Ask an Expert: How to Keep Hair Healthy in Box Braids and Loc Extensions

Cynthia Alvarez #nolacrawl

Image: Q Bleu Photography

Box braids, locs and cornrows: Summer is the perfect season to break out protective styles that not only look fabulous, but give you a break from all the styling that comes with having natural hair. Though you love your box braids and the convenience of not having to go through a whole production every week detangling, braiding and twisting, that doesn’t mean you should neglect your tresses. Your hair is still growing underneath all that synthetic hair, so it’s important to take care and ensure it’s healthy and strong when you take out your braids or locs.

No one knows the importance of keeping those tresses on fleek more than celebrity hairstylist Cynthia Alvarez. Alvarez has worked her magic on the locks of Orange Is the New Black‘s Dascha Polanco, Keke Palmer and Lady Gaga and is credited by some with starting the gray hair trend. The hairstylist was on hand during Essence Festival at the Style Influencers Group‘s #NOLACrawl Style Suite in partnership with Dove to chat all things hair. We caught up with her to get some pro tips on how to take care of our hair while rocking braid or loc extensions.

One of the biggest mistakes women make when it comes to their hair is not moisturizing enough. “A lot of women complain about breakage or dry ends and I think that if women were more educated on how to treat our natural hair that would be very helpful,” Alvarez says.  

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Zendaya; Image: WENN

First and foremost, you’ve got to be mindful of what you’re doing while you’re in the shower. “Shampoo and conditioner is the first defense against dryness and a lot of the natural elements that work against our hair,” Alvarez explains. “You want a shampoo that is really creamy and moisturizing that will effectively and gently cleanse your hair, but won’t strip it of its natural moisture.” Curly hair, even when it’s manipulated into box braids or locs, is still very dry and susceptible to breakage. It needs to be maintained accordingly. “You want a conditioner that is buttery in texture, that is a little thicker, but won’t weigh your hair down,” Alvarez suggests. It’s also important to be mindful of how you’re drying your hair if you want to lock in moisture and stay looking smooth and neat. Alvarez recommends drying your hair with a microfiber towel to help prevent the frizz that comes as your hair starts to grow out. Ain’t nothing cute about fuzzy braids!

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Also, don’t be afraid to deep condition your braids or locs. Deep conditioning is an important part of hair maintenance and you can still do a leave-in with braids or locs installed. “I cannot stress [doing a leave-in treatment] enough,” Alvarez said. “A lot of women mix their cream serums with natural oils and that’s always a great idea because your hair is going to soak it all up.”

Ciara with locs

Image: @ciara

But sometimes all the moisturizers and braid sprays can be too much and leave your scalp so saturated with product, it can start to itch and cause major product buildup and dryness. “A friend of mine deep conditions her hair every other day and her hair is so dry. To combat the dryness, she uses more product. So she’s caught in a cycle that’s never going to end,” Alvarez dished. “Stop and take a look at the products you’re using. If they’re high quality, you’ll have a less chance of buildup, also if they’re natural. It’s why a lot of the natural hair community tends to use products that have a lot of natural oils infused in them and products that don’t have alcohol, which dries your hair out. If you want to use products daily, then I would say use a deep cleansing shampoo every other week just to start fresh and prevent that buildup from continuing. In between washes, if you feel like the oil is sitting on your scalp, take astringent [like witch hazel] on a cotton ball and go in between your braids to effectively deep cleanse it while you’re still hydrating your hair. “