Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, every product featured in this story is from a brand founded and owned by a Black woman. We want to encourage, support, and amplify Black-owned businesses now and always.
The Andre Walker Hair Typing System was developed in the 1990s to help classify different types of curls. The method gained a cult following in the late 2010s as afro-textured people ditched their relaxers in favor of growing out their natural curls. By classifying hair into four types, it allowed natural-hair wearers to make more sense of something that wasn’t well understood. It provided a sense of direction, a close-knit community, and a feeling of hope that maybe this was the missing piece to all of our never-ending frustrations. While knowing your curl pattern is incredibly useful in terms of styling, it falls short of providing information on the characteristics that are essential for hair growth and retention. Unfortunately, curl patterns have been heavily relied on and given far too much credit. While the system can be used as a guide, it should not be viewed as the be-all and end-all of curly-hair care. Here is what to prioritize instead:
A clean scalp is the first step to maintaining healthy hair. Oil, product build-up, and dead skin cells clog pores and stagger hair growth. To cleanse and balance your scalp, try a scalp rinse like this one that has a targeted applicator, making it perfect for braids and protective styles. You can also try giving yourself regular scalp massages, which generate blood circulation to the hair follicles. This brings nutrients to the scalp, aiding in hair growth. Studies have also shown that scalp massages increase hair thickness. Ultimately, no matter how your hair curls, it will need to grow out of a scalp that is clean and moisturized.
Two people can have a 4B hair type, but if one has low porosity hair and the other is characterized as high porosity, their approach to haircare will be totally different. The curl pattern system fails to account for this. Porosity refers to your hair’s ability to absorb and retain moisture. This is determined by the formation of your hair cuticles. Low porosity hair is characterized by cuticles that tightly overlap, making it difficult for water and hair products to penetrate the hair shaft. While low porosity hair has trouble absorbing moisture, it is actually able to retain it very well due to the tight cuticle formation making it tough for water to escape.
In contrast, high porosity hair is characterized by cuticles that are widely spaced. This makes it easier for water to penetrate the hair shaft but just as easy for water to escape. A low porosity hair type wants to limit protein and go for products that are lightweight, while a high porosity hair type needs more proteins, rich creams, and oils to maintain moisture. For all curl patterns, this understanding will be crucial to your wash days and daily maintenance routines.
Hair needs a proper balance of both protein and moisture in order to grow and retain healthy length. Too much of one will lead to breakage. Hair that feels dry, brittle, and barely stretches before breaking is a sign of too much protein and needs moisture to counteract. Hair that stretches on and on but feels weak or limp could be suffering from too much moisture and needs protein to counteract. We have been led to believe that our hair needs more protein than it actually does and that it should be incorporated at every chance. This is not sound advice. Even if your hair does need protein, it likely doesn’t need a lot of it. Low and high hair porosities tend to have very specific behaviors in terms of protein and moisture. Once you understand your porosity type, the protein/moisture balance becomes a bit easier to find and maintain.