IG: @kitagirl921

The Best Protective Styles for Hair Growth Plus Length Retention Guide

What is a protective style?

A protective style is one where the ends of your natural hair are tucked, pinned or otherwise put away, and therefore shielded from the environment, friction and other destructive factors. The ultimate goal is to protect the oldest and most fragile part of your hair, therefore helping with length retention.

Jumbo knotless box braids with baby hair worn as a protective style on a Black woman with natural hair
IG: @pearlthestylist_

Do protective styles grow your hair?

Protective styles do not grow your hair. Your hair grows at an average of 1/4 to 1/2 inch per month, whether you’re wearing one or not. Protective styles do however make the conditions more favorable for hair growth to be recognized, by helping your mane to undergo less manipulation, maintain moisture and retain length.

Why isn’t my hair growing in protective styles?

Unless there are underlying health conditions, your hair is actually growing while in protective styles. If you’ve been seemingly hit a hair growth plateau, or are not inching forward like you had hoped, it is likely breaking off just as quickly.

In order to step up the results from your length checks, you’re going to have to get breakage in check. Because that can easily keep you from becoming goals.

That means it’s crucial to identify any hair care practices that are causing hair loss and fix them stat. The three most common types of breakage are manual, also known as, mechanical, caused by manipulation, physical, which results from heat styling and exposure to the elements and chemical, which is pretty self explanatory.

Can protective styles damage hair?

Protective styles can damage your natural hair, if they’re installed or removed improperly, or your natural hair is not maintained while wearing them.

Sure, braids can be a welcome change from your go-to look, provide a break from heat-styled hair, and constant manipulation or a getaway from daily styling during vacation. But just because they’re low-maintenance, doesn’t mean they’re “no maintenance.” That means you’ll also need to develop, and stick to, a regimen when wearing braids or any other protective style.

Let’s get into the “mane” things you should keep in mind.

How to Keep Your Protective Style From Damaging Your Hair

Ginger jumbo Coi Leray braids as a protective style on a Black woman with natural hair
IG: @euniceasiedu

Before You Braid Your Natural Hair

If you’re skilled enough to braid your hair yourself, great. But if not, please don’t roll up in a random person’s shop or spot because they “do hair.” All it takes is one bad experience to set you back.

So unless you have a go-to stylist or braider who comes highly recommended by people you trust, don’t skimp on your research. Ideally, you should be able to see pics of a prospective stylist’s work online, either on their own site or social media, in addition to client reviews.

Do your due diligence with a consultation or you will pay for it, quite possibly with your edges.

Ask if hair is included in the price, what types or brands they use, if you’re expected to come in for your appointment with your hair already washed and blow-dried, whether your hair is healthy or strong enough to handle the desired style, if an assistant will be helping, as well as recommendations regarding care. Ask questions until you’re satisfied.

Now when it comes to braiding hair, most are coated with an alkaline base that can cause an allergic reaction that’ll literally make you want to pull your hair out. So do yourself a favor and soak your braiding hair in a bath of 1 part apple cider vinegar to 3 parts hot water. Remove the hair after half an hour and allow it to air dry. The smell will dissipate and you would have steered clear of the potential for intense itching and inflammation.

Pre-cleaned hair is also available if you don’t want to DIY, but definitely don’t skip this step or you will regret it.

Once you’ve got the braiding hair situated, turn your attention to your hair. While starting with freshly washed hair’s a given, many don’t realize the importance of properly moisturizing and prepping their hair before braiding.

Because Black hair is already naturally on the dry side, when you throw synthetic hair into the mix, the thirst will be real. A good deep conditioning treatment beforehand can help to provide you with long-lasting hydration and much-needed protection against breakage.

Also, if you typically use permanent color to cover your roots, opt for a rinse instead to lessen the likelihood of brittleness once your hair is braided.

IG: @slimreshae

Caring for Your Hair While Braided

As beautiful as they ultimately are, there are so many opportunities for braids to go wrong, one of which is during installation. Please don’t sit there quietly in the chair and let anyone practically braid your thoughts and every baby hair along your extremely fragile hairline. Braids that are installed too tightly can cause everything from headaches and thin edges to traction alopecia. Ask yourself. Are some slamming Senegalese twists, really worth that type of suffering?

