Hairstyles, Hair Care & Fashion

African American Hair Issues

Hi there! I've been having so many issues with my hair that have been painful for me emotionally and I've been searching desperately for information. I stumbled across your website today and I feel a lot better after having read your answers to many questions. I have a few questions of my own that I hope you can help with. I apologize for giving you a ton of backstory first, but I hope it will help you get an idea of my hair situation.
I'm an African-American female. Growing up, my hair was always soft to the touch, but still very coarse and tightly knotted. Throughout the years I've had my hair natural, I've had chemical texturizers, braid extensions, a Jheri curl, just about everything you can imagine. No matter what I was putting in my hair or how I was styling it, I always did a good job of conditioning and trimming and sometimes went to salons. My hair grew slow, but steady.
A few years ago (roughly six), I settled on a relaxer. My hair always seemed thin, so I used a relaxer that was mild and never left it in very long. This was great and my hair continued to grow and I loved the feel of it and the things I could finally do with it quickly instead of it taking an hour or more to do my hair. Two years ago, I think I may have gotten a bad relaxer batch or it wasn't washed out completely because within two weeks afterward, all of the hair I'd grown dhad fallen out. My bangs, which were down to my lips, are now literally non-existent and the back of my hair, which was to my shoulders, looks close to a fade.
Needless to say this has been a very traumatic time for me. Losing my hair that I worked so hard to grow was really painful, especially knowing how slowly my hair grows, and I've been having a hard time viewing myself as beautiful because the change was just so dramatic that it's hard seeing myself this way. Needless to say, after that happened, I was afraid to relax my hair, but as short and brittle as it now was, it seemed even more important that it be manageable.
After another year or so, I just grew tired of the relaxer. It seemed to be a quick fix covering up the real problem. I didn't want to be dependent on chemicals anymore. It had already broken my hair down enough. I wanted to start fresh with my natural hair so a few months ago I had my last relaxer. I'm through with chemicals of any kind. I've heard that coming off a relaxer, the hair is going to fall out before it starts growing again because the bond between the relaxed hair and the new growth will be weak. That's the present condition of my hair. It comes out a little more each day. Not in huge chunks or anything, just the amount that was damaged.
Though I've been advised against it, I use a ceramic flat iron once a week. I don't keep the setting very high and I have this cream I use before straightening that's supposed to protect the hair from the heat. So far it hasn't seemed that the iron has made any more hair fall out. On the contrary, without the straightening my hair was so knotted that no products could even penetrate to the scalp and I could barely get a comb through it to keep it untangled but once it's straightened, I can comb through leave in conditioners, put nutrients and oils along the scalp, and conditioning it wet is possible. Thank goodness for flat irons.
Still, I know this will be an uphill battle for me so I want all the help I can get.
My priority now is growing my hair back in a natural way. I noticed that all of my African-American friends with their hair braided in cornrows on a regular basis have hair growing much more rapidly than it was prior to them getting it braided. Literally inches at a time. Thinking back to when I was younger and I had braids, I remember having grown an inch or so each time I unbraided it to start over, though when my hair was left unbraided, it would take literally a few months longer to grow the same amount.
This is something I've observed for years. Even my best friend that I've known for five years, the first three years her hair was just left out and she cared for it well, but it barely grew. She finally switched to getting cornrows to promote growth and two years later her hair has grown about five inches - four more than it grew the previous three years without braiding. It's just been generally accepted around my community that braiding (when done properly) facilitates growth and I've seen it enough with my own eyes - even my own hair - to concede to the truth of it regardless of what hair science actually dictates. My only worry is that because I'm coming off a relaxer, cornrows will end up tugging out what's left of my hair.
Here are my questions (finally).
If I decide to get cornrows, what kind of natural products would you suggest ... ?
How often should I be trimming dead/split-ends?
What is "too much" in terms of putting hair products on?
Is water damaging to your hair?
Why does the winter seem to make my hair so hard ... ?
Can you recommend a good leave-in moisturizing spray ... ?
What's the healthiest direction to cut hair?
I guess I can stop bothering you with questions now. I'm just so excited that there's some information out there I can read through and educate myself. I feel so much better about my hair and myself already. Thanks so much!