African American Skin and Hair Care:  Tips For Non-black Parents

by Barbara Tantrum

The first thing to learn about African American skin and hair care is that it is completely different than white skin and hair.  White people shower often to keep their hair from looking greasy, for African American hair you need to add as much oil and moisture as you can.  You have to spend a lot of time thinking about moisture and not stripping what is naturally there.

Skin:  African skin tends to be very dry and to look “ashy” or whitish when dry.  It is best to apply lotion at least once a day (I like before bed) or twice a day for really dry skin.  You want to use the thickest, most serious lotion you can find.  I like the cocoa butter kind that you can get in a tub (it’s thicker than with the pump).  One of my older girls likes vaseline, but I don’t like it as much as the cocoa butter one.  One of my girls has skin that is super dry, so I make a lotion for her out of shea butter and coconut oil.  (recipe at end of article)

Sunscreen:  Sunscreen is a balance between Vitamin D and not wishing to cause skin damage.  For us in Seattle I don’t have the girls wear it a lot except when they’re going to be in the sun all day.  This can actually be a problem for some camp activities, you would think it was akin to child abuse to want your child to get a little Vitamin D.

Types of hair:  People of African descent have many different types of hair.  Some people have large, soft waves that a good conditioner and curl definer will tame, and others have curls so tight that you feel like you have to be an expert to work with it.  No advice I give can apply to all hair, so you need to experiment and try things on your own and see what works for you and your child.

Hair tools:  The essential hair tools include an ethnic specific shampoo, leave in conditioner, and wide tooth comb.  Other helpful tools include rat tailed comb or chopstick, small rubber hair bands, beads, braid spray, curl definer, coconut oil, satin sleep bonnet, satin pillow case (this protects hair), clips for holding sections of hair, seam ripper, hair extensions and super glue.

Boys hair:  Boys’ hair is different and easier.  The biggest thing to remember is to moisturize, and you can use a leave in conditioner.  It’s important to use ethnic shampoo so you don’t strip off natural oils.  Don’t use shampoo every day, however, and use lotion daily.  The easiest thing is to keep hair very short.  If your boy has longer hair, then follow the advice given for girls.  Cornrows can look very good on boys.

Girls hair:  Before embarking on girl’s hair, you should watch the movie “Good Hair” by Chris Rock.  Black hair is a huge issue of politics, racism, and class.  You can’t discount hair and deal with it as white culture does, because if the child is going to be at all interacting with the black community you need to be sensitive to this.  Hair is how a girl shows status, parental love, and her sense of worth.  Caring for black hair takes time and resources, but it is critical in raising your girl.  This is a sensitive issue, and one that is a way to show love and racial sensitivity to your child of color.  I’ve talked to adult adoptees of color that say things like, “My mom was great, but she just didn’t know what to do with my hair.  It made me feel really different.”  Don’t be afraid, you can learn how to do this!

Books have been written about hair care, so I will not pretend to write everything that you need to know.  However, these are some things that I found very helpful.  I’ll walk you through our routine:

  1. If hair is dry, the night before apply coconut oil directly to the hair and then wrap their hair with cloth (or a Satin bonnet, we buy them at the dollar store) and wash in the morning.  We don’t do this every time, maybe once or twice a month, but it is really good.

  2. Always use ethnic specific shampoo.  Shampoo designed for white hair is far too stripping for black hair.  Also, do not shampoo more than once or twice a week at the most.  You can shower without washing hair, and using a shower cap can be really helpful.  Try not to tangle hair as you wash it.  Be gentle, don’t scrub your fingers through it.

  3. After you wash and rinse, apply a leave in conditioner.  We like one called Kinky Kurly Knot today a lot, it glides in and works well.  We also sometimes use different ones in addition, including leave in conditioners, the thick shea butter lotion, or pomades.  Experiment to find out what you like.  But the Kinky Kurly works really well before combing out.

