Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Things You Should Know About Afro Hair: The Basics

Afro hair has been a very contentious issue for black women. With its reputation for being coarse, hard to manage and unable to grow it's no wonder that whenever I see a woman in her natural glory I can't help but stare-it's not something I see daily. This article is not against women who are weaved/relaxed. I will be wearing wigs while I grow out my hair. Neither is this going to be an accusation that weaves/relaxed ladies only do so because of the European standard of beauty (though I will touch upon the historical reasons we started burning our scalps and wearing wigs in the first place.) I want to dispell natural hair myths so you can see your textured tresses as a beautiful and unique object of desire. I will also invite you to follow my natural hair journey. Our hair can grow long but so many years of misinformation has meant our hair doesn't flourish. Afro hair has been the least studied so there's still so much to learn about it. Alot of us are damaging our hair for social acceptance. When are we going to reject the idea our hair isn't good enough?

Our hair is an evolutionary adaptation to our indigenous enviroments. Afro hair is said to grow outward as a defence from powerful UV rays. The comparitively lower number of hair follicles (compared to Asian and caucasian hair) allow for air to reach the scalp increasing blood circulation, regulating temperature. Afro hair texture is down to the shape of our hair follicles acting as moulds. Caucasian hair follicles are oval shaped whilst asian hair follicles are rounder producing bone straight hair. Our flatly shaped follicles press our hair into a tight curl pattern.

In Africa, hair styling had ceremonious significance. A craft passed down through generations of women. Black soap was used to wash the hair whilst natural ingredients like palm oil and shea butter were used to moisturise and dress the hair. Hair styles varied depending on your tribe, place in the family unit and position in society. One would never wear their hair in an afro as this signified; povery, loss and/or madness. The transatlantic slave trade held dire consequences for our hair care. Foreign lands lacked the tools and ingredients our hair needed to thrive. For lack of an alternative option, slaves would use sheep carding tools which lead to the spread of scalp irritations such as dandruff and lice. Female slaves with wavy/longer hair would be subject to jealousy from the masters wife and would often have to cut their hair given them a less feminine appearance. On the other hand, those with finer hair textures had better social and economic opportunities, thus, in a more favorable position than those with kinkier hair textures. By the 19th century slaves were granted Sunday to attend church and socialise. At this time hairstyling once again became an integral part of the culture. It was also in the 19th century natural afro textured hair was virtually outlawed in New Orleans. Ladies with kinkier textures had to cover their hair with a scarf whilst in public. The societal rejection of afro textured hair culminated in Garrett Augustus Morgan's (the 11th child of former slaves) accidental discovery of a chemical that straightened the texture of hair. The chemical was discovered in Morgan's attempt to invent a liqiud to lubricate needles in sewing machines. He wiped his hands on a wool cloth, noticed the effect and "Morgan's hair refining cream" was born. This spawned a multi million dollar industry.

We now know that a product (like modern day hair relaxers) that penetrates through to the corticle layer (where the hair contains its strength and elasticity) altering it's structure is liable to lead to damage/breakage. But there are other less obvious ingredients on the market that strip our delicate hair type. I've listed a few below:

Sodium (lauryl, laureth, laurel) Sulphate 

This ingredient is in over 90% of foaming products. It strips afro hair of essential natural oils, leaving it dry, brittle and vulnerable to breakage. Sodium laurel sulphate is used in products such as; car washes and engine degreasers. Not the best ingredient for hair that needs gentle handling to thrive. Try using a sulphate free shampoo. If you want to splash out there's Carols Daughter Black Vanilla Moisturising shampoo. If like me you're on a budget try Elasta QP Creme Conditioning Shampoo. I use it and it works wonders with my hair.

