by Tonya McKay of NaturallyCurly.com
Summer is here! As always, we find special challenges for our hair this time of year. Here is a great question from a worried mom about her daughter’s curly hair after a beach vacation.
Q: My daughter has 3c hair and we just came back from a beach vacation. She was swimming every day with a swim cap on (hair in a ponytail/braid), and we washed/conditioned only once during the vacation. Her hair is now in a terrible tangle. It is matted where the braid was, and I can not seem to get the snarls out. HELP!!!!
A: Oh my! I know you were both frustrated and upset by this experience. I am sorry we weren’t there to help with this particular incident, but hopefully this information will help your family in the future, as well as others in similar situations – especially as we venture to springs, lakes, pools, and oceans this summer.
Friction between adjacent hairs is always much greater when hair is wet than when it is dry. One reason for this is that water is absorbed into the hair and causes the interior of the hair strand to swell, which creates strain on the hair fiber and weakens its structural integrity. Any sort of external stresses placed on hair in this state can lead to breakage or formation of split ends. For this reason, wet hair should always be treated with the utmost gentleness and care.
This swelling of the hair strand also causes the cuticle scales, which cover the exterior of the hair to lift upward and out of their usual smooth, overlapping structure. This creates a hair surface that is uneven and rough, with individual cuticle scales behaving like tiny barbs or fish hooks against other hair strands. This allows adjacent hair strands to become easily entangled with one another. If not taken care of immediately, the result can be a snarled mess – sometimes irreversible – requiring cutting of the hair.
For this reason, it is critical to protect the hair with conditioner when it is or will be wet. This protective coating can minimize adjacent hairs from becoming entangled with one another and reduce matting. A day at the pool or beach can be a great opportunity to not only protect the hair from the water and sun by applying leave-in conditioner, but also to provide a deep conditioning treatment.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are many salts and minerals in ocean water that deposit onto the surface of the hair. These are usually hard, crystalline materials, and they create a very rough surface on the hair. This rough exterior is more prone to tangling. This can also increase snarling, possible matting, and inevitably can lead to breakage if the hair is not rinsed daily after exposure to these harsh elements. For this reason, I highly recommend not only rinsing the hair, but washing very gently with a small amount of mild shampoo after a day at the ocean.
Swim caps can protect the hair from sun and the elements, but can really increase tangling and matting. This is especially true for long, curly hair, which should never be piled up on top of the head when wet. I would recommend avoiding them unless you are a regular swimmer. A sun hat or baseball style cap tthat doesn’t scrunch the hair up into a ball is preferable. Also, braids, a ponytail or a bun can be convenient for a day in the water. But I do recommend taking it down at night to rinse, gently wash, and condition the hair.
In the future, if snarling/matting happens to you or your child (which can happen even if every precaution is taken), I recommend wetting the hair, gently applying a small amount of gentle shampoo, rinsing and completely soaking it with conditioner. After it sits for a few minutes, the snarled mass can be approached very gently, with a wide-tooth comb. Always begin detangling at the bottom and gently work out snarls one section at a time, gradually working closer to the scalp. It may take rinses and a lot of patience (easier said than done), but you will have success without the need for cutting out the matted sections.
Always remember, our curly hair is as delicate as a cashmere sweater and will always respond best to the most careful and gentle handling. Protect it with a lot of conditioner and daily combing. and you’ll be able to fully enjoy your summer.