Back in the day, our mothers and grandmothers had very few hair products to choose from. They were forced to “make it work” with what they had. Some of their old school methods worked pretty well because many of us have childhood pictures featuring beautiful Rudy Huxtable-style ponytails. Today, we have access to a whole new set of tools and products. Some of those old methods need to be left in the past, while others have stood the test of time.
Old School Method: Petrolatum and Mineral Oil-based styling products
I’m referring to all styling products that contain petrolatum, mineral oil or any type of wax in the top 5. Examples include Blue Magic, Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer, Organic Root Stimulator Olive Oil Nourishing Sheen Spray, and Clairol Vitapointe. Back in the day, petrolatum and mineral-oil based products laid down fly aways and made our hair shine better than anything else could.
Why petrolatum and mineral oil-based products worked
Petrolatum, mineral oil, and wax are heavy emollients. Emollients are ingredients that leave a smooth, soft coating on the hair. Heavy emollients literally weigh the hair down with a thick coating that smoothes the cuticle.
Why petrolatum and mineral oil-based products are old school
The heavy, greasy look that comes from petrolatum and mineral oil is outdated. If you have relaxed hair or fine-medium natural hair, heavy emollients will leave your hair looking thin and stiff. To get soft, fluffy hair, most women need products light enough to smooth the cuticle without leaving an oily residue. If you have thicker strands, you might like the effect petrolatum and mineral oil have on your hair. If so, you should definitely continue using them.
The Modern Option: Silicone oils
Years of scientific research have made it possible to get the benefits of petrolatum and mineral oil without the greasiness. In 1998, cosmetic manufacturers began replacing the heavy emollients in hair products with the lighter types of emollients they were using in skin products. The newer lightweight emollients are called “silicone oils”. Silicones are synthetic oils. Examples include dimethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, and phenyl trimethicone. Silicone oils are also used in lotions, face creams, and skin medications. These days, hair products from almost every brand contain silicones including Motions, Carol’s Daughter, Pantene, Nexxus, and many more. To learn more about silicones, read Synthetic Oils to Combat Dry Hair at HairLiberty.org.
Old School Method: Hot Combs
Hot combs are metal combs that heat on a home stove top or in a professional ceramic heater stove. They used to be the go-to tool to straighten African American hair. Electric hot combs are also available.
Why Hot Combs worked
Hot combs were used for decades before relaxers were invented. Ceramic stoves can heat the hot comb up to 500 °F which is more than enough heat to transform tight natural coils to stick straight hair with 1 or 2 strokes.
Why Hot Combs are old school
Pressing combs can cause severe heat damage. Healthy coils and curls usually have a similar texture throughout but just a few styling sessions with a hot comb can leave the hair permanently and unevenly straighter. Some call that “heat-training” the hair. Heat damage is irreversible, which means once your natural texture is gone you won’t be able to get it back. Sadly, there are no products that can repair or “define” heat-damaged curls and coils (so don’t waste your money!).
Heat damage takes away some of your hair’s versatility. When you end up with multiple textures, you have to choose between straight styles or wet-sets. Both options take much more time than a curly wash ‘n go or quick twist-out. Hot combs should never be used on relaxed hair because the high heat can cause immediate breakage.
The Better Choice: Ceramic flat irons
To get sleek, straight hair without ruining your natural texture, it’s best to use a ceramic flat iron. Flat irons press your hair between two smooth plates that heat more evenly and quickly than hot combs. Most natural hair can be straightened with a setting between 350 °F and 400 °F. Relaxed hair responds to heat as low as 300 °F. The trick with a flat iron is to get as close to your roots as you would with a pressing comb. Take sections about 1” wide and pull the hair taut before you iron it (just like you would if you were ironing a shirt).
Old School Method: Protective Styling
Mum Oprah (as I like to call her) explained this old school method to Chris Rock on her talk show in 2009. She said, “I have worn weaves, I have worn wigs, I have done all of it, because in order to keep your hair, you can’t put heat on your hair every day! You have to give your hair a break.” Protective styles like wigs, weaves, braids, and twists have always been used to give our hair an extended break from daily combing and heat styling.
Why Protective Styling works
Coils and curls are more likely to be damaged by simple combing and styling than any other hair type. Fine to medium strands also break more readily than thicker strands. If your hair starts to break more when it gets to shoulder length that means it’s being damaged faster than it grows. Protective styles allow you to slow down the damage cycle by not combing your hair for a few weeks at a time.
Why Protective Styling is optional
This old school method still makes sense, but it’s not a requirement for growing long coils and curls. If a protective style is put in too tight and/or left in for too long, it can do more harm than good. The hair can become matted and brittle from not being thoroughly washed and when it’s time for the style to come out, the length retained during the rest period can be ripped away by one rough combing session. Current scientific research shows that tight styles that are left in for long periods of time cause stress on the scalp that can lead to permanent hair loss.
