A Stylist's Guide to Caring for Natural Hair

The no-nonsense routine that'll keep your curls looking fabulous.

Rosena Louise Bousquet-Egehave seen wearing gold earrings / big hoops, gold necklaces, white denim long jeans overall / jumpsuit, Copenhagen Studios green nylon shopper bag, Copenhagen Studios black / green leather boots, on August 25, 2023 in Hamburg, Germany.
(Image credit: Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images)

When you have natural hair, it can be challenging to find the best products (including shampoos and conditioners, leave-ins, and stylers) for your unique crown of curls. Lifestyle, scalp health, and whether you have high porosity or low porosity hair make a difference in determining what's best to invest in. And then, once you've finally assembled your perfect collection of products, you need to learn how—and the order in which—to use them. Just the thought of crafting this unique natural hair routine is enough to leave anyone feeling exhausted.

"There is no one-size-fits-all answer," agrees Jamila Powell, founder of haircare brand Naturally Drenched, when I question her on the best natural hair routine. "Listen to your hair and pay attention to how your hair looks and feels."

This means checking for symptoms of breakage, a dry or itchy scalp, acne, frizz, and other factors, which can clue you into what cadence and ingredients work best for you.

"Experiment with different schedules and products to discover what works best for your unique hair needs," Powell agrees. "Also, consulting with a hairstylist or a natural hair specialist can also provide personalized guidance based on your hair's specific characteristics is suggested."

A natural hair specialist herself, Powell is a wealth of information on caring for natural and curly hair of all types and porosity levels. Below, she shares her knowledge, detailing the best methodology for finding a natural haircare routine that works for you.

Shampooing Natural Hair

Keeping your hair clean is fundamental to having a gorgeous mane and healthy scalp. Powell agrees, attesting, "Washing natural hair properly is essential to maintain its health, moisture, and overall appearance."

But one of the trickiest aspects of haircare for anyone (but especially for those with natural hair) is determining how frequently you should wash.

"The best frequency varies depending on factors such as lifestyle, condition of the hair, and personal preference," she explains. "If it becomes dry, itchy, or greasy, it may be time to wash. Typically, once a week will suffice, but if you work out on a regular basis or are prone to sweating, you may have to wash your hair more frequently. Ultimately, the key is to find a washing frequency that keeps your hair clean, moisturized, and healthy without stripping it of its natural oils."

To properly shampoo natural hair, she suggests "thoroughly saturating your hair with water, and then sectioning your hair in fours so you can make sure all your hair and scalp are being properly cleansed. If your hair has a lot of product build up, I would start with a clarifying shampoo, and then follow up with one or two shampoos using a moisturizing shampoo. You don’t want to dry your hair out, so try and only use a clarifying shampoo once a month."

And when it comes to picking your everyday, non-clarifying shampoo? Powell advises assessing your hair type, porosity, and needs, as well as determining your stylistic preferences. She points out, "The right shampoo depends on the person’s hair, and the desired outcome," she says. 

Co-Washing Natural Hair

For many people with high porosity or natural hair, co-wash is an excellent alternative to shampooing. This is particularly the case for those who need to wash their hair every day, but don't want to use a potentially stripping shampoo each time.

"If someone is experiencing increased dryness or frizz, they might want to incorporate co-washing, or if they are washing their hair more than once a week, they may use a co-wash for the second shampoo when they are washing their hair," adds Powell. "Co-wash products usually provide a gentle cleanse, but it can lead to product build up if a co-wash is solely used without a shampoo."

"Also, if you have a scalp condition such as dermatitis or dandruff, co-washing might not be suggested," she warns. "The cleansing ingredients of a co-wash might not be strong enough to break done the debris and oil on your hair and scalp, which can worsen the condition." Therefore, it may be best to consult a trichologist, hairstylist, or dermatologist before incorporating a co-wash into your routine.