  4. Combing - this is critical to do correctly.  We use a plastic wide-toothed comb, though some people swear by bristle brushes.  Separate the wet and conditioned hair into sections, and comb each section starting from the bottom and work towards the roots.  Work out knots with your fingers before the comb gets there.  Depending on your child’s hair texture and length, it could take an hour or even more to comb out properly.  Don’t rush, you will hurt your child’s hair.  For touch ups when your child has her hair out, wet the hair before combing.  We have a spray bottle with water and a little conditioner in it that we use.

  5. After combing out, you can add a product to leave your child’s hair out or you can put it into a protective style.  One product I really like for leaving your child’s hair out is called Kinky Kurly hair pudding.  

  6. Protective styles are braids, twists, extensions, cornrows, or anything that protects the hair during everyday life.  It is a good idea for the child to spend most of the time with a protective style.  It also means less work, hair that’s out needs to be fussed with and brushed a lot more often, which leads to damage.  Styles can last for a few days or up to several weeks (as with extensions).

  7. To remove style - work in some leave in conditioner, break any rubber bands with seam ripper, and take out braids using rat tailed comb.

Where to get stuff: is great, but can be more expensive.  Walmart, Walgreens and Target usually have good ethnic sections, and bigger towns usually have a Sally’s or other ethnic hair options.  We really like a beauty store in Shoreline, WA that is run by African immigrants.  Don’t buy the cheap stuff!  Cheap stuff has a lot of petroleum products and can lead to product buildup.  Organic and natural products are better.

Protective style options:

  1. Puffs - this is the first style I learned to do.  Basically, it is a series of small ponytails over the head.  This style works best for short hair, and babies often wear this style.  Ponytails can be all different sizes, ranging from a few for all the hair or as many as thirty or more over the whole head.  To fasten them I like using the small black bands, and then to remove them I use a seam ripper to break the band and then take it off.

  2. Box Braids - these are started the same way as the puffs.  You can anchor them with a rubber band near the scalp or just start braiding.  Braid as far as you can down the hair, and then either leave the ends bare or you can apply a few beads.` To apply beads, thread several beads on the hair, then loop the end of the hair through the last bead so that it touches itself again.  Then you just wrap a rubber band around it, attaching the end to the rest of the hair, and then pull the rest of the beads down to cover the rubber band.

  3. Twists - like braids, but you divide the hair in two and twist them on each other.  Google how to do this, you need videos and pics.  It’s fun to do this with hair pudding in and then take it out in a few days, and the twists stay intact.  cute!

  4. Cornrow twists - twists along the scalp like cornrows.  This can be fun to do on the upper head and then clip with barrettes to form a headband look.  

  5. Cornrows - traditional but you have to know what you’re doing.  I’ve tried many times and have not been very successful at it.  But if you are talented, then go for it!

  6. French braids - on my kids with longer hair, I’ve been able to do french braids.  

  7. Extensions - This is like a box braid, except you braid in artificial hair into the braid.  Extensions can be in the hair for up to two months, so this is a really practical way to protect and allow the hair to grow.  It can look intimidating, and I paid for several years to have others do extensions.  But it’s not too hard when you figure it out, and now I do it for the girls (or pay if I can find someone reasonable).  I watched a lot of videos on Youtube, here’s a few that are good:  




    4. There’s a few tips I’ve learned in doing it, though:

      1. put moisturizer in the fake hair, this keeps it from being tangled.  I always cut the fake hair shank in half as well, full length is really long.

      2. You only have to braid to past where the natural hair is, and then you can do something to fix the hair.  I like using a small drop of superglue and rolling the fake hair around it to hold.  My extensions almost never fall out on their own, this holds them tight.

      3. It’s fun to use mostly dark hair and then mix in a little of something else - blond, red, auburn, or caramel colored are very pretty this way.

      4. Do not put the extensions in too tight.  This can cause quite a bit of damage to the scalp and hairline.

      5. When the ends of the extensions are looking tired, cut them off close to the glue and get a few more weeks of shorter braids.  It’s cute!

