here.
Yadira G. Morel/Getty Images
9. Keep Them in No Longer than Eight Weeks Tops
Listen, I've seen plenty of videos out in cyberspace where sistahs have tried to "rig up" keeping their braids in by knotting up (literally twisting the hair or tying the roots into a knot) the new growth. Yeah, don't do that. All you're ultimately doing is asking for your hair to either lock up or for it to be pure hell for you to get everything untied when you're ready to take your braids down. While most stylists will say that six weeks really needs to be the limit for how long braids stay in, please don't push it past eight.
Otherwise, your natural hair could start to break, your scalp will probably get irritated (dabbing some peppermint oil onto your scalp with a Q-tip is a great hack for this), your hair follicles could weaken (due to the weight of the new growth combined with the weight of your braids)—it's just not a good look all the way around. Oh, and don't book your next braid appointment to be a mere couple of days after you took your braids out either. Even though braids are indeed a protective style, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing; your natural hair needs to breathe.
Two weeks off to wash, deep condition and let your hair rest are ideal.
10. Get Your Mind Right When It Comes to Taking Those Babies Out
I don't think there has been one time when, about halfway through a braiding appointment (for the size and length of the braids that I typically get, two women on my head ends up being 5-6 hours of braid time), I won't think, "Damn. I'm gonna have to take these out at some point." When your hair is relatively short, it's not that big of a deal because you can kinda cut the braids wherever you want and unravel them. Get a little length in, though, and it can definitely turn into an all-day process. SMDH.
The main things to keep in mind is 1) you need to be patient when cutting the braids so that you don't cut your own hair; 2) you need to find something fun to do to distract you (like binge-watch a television show), and 3) you definitely need to wash and super deep condition your hair once all of the braids are out. However much time you need to set aside to accomplish those three goals, that is what you need to purpose in your mind to do.
Putting braids in requires some hours. Taking them out does too. Both are worth it yet lawd, they both can get on your very last nerve. So, when it comes to getting braids (and getting rid of them), please make sure your head is—pun not intended—in the game. Happy braiding, y'all.
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