Treating Natural Hair

Between your shampoo and conditioner steps, Powell points out that you may want to treat any scalp or hair concerns you have. Most treatments, including protein treatments, scalp scrubs, and scalp tonics, need to be left for several minutes before they're washed out. Thus, feel free to apply, engage in the rest of your shower routine, and wash out when the time's up.

Conditioning Natural Hair

After your hair is thoroughly cleansed and you've washed all the shampoo out, it's time to condition. To do so, distribute product from mid-lengths to ends (you don't need to apply so much to the top of your hair, and you'll want to avoid creating buildup on your scalp). Let the conditioner sit for a few minutes, using that time to shave, wash the rest of your body, exfoliate, or anything else you need to do. Then rinse. You can also condition your hair by way of a moisturizing hair mask, which is typically left on longer.

But conditioning doesn't end in the shower. After you've emerged, Powell recommends applying leave-in conditioner to "freshly washed" hair.

"Select a leave-in conditioner that suits your needs," she continues. "Depending on your hair's thickness and length, you may want to create two to four sections for easier application.  Dispense a small amount of leave-in conditioner into your hand. Rub the leave-in conditioner between your palms, and apply the leave in to the ends of your hair and work your way up toward the roots to prevent excess product from accumulating on the scalp.  Use your fingers or a detangling brush to distribute the product evenly."

Styling Natural Hair

When styling your hair, Powell recommends drying it with a hair dryer and diffuser to ensure long-term hair health.

"Air drying natural hair can cause damage to your hair long-term because the hair shaft swells when wet, which over time can weaken the cuticle layer causing cracking," she explains. "This cracking can occur deeper in your cortex leading to damage and breakage. Not to mention depending on the thickness of your hair—it’s harder for the hair to completely dry."

But how do you use a tool to dry hair without inadvertently causing heat damage? "A better alternative is to use indirect heat," says Powell. "A diffuser paired with a blow-dryer works well. You can place the blow-dryer on medium or high heat with low to medium pressure. Hover with the diffuser, or if you want more curls, you can lightly scrunch the curls using a push pull method. Another alternative is a hooded dryer."

And to style curls for optimal definition during the drying process, Powell says, "In general, you can use a foam, gels, curl balm or a combination of styling products." But it's important consider what level of hold you're looking for before you invest in a new styler.

"It really depends on the persons desired outcome, and how long they want the style to last," she admits. "Foams typically have a lighter hold and can provide definition. Used alone, a foam might not provide the longevity of a gel depending on the product. Gels often have varying holds and pair well with foams."

Meet the Expert

Jamila Powell
Jamila Powell

Jamila Powell is the founder of Maggie Rose Salon, a top-rated salon for textured hair, and the founder of Naturally Drenched, a haircare brand focused on caring for curly and natural hair. In addition to being an entrepreneur and hair expert, she is also a successful attorney. Currently, she is based in Miami.

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, politics, culture, and fashion at Marie Claire and at publications including The New York Times, HuffPost Personal, Bustle, Alma, Muskrat Magazine, O'Bheal, and elsewhere. Her personal essay in The New York Times' Modern Love column kickstarted her professional writing career in 2018, and that piece has since been printed in the 2019 revised edition of the Modern Love book. Having studied history, international relations, and film, she has made films on politics and gender equity in addition to writing about cinema for Film Ireland, University College Cork, and on her personal blog, gabrielleulubay.medium.com. Before working with Marie Claire, Gabrielle worked in local government, higher education, and sales, and has resided in four countries and counting. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, and spent two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy.

Deeply political, she believes that skincare, haircare, and sexual wellness are central tenets to one's overall health and fights for them to be taken seriously, especially for people of color. She also loves studying makeup as a means of artistic expression, drawing on her experience as an artist in her analysis of beauty trends. She's based in New York City, where she can be found watching movies or running her art business when she isn't writing. Find her on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay or on Instagram at @gabrielle.ulubay, or follow her art at @suburban.graffiti.art