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

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:

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:

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.

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.