Compared to other hair types, coils and curls are particularly fragile. That's because all types of curly hair are dry due to the bend in each curl. The area where the curl bends has less protective layers which means it is porous and can't hold on to moisture well. More kinks in a strand means more issues with dryness and breakage. With that in mind, the #1 goal of a good regimen for ethnic hair is to keep the hair moisturized and therefore minimize breakage.
To prevent breakage between washes, you'll need products that help seal moisture in.
When you apply a sealant to moisturized skin or hair, the moisture can stay in for a few hours, instead of quickly evaporating away. If you don't apply an effective sealant, the skin or hair will become overly dry within hours and you'll need to re-apply moisture over and over again. Many African American women with natural hair choose plant-based oils like coconut oil, olive oil, castor oil, jojoba oil, and shea butter. Those natural substances have many proven benefits for the hair, but they actually don't make the best sealants.
For many years, the best personal care sealant available was mineral oil, a byproduct of petroleum. In scientific studies, mineral oil was shown to provide a better seal or protective layer than other oils. Since African American hair is known to be porous, mineral oil and petrolatum began to appear in most ethnic hair care products. Even though the products created back then were very simple, they provided two crucial elements: water for moisture and mineral oil as a highly effective sealant (and pretty good heat protectant too).
Fast forward a few decades and moisturized hair is not enough. African American and Multi-Ethnic women want their hair to be soft, but not greasy - and strong, but not stiff. Customers also want their hair to be easy to comb, even if it hasn't been washed in days and thermal protection for flat irons that get as hot as 450°F. There is no natural oil that can meet all of those demands which explains why hair care companies began using silicones.
Synthetic oils protect your hair from heat and combing without leaving it greasy
Silicones are synthetic oils. They are made in science labs for use in hair care, pharmaceuticals, food, and hundreds of other products. The first popular silicone, dimethicone, has been used in skin creams and lotions since the 1950s. About 20 years ago, the cosmetic industry realized that dimethicone would be useful in hair products. In studies, dimethicone was found to condition the hair better than mineral oil.
Despite the proven advantages of silicones, some women make a big effort to avoid them. They are often choosing to follow the hair care method promoted by Lorraine Massey in her 2001 instructional book for curly-haired women, Curly Girl: The Handbook. Regarding silicones, Massey wrote: "I suggest that you avoid conditioners that use silicones. Although they do add temporary shine to the hair, I find they weigh down curly hair. (That means avoid using products with ingredients whose name end in -cone.) The ingredients you absolutely need in conditioner include emollients, humectants, proteins, and moisturizers."
Four years later, in a Q&A featured on NaturallyCurly.com, Massey admitted that her original book was written before she ever heard of more sophisticated silicones like amodimethicone. Unfortunately, misinformation had already spread across the Internet and to this day, silicones are wrongly blamed for drying out the hair due to build up when in reality the opposite is true.
Any oil, natural or synthetic, can build up on the hair, but you can easily avoid build up by cleaning your hair with shampoo. If you feel like shampoo is damaging, that's a sign that your shampoo needs an upgrade. Always choose a shampoo that says "dry", "damaged", "fragile", and/or "chemically-treated" hair on the label. A good shampoo gently removes build up from your hair.and conditions your strands at the same time. For more about how to choose the best shampoo for your hair, check out Coils & Curls The Hair Product Handbook: Helping the Product Junkies of the world buy SMARTER, sort through marketing HYPE and save MONEY! by Nicole Harmon.
Help your hair stay moisturized by applying a shine or smoothing serum to finish your style
Silicones, especially dimethicone, are in many parts of our lives. You can find them in "oil-free" lotions, deodorants, skin medications, and even Chicken McNuggets. The reason thousands of hair products contain synthetic oils instead of natural oils is because they work extremely well to condition, soften, and seal the hair without weighing it down. It can't hurt to add a serum as a final step after you style your hair. Although, more women are becoming educated, you might still find advice that recommends a "no silicones" or "no shampoo" regimen to combat dryness. Feel free to experiment, but if you don't see the results you hoped for (the results should be softer, more manageable hair!) come on back to the other side.
Updated September 18 2012