If you see bumps or have irritation along your hairline, these are tell-tale signs that your hairstyle is too tight and could lead to hair loss or breakage.

Equally important after the fact, is being mindful of the types of styles you manipulate your braids into. Limit the frequency of updos and other looks that can create too much tension, potentially causing breakage or permanent damage.

Braids expose your scalp to the elements, so be prepared to deal with dry scalp with appropriate moisturizers. On the other hand, if your hair tends to be more oily, make sure to clean your scalp more often to prevent build-up.

Also, remember to make scalp care a priority. Not only is your scalp more prone to getting itchy or flaking, but it’s susceptible to a build-up of product and dirt, and can trap odors and sweat. That’s definitely not a good look, or smell actually.

Be sure to wash your braids at least every two weeks. You can mix shampoo and water in a spray bottle and apply directly to your scalp. Rinse out in the shower, allowing the mixture to run down and cleanse your hair in the process. Opt for a braid refresher and scalp cleaner in-between to clean and condition your hair and soothe your scalp, without disrupting your do.

If you have issues with itchiness or dandruff, you can use an antiseptic oil, or one that contains tea tree and peppermint to soothe and lubricate your scalp.

In order for a protective style to actually protect your hair, you have to choose your products wisely. As you build your regimen, make sure to avoid products with drying alcohols, sulfates, cones, mineral oil and petroleum/petrolatum.

Instead, look for products with water among the first three ingredients to hydrate. You can also mix your favorite nourishing creamy leave-in conditioner with some warm water and spritz the length of your hair.

Remember, oils and butters don’t moisturize, but they can be used to lock in moisture. You can also apply oils before a shower and cover with a cap, allowing the steam to help them penetrate.

Most importantly, keep in mind that whenever your natural hair gets wet, either through washing, swimming or maintenance, always make sure it’s able to dry thoroughly so as not to become subject to matting and mildew, not to mention, create an environment where bacteria can breed.

And while it should be a given regardless of your hairstyle, please cover your hair with a silk or satin scarf at night. Not only does a scarf help protect your hair from drying out due to the indoor air or friction from your linens, but it helps to keep your edges laid and roots from getting frizzy, ultimately making your look last longer.

Protective styling is still meant to be short-term though. So don’t set yourself up for a setback with your own hair, by stretching your style past its expiration date. Besides, grown out roots just aren’t cute. Eight weeks is typically the limit on smaller braided styles and even that’s pushing it. So know when to let it go.

IG: @uniquetresses

Caring for Your Hair After the Takedown

Despite your best efforts around maintenance you’ll likely be dealing with dry hair, accumulated shed hair, product buildup and possibly matted new growth, so its particularly important that you practice patience. All of your gains can easily be lost if you don’t take your time with the takedown.

Spritz your hair with braid spray or leave-in conditioner. Do not saturate it.

See, all of the hair you would have naturally shed every day (50-100 hairs) will also come out along with the extensions. So don’t freak out. As long as you followed the steps outlined above and took proper care of your hair prior to, and while wearing braids, the shedding should be nothing to worry about. Just take your time when detangling so as not to cause more knots.

Detangle with your fingers or use a rat tail comb to unravel the extensions only. A wide-toothed comb should be used to thoroughly detangle each section, starting at the tip and working your way up to the roots, until it can glide through the length of your hair. Make sure the entire braid is undone before you attempt to slide the added hair off, so as not to cause more knots.

Enlist some trustworthy help, if needed, especially if your braids are very small.

You would be surprised how many people cut their own hair when removing their extensions. So to make sure your strands are in the clear, cut at least 3 inches lower than where you think your hair ends.

Despite your best efforts, you weren’t able to clean your hair and scalp like you’re accustomed to. Now that you can, you’re likely going to need to lather up more than once, focusing primarily on your scalp. Do this in the shower so that your hair can flow down along with the stream of the water, as opposed to in a sink, where your hair is likely to become more tangled.

