I Asked a Black Scientist to Debunk Natural Hair Myths & Here’s What She Said

I Asked a Black Scientist to Debunk Natural Hair Myths & Here’s What She Said
Photo: ImaxTree.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no end to a black woman’s hair journey. Rarely do we settle on one style or one regimen for an extended amount of time. Though the constant influx of natural hair products is more blessing than curse, it can get understandably overwhelming. And that doesn’t even include the countless YouTube tutorials, Instagram accounts and black hair myths we somehow keep believing. If you’re not careful, the struggle can get real very fast.

Admittedly, I didn’t start embracing my natural texture–which lies somewhere between 3B and 4A–until my mid-twenties when sewn-in after sewn-in literally snatched my edges into non-existence. It took disaster for me to finally prioritize health over style and now, it feels like I’m constantly playing catch-up with the rest of my natural-haired sisters. I can never settle on just one product, one technique or one blogger to look to for advice. Not only is it hard for me to make up my mind, but being a beauty editor also comes with the expectation that I’m actually trying products I recommend. For the most part, my hair has fared well despite being subjected to such a fast-paced lifestyle. But every once in awhile, I find myself in crisis mode after realizing I haven’t given my strands the TLC they truly need.

A couple of weeks ago, help came in a form an impromptu trip to the labs where Pantene Pro-V’s Gold Series products are made. If you’ve never heard of or seen the gold bottles in Target or CVS, it’s a subset of the drugstore brand dedicated to textured hair. Up until this point, I had limited knowledge of the products and whether they actually work. (I am however obsessed with the Rescue Shots.)  But once I learned that they were actually formulated by black women scientists, my ears perked up a bit.

Nothing beats the feels (and relief) you experience when you know the stuff you put in your hair is made by people who actually look like you. For two days, not only did we bond over our love for headscarves and the first time we heard the sizzle of a hot comb; we also got candid about the challenges we’ve faced while learning to love our hair as it is. The latter seems easy enough, but when you’ve been fed unrealistic, Euro-centric beauty standards for the majority of your life, some major re-programming has to take place. Nonetheless, what we realized in the midst of our heart-to-hearts is that at the end of the day, miseducation is partly to blame.

Social media–though it’s benefits are extremely helpful–has also birthed a lot of the false information we take as fact today. Even as a beauty pro, I’ve fallen prey and been called out for it. So when Dr. Rolanda Wilkerson–one of the scientists behind the Gold Series–offered to debunk some the biggest and more harmful myths out there, I couldn’t pass it up.

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Alcohols Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

Let’s talk about edge control for a second. Even if we don’t have baby hairs or care about slicking down our hairline, it’s one of those products most black girls keep on hand, because, well, you just never know when you’ll need it! Pantene’s got a new Edge Tamer that I’m already loving, but when I saw that its ingredients included alcohol, a record scratch went off in my head. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told that alcohols are a big no-no for textured hair because of its drying properties. Well, according to Dr. Wilkerson, that’s only sort-of correct.

The truth is alcohols typically fall under one of two categories and both of them aren’t necessarily harmful. “Short chain alcohols are typically known as solvents (eg. Ethanol). They are able to mix in water and can dissolve other ingredients that do not mix well with water,” she says. “Short chain alcohols evaporate fast and as a result, they are used in hair products in forms that are intended to dry quickly on the hair like gels and hair sprays.” These are the ones that can cause the hair to feel dry or rough when used in high content or too frequently.

The other type of alcohols are called fatty alcohols, which Dr. Wilkerson describes as larger molecular weight alcohols. The most common monikers for these include cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol. “These long chain alcohols tend to take on an oily form, hence the naming of ‘fatty.’ They help to smooth the hair cuticle and provide moisturizing and conditioning benefits.”

Long story short: read the label before you buy.

Lather Won’t Hurt Your Hair

In recent years, co-washes and sulfate-free shampoos have become the holy grail product of a naturalista routine. Anything considered a “normal” or “mainstream” shampoo has been banished because for some reasons, bubbles and curls don’t mix. So you can imagine my face after seeing the Pantene scientists demo their sulfate-free shampoo while the sink filled with lather. “What is going on here?,” I thought. As it turns out, sulfate-free shampoos are actually allowed to have lather and it’s not a bad thing.

“For some women, lather serves as a signal that the hair is being clean and then for others, lather can make them feel like their hair is being stripped,” says Dr. Wilkerson. As far the Pantene Gold Series formulas are concerned, the lather serves as a vehicle to help deliver and deposit the actives to the hair. Remember: the purpose of a shampoo was and still is to clean hair.

“Over time, shampoo technologies have gotten better and we are now able to get ingredients to not only deposit, but to also penetrate into the hair from formulas that have been designed to rinse off. This is because hair not only needs to be cleansed but to also be moisturized and protected. The lather in our formulations and products serves as a means to help make this possible,” says Dr. Wilkerson.

At the end of the day, the type of cleanser you use is up to you, but know that a few bubbles shouldn’t send you running for the hills.

Models-Natural Hair.


Black Hair Isn’t as ‘Strong’ As It Appears

Okay, so this one was hard to hear. As I’ve learned to love my texture and take proper care of it, what’s given me the most pride is knowing that I can manipulate it pretty much any way I want. Protective styling has been a godsend to me, especially as I transition out of a big chop, so I’ve literally tried everything. Braids, twists, cornrows, wigs–name it and I’ve done it twice. But the reality most of us avoid facing is that we need to give. it. a. break. It’s not that I haven’t heard this before, but it took Dr. Wilkerson breaking down exactly how a textured hair strand looks from a science-y level to drive it home.

“A textured hair strand has uplifted cuticles at every place where the hair curves. These are breaking points for the hair. Textured African ancestry hair can be fragile and feel dry as a result. As a result of the uplifted cuticles, the hair is naturally more porous that naturally straight hair,” she says.

Textured hair is also most fragile when it’s wet and if it’s not protected, constant stretching and manipulation will cause damage. There’s no way around it, unless you’re being meticulous about how you’re caring for it.  “Contrast this with a straighter hair strand which does not naturally have the uplifted cuticles and can with stand more manipulation. This is why textured hair needs to be protected in order to withstand the mechanical manipulation and styles we love,” she says. In short: protective styling isn’t protective unless your natural hair is being tended to underneath.

Cling to Your Silk or Satin Bonnet

At this point, I wondered if any part of my routine could actually stay the same. If she told me my headscarf was bad too, I may have shed a tear. Thankfully, Dr. Wilkerson urged me to keep my silk and satin bonnets on hand. These actually do help protect the hair fiber while we sleep.

“Cotton can cause friction on the already naturally porous textured hair that has uplifted cuticles. Too much friction can cause damage to the cuticles and breakage, especially for people that tend to have restless nights and move around a lot,” she said. I personally recommend upping the ante with pillowcases, beanies and accessories too because, why not?

Models-Natural Hair.


Knowing Your Curl Pattern Isn’t That Important

Finally, most of us know that naturally coily or curly hair can be more dry and fragile than its straight counterparts. Because of this, we tend to require more moisturization, protection from breakage and detangling benefits.

And according to Dr. Wilkerson, this applies to all curl patterns. While some with tighter coils may need more moisturization and additional protection, knowing your curl pattern doesn’t matter too much when it comes to cleansing. However, identifying the curl pattern may be beneficial for those who are looking for the right products to style their hair (e.g. elongate the curls, define the curls, lock in curls),” she says. So if you’re struggling to settle on a shampoo and conditioner, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. A line generally geared toward textured hair, like Pantene’s Gold Series, will suit you well.