How To Handle African HairQ: We recently adopted a 7 yr old from Ethiopia and her hair is extremely thick and nappy, whenever I try to comb it she cries, how can I make this easier for her? Would thinning the hair help to make it easier to handle? Please help I can't watch her crying every day.
A: This is a common problem for adoptive parents of African-ethnic children. Fortunately, the ins and outs of African hair can be learned, and the basic lessons are simple:
African hair is often more fragile than Caucasian hair, and needs to be treated gently. Always use a wide-toothed comb or pick to comb the hair, and avoid fine-tooth combs which can snag or pull-out the curly/kinky hair. Use a leave-in conditioner and detangling sprays to help moisturize and lubricate the hair during the combing process.
African hair tends to produce less sebum than Caucasian hair follicles and therefore, African hair needs oils. Carefully examine the ingredient lists of the hair products you wish to use and look for natural oils like those from fruits and nuts and other quality ingredients to add moisture. You can find a good selection of quality hair products specifically for African-ethnic hair at your local beauty supply store.
When dealing with African-ethnic hair, what may seem like overkill is often just right. You need to be sure to use a hydrating shampoo, and moisture-rich, after-shampoo conditioner and daily, leave-in conditioners. You should also avoid over-shampooing, waiting from 5-7 days between shampoos (give or take, as you see need) and instead using a rinse-through conditioner on the hair with warm water. This will give a VERY gentle cleansing and avoid stripping away the natural oils while adding moisture.
You can avoid a lot of the pain, and tears of combing the hair by working in smaller sections. Divide the hair into at least four sections, grasp the hair of one section firmly (without pulling against the scalp) and begin combing out the hair by working from the ends inward toward the scalp. Be sure to ply the hair with leave-in conditioner or detangling spray as needed to keep the hair lubricated and easy to comb through. Use this technique with other styling processes as well. Such as gathering the hair into a ponytail, or into pigtails. Draw the hair to the gathering point(s) by combing segments toward the central point to join with the hair already gathered. This makes sure you don't overload your comb, and will make the hair easier to manage.
Finally, never use rubber bands to secure the hair. The rubber bands can cause undue breakage to the fragile hair. Instead, use elastic bands, covered holders and barrettes and clips. This is doubly true for braid and twist styles - which need to always be braided or twisted completely to the ends of the hair.
As for other tips, while thinning the hair might seem helpful in the short-term, it removes some of the protection the hairs offer to one another in helping to hold in moisture, and give the hair added structural strength. It also creates a situation where the hair closer to the scalp is then denser and harder to deal with than the hair at the ends. (Not to mention the possible problems that would result from too-frequent thinning making the hair too-fragile to withstand regular styling stresses.)