It’s critical during takedown, that you use a clarifying shampoo, followed by a hydrating shampoo, gently massaging your scalp in the process, now that you have complete access. Follow with a moisturizing deep conditioner using heat. Your hair has probably gone 2 months without the needed weekly deep conditioning treatments so definitely don’t skimp on this step.

And while you might be tempted to jump immediately into your next protective style, please give your hair and scalp at least a two week break to breathe and recover, before putting braids back in.

The Best Protective Styles for Hair Growth

1. Knotless Box Braids

IG: @uniquetresses

When compared to traditional box braids, knotless box braids cost more, and take longer to install. Since the stylist has to gradually feed in hair throughout, the process is more complicated. And as we all know, time is money.

What you can’t put a price on, is peace of mind, literally. Knotless box braids are lightweight and tensionless, which more than likely means no headache now, or traction alopecia later. If protective styling for hair growth is truly your goal, then your decision should be a no-brainer.

Knotless box braids also don’t have the bulk that comes with traditional box braids. So not only do they appear more natural, but you can style them in certain looks, like a high bun or ponytail when they’re freshly done. And with proper care, breakage and shedding aren’t an issue.

Our only true con with knotless box braids is that they don’t last long enough. Without the knot at the root, which would normally help to secure the hair better, they tend to start getting frizzy relatively quickly. It’s pretty common to only get 4, possibly 5 weeks tops, out of a hairstyle.

There are a few things you can do to lengthen the lifespan of your look like opting for smaller braids, keeping your exposure to humidity to a minimum and making sure to wear a satin bonnet or silk scarf at night, as well as in the shower. Even the products used during braiding can make a big difference when it comes to longevity.

Regardless, at the end of the day, we’ll gladly make do with less time for healthy, longer hair. After all, the intention is for your knotless box braids hairstyles to snatch their edges, while leaving yours completely in tact.

2. Short Braided Styles

IG: @uniquetresses

There’s always been something inherently intriguing about short braided styles, like a bohemian bob. And without a lot of hair to hide behind, confidence is key.

Beyond the aesthetics though, there are lots of other pros to this look. Truly the perfect protective style to grow your hair, braided bobs are lightweight, resulting in less tension, which makes them more gentle on your natural hair. No to mention, the installation takes a fraction of the time and they’re much easier to maintain.

3. Crochet Hairstyles

IG: @iammarybennett

The ease and versatility of crochet hairstyles are unmatched. And as a protective style for hair growth, they win on both fashion and function.

Many of your favorite looks used to require endless hours in a braider’s chair, and possibly having to pop aspirin to deal with the subsequent pain. Then, there are those moments when you want to experiment with a style that’s significantly longer or shorter than your natural hair, explore different textures and colors, or turn up the volume.

Now, thanks to crochet braids, synthetic hair can be easily attached to your cornrowed hair using a crochet hook; Whether you want box braid, faux locs, Marley twists, wand curls, you name it. That means you can achieve the desired look and be on your stylish way, in a fraction of the time; and truth be told, more than likely, do it yourself.

But the best part is, you still have relatively easy access to your natural hair to clean, hydrate, and moisturize as needed.

4. Twists

IG: @designsbyjazmyne
Blodne peekaboo jumbo passion twists worn as a protective style by a Black woman with natural hair
IG: @itsdoreseb

It’s insane how many options you have when it comes to twist hairstyles. From Marley and passion, to Senegalese and Havana, the twists list goes on.

Most of the time, the installation’s the same, or pretty similar. The only significant difference is typically the type of braiding hair used, like Marley vs Kanekalon or Water Wave, for example.

If you can wrap two sections of hair around each other, you can do a lot of these hairstyles yourself, which makes it the perfect protective style for growing your hair.

You can remove them and redo them when ready. And oftentimes, many of the looks, like distressed or boho twists, get better with time. So any frizz that surfaces while caring for your natural hair, won’t negatively affect its appearance.

5. Twists and Braids without Weave

Low bun flat twists hairstyle without weave on Black woman with natural hair
IG: @brianalynee

Effective protective styles without weave are totally possible, but can be tricky, when you’re not adding hair. A lot of these styles that are referred to as protective, are actually just low manipulation.

