African American hair is versatile in many ways—certain products and styles, such as twists or braids, can achieve different curl patterns, from tight coils to waves and anywhere in between. Experimenting with these techniques is part of the naturally curly experience, but sometimes what you really crave is a burst of color, right?
Dyeing any type of hair may involve a chemical process that should be taken seriously. Fortunately, there are many ways to ensure that your new color comes out right, and the health of your hair stays intact.
How does it work?
There are 3 main types of color—permanent, semi or demi permanent, and temporary.
Permanent color requires the hair cuticle to be lifted and alters the proteins that give us our natural hair color. Temporary color, on the other hand, puts a layer of color on top of the hair strand. These are usually sold as “rinses,” and will fade with several shampoos.
Coloring hair has less to do with texture (coarse, fine, etc.) and more to do with porosity. Porosity is the hair’s ability to hold and retain moisture. So not only do the layers of your cuticle have to lift to let color/moisture in, they have to close back down to keep it in.
Titi Branch, of Miss Jessie’s, says, “A cuticle that is rougher (kinkier textures) is actually more porous and more likely to take color faster. Wavier textures tend to have a smoother cuticle (and are more likely to be more resistant to color) unless there has been some chemical processing to cause a looser curl pattern to be more porous.”
“Coloring curly hair is like caring for a baby’s skin. Curly hair is more fragile and requires more moisture than other hair textures. It is healthiest when lifted/lightened no more than 3 levels,” says Nicola Forbes Martin of Design Essentials. “Remember, slow and steady wins the race when coloring curly hair.”
While it’s true that afro-textured hair may be more porous, which is good for retaining color, hair can be overly porous—the cuticles layers don’t close back tight enough to hold moisture in. This means extremely dry hair. Remember! Different porosity, texture, curl pattern are something we have naturally. Learn to maintain, not complain.
How should I get it done?
What color do you want? Beach blond? Auburn? Red? If your hair is naturally dark, coloring hair very light is “always a risk,” according to Branch.
Hair must be bleached, meaning a chemical (usually ammonia) will “decolorize” the hair, then add the lighter color to the “blank slate.” This is pure chemistry. Professional expertise is advised.
“Hair that is dark typically bleaches to an orange or yellow stage, which is usually unflattering. The colorist must have a grasp of color theory to know what colors to deposit on hair to remove the unwanted yellow or orange tone,” Branch says.
But if you want to go with a color that is less drastic, there’s always the do-it-yourself store-bought color. Do-it-yourself jobs should really only be for temporary rinses and semi-permanent color. Regardless, read and follow the instructions to the tee. Just like you wouldn’t disregard instructions for a major reconstructive protein treatment, you shouldn’t ignore box directions.
But wait, there’s more…
Dyes with harsh chemicals are not the only option if you want colorful tresses. Buy box (or ask your stylist if he/she uses) dyes without ammonia or PPD. Not only can they damage your hair over time, but some are allergic to PPD.
There are also natural alternatives, such as henna.
You may have seen henna used as body art on the hands, but it can also be used as a hair color. Henna is a plant native to subtropical regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. It’s already been used for centuries as a way to add color to skin and hair.
Henna should be available at any African or Asian ethnic market, but you can order it online as well. Just like ordering anything organic or natural, be cautious of what you’re purchasing. “Body Art Quality Henna” is what you’re looking for. Otherwise, there could be other chemicals/pigments added that will alter your henna experience. The amount of henna to use depends on the thickness and length of your hair. Start with 100 g to be safe, or ask a natural stylist what she would recommend.
It will come as a powder, and must be made into a paste for hair application. Henna gives a red tint to hair. But for dark hair, it will simply give a delicate red highlight you can see in the sunlight. Though it adds reddish tint, the paste itself is not red at all! This is normal! If the package claims to color hair blonde or black, it is not natural henna.
Henna is also said to provide a deep conditioning treatment. Some say it “loosens up the curl.” Everyone’s experience will be different.
Deep condition after any permanent chemical dye. Coloring means opening up those hair cuticles—make sure they close back down! Bear in mind permanent color is not for everyone, Branch says. Chemicals will only further damage dry, over-porous hair.
And since we love it when our hair grows and prospers, what about touch-ups?
“As far as color maintenance, luckily for us curlies we don’t feel the pressure to retouch a root as quickly as our straighter haired counterparts,” Branch says. As our natural color grows in—because the strand is growing from the root in a curly formation—it takes a longer time for that natural root color to be exposed, thereby extending the time that we need a root touch-up, she adds.
To extend the life of your color, don’t use sulfate shampoos—it will strip the hair more easily. Try any moisture-rich, sulfate-free shampoo.
“When curly or kinky hair is colored properly nothing could be more beautiful,” Titi said. “The way a curl is accented with the addition of color is simply stunning. Is coloring good for your hair? No. But does it make it look good? Absolutely.”
The possibilities are endless with hair color. Just keep healthy hair before “hip” hair. And ask a professional!