 Mineral oil/Petrolatum

These ingredients act as barriers stopping moisture getting through, causing dryness. Mineral oil/petrolatum do not penetrate the hair shaft so cannot effectively moisturise the hair. Let me explain why afro hair gets so dry. The scalp produces the same amount of natural oils as other races but due to the hair texture the oils cannot effectively travel through the hair, the texture is also the reason our hair breaks and why low manipulation styles (the less combing/brushing/messing around with it-the better) help our hair grow.  These ingredients (mineral oil/petroleum) clog pores causing a build up of toxins and affecting overall hair health. There are only 3 oils that can penetrate the hair shaft; coconut oil (cold pressed is the best variety), avocado oil and olive oil. Ingredients such as aloe vera juice, water or glycerine are great for moisturising too. Genuine mosisture stops hair getting brittle by helping it to retain elasticity, strength and shine. In order to help retain moisture seal it in with other oils (almond, castor, jojoba) or shea butter. In fact I've found a company "Shea Delight" (UK based) who have developed a hair cream using a blend of high grade unrefined organic shea butter with organic cold pressed coconut oil (and nothing else) for the crazy price of £5.00! Google  "cold pressed coconut oil" and you'll see a little tub will set you back £8.00 so it's real value for money. My hair has been so healthy since I started using it.

This one is a blend of manuka honey and unrefined shea butter. For orders call Judith on: 07947384046 or alternatively email: Do not get confused that the above is a skin cream. It's great for skin AND hair.

Isopropyl Alcohol 

An ingredient used in anti-freeze and hair colour rinses. It dries out afro hair making it prone to breakage. 
 Moisture is key!

Black Girl Long Hair Style Icon

The civil rights era brought with it a new conciousness. The afro hairstyle became mainstream as people decided to reject colonial idea's about afro textured hair. There were some natural hair controversies when correspondent Melba Tolliver sported an afro to cover Tricia Nixon's (daughter of president Richard Nixon) wedding. The station threatened to take Tolliver off the air until the media caught on to the story. There's still debate within the black community whether wearing an unaltered hair texture makes one look unprofessional. Some ladies have been accused of making a political statement just by wearing the hair they were born with. Since the black power movement the trend for natural hair has gone through the motions. Weaves and relaxers remain ever popular. Although, this could all change. I've recently discovered natural hair is enjoying a renaissance. There are many great blogs dedicated to aiding afro haired women in gaining long, healthy hair. The support I've seen for women wanting to learn more about their hair is astonishing. Those interested in going natural or even relaxed and weaved ladies looking to get advice on a world of hair complaints are met with tons of helpful advice. I've never witnessed so much unity in the black community. Encouragement for those who feel insecure with wearing a tiny afro, other ladies exhibiting the wig they wear whilst their natural hair grows long enough to style, sharing their hair mistakes as well as their successes. Connecting black women all over the world. The "secrets" to long afro hair (amongst other things) are: Moisturising, sealing and protective (low manipulation) styling that protects the ends. Since the ends of our hair are the oldest and driest part extra care is needed to maintain them in order to retain length. Hair is a dead fibre that can only be either preserved or damaged. Growing afro hair means retaining length by hiding  those ends away for a special occasion. Whether we are relaxed, wear weaves/wigs or go natural there is advice out there so we can do the best by our hair. At the bottom of this article I've included some useful links for those with natural or chemically treated hair...

Personal Hair Journey

I used to have locs but took them down a couple of years ago and abused my hair with everything-for the last time. I bleached and relaxed my hair 6 weeks ago and have now cut off all my chemically treated hair. I only discovered the hair blogs after my decision and they have been a fantastic resource. To prove my point I'm going to take a picture every 3 months for a hair growth update. I want to prove that even after years of abuse beautiful hair is attainable. So, this is where I'm at:

Smallest afro ever! Will check back in 3 months.

Useful hair care links: 


  1. Love your piece. Lots of need to know info so we can make an informed choice bout wat we put our hair through. If we consider our hair as the extension of our skin that it is maybe we'd think twice, three times bout wat we put on the largest. Organ of our bodies. Wil llook fwd 2 edwin your nex photo! Nappy natty blessings dx

    1. Hey, Thanks for your comment I'm glad you liked the article :) I plan to carry on being happy to be nappy. I don't think we should be afraid of our hair anymore x