The Modern Choice: Protective Products
You can slow down the damage cycle by using products that not only condition, but also protect your hair from heat and combing. Makes sure all of your products contain a combination of emollients, cationic conditioners, and hydrolyzed protein because those ingredients will patch and protect your hair with every use. It will always be important to comb your hair as little as possible, but the days when you had to “put your hair away” in order to grow it long are over!
this was really helpful! Should revisit the Pink oil? I'm I could find a bottle of it somewhere, lol
Don't forget the Sulfur 8!! I actually want to add that back to my line up (ahh don't hate me). The stuff smelled disgusting but stimulated my scalp and hair growth.
theres been so much negativity about mineral oil and petroleum that im still working on incorporating them in my regimen. i use shea butter to seal my ends. and the protective product is pretty new to me. i usually just do a protective style, i didnt know that was old school lol
I still have a hard time letting go of some of these old-school habits. For example I like hair grease because it is cheap and works well to seal. I also love protective styling because, well I'm kind of a lazy natural so I consistently wear buns as my protective go to hairdo. lol.
loved the well rounded info. Learned something new!!!
I love protective hair styling, it has made me challenge my inner beautician! lol
Am I the only one who can't get there hair straight with a ceramic used by itself! I'm a 4b and it just doesn't work. i need to use a comb attachment on a blow dryer or a hot comb.
really pleased with this article. when i was younger I always hates the way mineral oil products would sit on my hair and I would complain to my mum about it constantly thinking that I knew what was best to use on my thick strands, because of other naturals who had a different hair texture always claimed that mineral/petroleum clogged their hair and it instead thrived with natural oils (jojoba,coconut) so I thought I could try that but over a period of about 5 years(Yes 5 years) following others advice I FINALLY realized that what works for others doesn't work for you. I also never knew protective styling is optional! Its lucky that you have a great archive of beautiful natural hair styles for short hair. THANKS!!!!!
Co-sign Anon 5/14 4:08pm. I remember when pressing was still something stylists did on a more-or-less regular basis. Sadly a lot of those stylists have passed on or are no longer doing them.
Regarding silicone oils as a modern alternative to petrolatum/mineral oil: Do they block humidity the way my miracle summer product (Blue Magic) does?
Thanks for the comments, ladies! You can also tweet me @hairliberty 🙂
Hi Anon 4:08p – I agree, the user's technique will always make a difference.
Hi Anon 4:50p – The disadvantage of the InStyler is the brush. Brushes do more damage to the cuticle than combs. I recommend skipping both of those and flat ironing air dried hair. This is the tutorial I use: http://hairliberty.org/black-hair-care/diy/natural-hair/natural-hair-straighten.html
I have a question. Is the instyler ok to use on natural hair or would the yellow bird blow dryer with the comb attachment be better. I don't want straight hair I just want my length back. I know the blow dryer causes split ends so I'm a bit weary about that one. What are the disadvantages of the instyler?
Eh, the advantage of the flatiron over the pressing comb is that you know exactly how hot it is getting if you get one with variable temperature dials.
Pressing is like a lost art form, and a lot of the women who could do it without burning or damaging hair are gone.
Plenty of people have had their hair ruined by flatirons. It's the skill level and temperature that makes a difference, not the tool. A flatiron is easier for a layperson to use, but I grew up getting my hair presed off (not regularly until I was in high school) and my hair was never damaged. I also have on problems with a flatiron, but either one can cause damage if the temp is too high.
It's not as complicated as people make it out to be. There are just a lot of bad hairdressers and people who don't know what they are doing.
@ anon 1:31 I agree about the pressing comb. I don't press often. When I do press, I do a heavy protein treatment about 2 weeks prior and my hair always reverts. I guess no two heads are alike.
Hey Anon 2:12 – This article is an excerpt from my eBook that comes out at the end of this month which includes dozens of product recommendations. One of the best new products this year (although it's one of the more expensive options) is Living Proof Restore Targeted Repair Cream. I hope that helps!
I challenge this author to name one product that is as effective as protective styling. Protective styling is not limited to weaves etc. It includes up-dos, buns, and twists/braids (without extensions).
Anon 1:31 – You can still have the straight hair! There's so many women that get the look with a flat iron (and a heat protectant). Deep conditioning before hand helps too. Thanks for commenting 🙂
Thank you Sugarberri and Nissi!
Honestly this is an amazing article! taking care of natural hair has been a part of our history and there is no reason to reject the principles of the past…just update them! love it youngblackandvegan.tumblr.com
I know it may not be the best for your hair, but there's nothing like a good old pressing comb!! I just wish we could have the best of both worlds, the straight hair without the damage
Thanks Bobby 🙂 Don't you love asking people what they use? The answers are always so interesting!
Loved this article. It makes a lot of sense.
Great article Nicole…
My hair must have silicones (8 months post relaxer) if I use all natural products my hair will look dull & the relax ends will tangle and get knots.
I seen a sister in Red Lobster over the weekend who had the the best twist out, big as all get out she said she used BLUE MAGIC!! Thats what naturals in the 70's used…