When you don’t add hair, your ends are likely still exposed. So just remember they have to actually be protected, aka tucked away, like in the flat twisted bun above, or it doesn’t technically count as a protective style.

6. Cornrows

IG: @slimreshae
IG: @jasmeannnn

Cornrows styles can be as simple as straight-backs or Pop Smoke braids, or feature far more complex designs like tribal braids. Once you start to experiment with designs, colors, accessories and sizes, you’ll be surprised by the sheer number of possibilities.

Equally appealing though is that cornrows make the perfect protective hairstyle to help with length retention, when the ends of your natural hair are braided away.

They’re even super easy to maintain. As long as you keep your mane moisturized and cover your braids at night with a silk scarf, with the exception of laying your baby hairs, you should be good to go for at least 4 weeks, for most styles; giving your natural hair a much-needed break from breakage.

7. Faux Locs

IG: @jalia_walda

From an aesthetic perspective, faux locs are hands down a 10 every time. Unfortunately, they don’t rank as high on our protective style scale, when individually wrapping them yourself.

See, it’s pretty common to use about 6-8 packs of hair to complete a look. The wrap method typically requires filler hair for longer lengths, which means they can get pretty heavy, pretty quickly, causing tension and ultimately breakage, or worse.

Those locs also tend to be tighter at the roots in an effort to secure them, and allow less access to your natural hair for thorough care and cleansing; all together defeating the purpose of protective styling, if you’re not careful.

Don’t let that totally discourage you. If you’re going to opt for faux locs as a protective style for hair growth, we prefer pre-looped installed with a crochet hook for all of the charm, without the cons.

8. Buns

IG: @iammarybennett
Black woman wearing blonde medium knotless bohemian box braids worn as a protective style
IG: @jadeandjala

Part of the beauty of a bun is that it can be as easy or elaborate as you like, from a simple top knot to a braided bun with designs. Unfortunately, your favorite go-to look might not be doing you any favors.

Although your ends are tucked away, you also have to make sure you’re not pulling your hair too tightly when creating your bun, as tension will totally defeat the purpose of wearing a protective style.

You also want to be mindful about switching up the parts and position of your bun, so as not to repeatedly stress the same areas. Because wearing the same style repeatedly is a surefire way to cause breakage and hinder hair growth.

And as much as we love a slicked back bun, it doesn’t have to be laid to the gods, every time. You can opt for looser, “messy” looks, and still slay.

9. Bantu Knots

Black woman with 4C natural hair wearing a protective bantu knots hairstyle using braiding hair
IG: @tupo1

If you can create a classic bun, then bantu knots should be no problem. After all, they’re basically just mini buns. And the best part is, they’re a great protective style to get you closer to your hair goals.

After parting your hair in the desired design, simply twist each section, until it starts to wrap around itself. Then, continue until the ends are secured at the base to protect them.

If you want to go bolder, with your bantu knots hairstyles, you can play around with your parts and shapes, explore braiding hair and beads, colors and cornrows, even twists and tendrils. No matter how you twist it, they’re low manipulation and lovely.

10. Wigs

IG: @iammarybennett
Ombre box braids wig worn as a protective style by a Black woman with natural hair
IG: @iammarybennett

Nothing beats the convenience and versatility of a wig. You can switch your style and persona up frequently without fear of damaging your mane.

They can easily be removed, allowing your scalp and hair to breathe. And unlike braiding hair, which often cannot be used, a quality unit can last a very long time; giving you the most bang for your buck.

In order for a wig to truly be an effective protective style, you have to opt for a full-wig with a closure or frontal, so that all of your hair is covered. Otherwise having to style any leave out, could result in permanent heat damage, and a setback on your journey to your natural hair goals.

Wigs however are not without their cons. We still have to caution you about overuse, as the combs, clips and tape used to attach them can lead to broken hair over time.

Also, make sure you don’t skip the wig cap. A lightweight one can serve as the ideal barrier between your hair and the wig, preventing snags that can lead to breakage.

As you can see, growing your natural hair to bra strap length and beyond is more likely using protective styles, and there’s clearly no shortage of lovely looks to choose from, but you still can’t take any shortcuts when it comes to MANE-tenance. After all, healthy hair is goals.