In my youth, I knew little about Afro hair, let alone how to safely dye it. I rarely got to glimpse coily hair, growing up in a sea of braids, relaxed or hot-combed hair – particularly since schools applied harsh, unnatural limits on Black hair expression. In my scene phase, my friend bleached and dyed my hair – which I would straighten with knock-off ghds every week – every color of the rainbow over the sink in her bathroom. My hair became the cheap, synthetic texture of those witch wigs they sell in supermarkets. By then, a dramatic chop for my fried, almost chest-length hair was already inevitable, but it could have been avoided had I known better.
Now I know that Afro hair tends to be fine, and therefore more fragile than other types of hair. It’s harder for moisture to travel down curly strands, so it can need a lot more love to keep it healthy-looking, but all that additional touching and twisting can, frustratingly, serve to weaken strands. Add color into the mix, and you really need to use extra caution when it comes to how you treat it.
Legendary Afro hairstylist Charlotte Mensah has led the natural hair movement for three decades. In that time, she has won three British Hairdressing Awards, created her own award-winning range of Manketti hair products, and written the book Good Hairchampioned by the likes of Zadie Smith and British Vogue contributing editor Funmi Fetto. Below, Mensah shares her cardinal rules for safely coloring Afro hair with Vogue.
Choose your shade wisely
“Know what suits you, because there’s a shade for everybody. Oranges, spicy tones, blonde tones or ash tones, there’s always one that will suit your complexion. A color that’s [around] two or three shades lighter than your skin is a safe bet. Although there’s a blonde for everyone, if you don’t get it right, it can end up really matte and dirty-looking. Know your undertones. For example, my red undertone means chestnut browns and plums work well. For quirkier colors and fashion statements, make sure you can pull it off with your style.”
Be kind to your curls
“Hair should be in its healthiest ever state before you color it. If it’s already breaking excessively, or is already dry, I wouldn’t really advise coloring. Get the hair back in tip top condition before you put in a color – it’s really important. And it’s best to go to a professional always, as they can advise you on what’s best in a consultation. Dirty hair is also ideal for color application. The natural oils on your scalp act as a protector between your scalp and the chemicals in the formula.
“Once your hair is colored, stay away from heat as much as possible, so avoid blowdrying it straight. Some people want to have their hair colored and then relax it — that would all fall out. They might want a straight pixie, but end up with devastating breakages. Try not to over process, which can also happen when you’re hell bent on achieving the color in a single day using bleaches. [That’s] when people go to wash their hair and it [can all] fall out. Even give your hair a break from protective styles, like cornrows and braids.