      6. Buy more hair than you think you’ll need.  I use 3 packs for my 6 year old, 4 for my 11 year old, and 5-6 for my teenager.  It’s no fun to go back to the store in the middle of the night.

      7. Spritz hair every few days with braid spray.  This keeps the hair moisturized and the scalp from itching.

      8. When hair is in extensions, mostly you’ll just rinse it, or use a little mild soap if you need to.  Washing with really hot water makes them mat together sooner.

      9. You can braid and ponytail the extensions, have fun!

Not protective styles for hair care:

These are not all bad styles, just not protective and some have troubling side effects.  A lot of these styles communicate that African hair is inferior to straighter hair, and this message is a disconcerting one to give your kids too.

  1. Afro - Not considered protective because it’s out, but this is a great style that kids have to wear sometimes.  It’s especially cute really puffy with a headband.  It has to be redone or at least retouched every day, and that much brushing can be hard on hair to do too often.

  2. Chemical relaxing - refer to movie mentioned above.  It is painful, doesn’t work that well, and it causes a lot of damage.  We tried it once, and for one of my daughters it broke off a lot of her hair.  It was awful.  Her hair wasn’t healthy again until we could cut off the damaged part completely.  Oprah tells a story of how she broke off all her hair one time doing a relaxer.  If you do relax, go to a professional, and realize it’s a job you have to keep up doing.

  3. Weave - this may look deceptively like extensions at first.  Basically, you braid the hair in cornrows and then sew in a weave.  Weaves do a lot of damage, add a lot of pressure to the hairline, and dry out and damage hair.  They are also very expensive.  In our house we’ve decided no on weaves until they’re adults, and then they can make the informed decision (and pay for it themselves).  Weaves are also limiting; they limit sports and swimming and the wearer has to be careful with them.

  4. Wig - again, this is communicating that their hair is “less than” other hair.  WIgs cause less damage than weaves, but I still have a large philosophical problem with them.  They are also limiting - girls have a hard time competing in sports and leading an active life in a wig.  This may seem a little hypocritical given my like of extensions, but it feels different to me.  My kids have done everything in extensions, and it involves their natural hair.

  5. Hot flat ironing - this can be done in a way that’s not too damaging if you use the right product.  Make sure that you get a heat-tolerant moisturizer, then section and iron.  It takes a long time and has to be done every time you wash or wet the hair, so it’s best saved for a special occasion.  It also does cause damage no matter how careful you are, and if you’re less careful it can cause a lot of damage.

Practical tips for getting the child to cooperate:

I kind of do whatever works, since it’s only for a few hours every few weeks, or several hours every two months for extensions.  I do my best to be as gentle as I can, and I bribe the kids with picking shows on television and lollipops every half hour.  Whatever works.  Taking breaks works for some kids, but some kids it makes it harder to continue.

I hope this is enough to get you started!  You can always email me with questions, and there’s a lot of good websites and videos on the subject too.

Super thick Shea butter lotion recipe (for skin and hair):

3 parts shea butter (gold or white)

1 part coconut oil

½ part olive oil

1-2 tsp honey (as a preservative)

This is the basic recipe.  Whip the shea butter with a mixer (I like my stand mixer with the whip attachment) until fluffy.  This might take a little while, especially if it’s cold.  Add the coconut oil, and drizzle in the olive oil and honey while mixing.  There are also a few other things you can add to it for different results:

jojoba oil

Vitamin E oil


Store in a tight jar and keep away from heat.  If it does melt, it is still usable, and you can whip it up again.  This is best applied after a bath and before bed, but have the child wear long pajamas or it will get on the sheets.  Apply by putting a little bit in your palm, rub your hands together to melt it, and then rub into skin or hair.  It can also be used in hair as a locking lotion, and the jojoba oil is especially good for the hair.  

Side note:  this works for non-black skin too if you have trouble with super dry patches; my mom swears by it on her hands and feet.