Cornrow hairstyles are intricately beautiful, creative, and entrenched in Black hair culture — they've been part of our identity since centuries before colonialism. And whilst the cornrow options these days are endless — from lemonade braids and cornrow buns straight back to two-cornrow braids and half-up cornrows — caring for the protective style and making it last becomes the tricky part. Maintaining regrowth, hydrating your strands, cleaning and moisturising your scalp, avoiding itchy patches, and fighting off fuzziness can feel like one big juggling act.
"Cornrows are adored as it's low-maintenance and a great protective style — it helps protect your hair from moisture loss and breakage — but you have to upkeep a routine," Gail Waterman, former hairdresser and cofounder of Watermans Hair, told POPSUGAR. With that in mind, we spoke to the experts about how to keep your cornrows fresher for longer, how to care of both your scalp and your hair, and how to avoid damage and potential hair loss — as well as their recommended cornrows dos and don'ts.
Prep Before You Install
Cornrows are a protective style, but they can cause damage if there is too much tension on the roots of the hair, especially if the hair is prepped incorrectly (or styled too tightly, which we'll get into in a second). To best prepare your hair before install, "avoid blow drying the hair before installing the cornrows; instead, focus on hydrating the hair prior to styling by shampooing the scalp really well and then conditioning and nourishing it", London-based consultant dermatologist Mary Sommerlad, BSc, MBBS, MRCP, explained.
Hairstylist and Hask ambassador Camille Friend reiterated this, recommending Hask's Monoi Coconut Oil Nourishing Shampoo (£7) and Biotin Boost Thickening Conditioner (£5) to make it easier to style your curls without stretching and weakening the hair strands.
Don't Use Too Much Tension
"The dangers of cornrows on the hair and scalp is important to note," Dr Sommerlad said. "If [the braids are] too tight, it can cause tension and breakage [of the hair strands], whilst on the scalp you can develop itchy spots. With recurrent traction, you can then develop traction alopecia, where there is hair loss which can be permanent due to the tension on the scalp over time."
This can be avoided in a number ways, according to Dr Sommerlad. "Ensure that your stylist does not pull too tight on the hairs being plaited — you should not experience pain or itching after having the hair cornrowed. I also advise to give your hair a break between cornrows and aim for at least a month of the hair being left in its natural state before cornrowing or braiding again." Erim Kaur, influencer and founder of hair-care brand ByErim, supports this and advises "avoiding repetitive strain on the same areas, so definitely switch up the cornrow patterns to help avoid manipulation overall".
Set the Look
To sharpen the hairstyle, it's important to incorporate the right products that will add shine without introducing unnecessary buildup on the scalp. "When getting cornrows — with either your natural hair or extensions — set the look by applying a mousse all over your hair and, if you're in a salon, sitting under a dryer or wrapping your hair with a silk scarf for a time," Deborah Johnson and Florence Johnson, co-owners of London hair salon Simply Gorgeous, told POPSUGAR, highlighting The Doux's Mousse Def Texture Foam (£16) as a firm favourite. "Initially, try to avoid getting them wet and sleep with a silk scarf on to keep them as neat as possible."
As the weeks go by, regrowth is going to happen and your cornrows will loosen, but that doesn't mean that it has to be the end of the hairstyle altogether. According to our experts, there are several ways to help maintain the life of your cornrows.
"The best way to maintain cornrows is to avoid any unnecessary friction on your hair. For example, if you're putting on some type of hair accessory, such as a hat or a beanie, your hair will become fuzzy or your cornrows will come loose," said Araxi Lindsey, hair-department head for Netflix's The Harder They Fall. "However, friction primarily happens when you're sleeping on cornrows without protection. If you're rubbing your hair on a pillow when resting, it's best to wear a silk scarf or a covering to avoid friction on the braids."
Avoid Greasing the Scalp . . .
Through childhood, we often learnt about "greasing the scalp", which involved applying heavy and thick products in order to keep the scalp moisturised when wearing cornrows. However, due to the heavy nature of those hair products, greasing the hair can often result in build-up, which in turn would require more washing, thereby shortening the lifespan of your cornrows. "Avoid the temptation to grease the scalp," Dr Sommerlad said. "Instead, keep the scalp free of build-up by gently sweeping a damp cloth between the rows on the scalp once per week."
. . . Instead, Hydrate With Intention
Even though you are trying to maintain the life of your cornrows, keeping your hair and scalp moisturised is still a priority. Instead of applying thick and heavy products that can cause excess build-up, our experts recommend nourishing the hair with intention.
How much you need to moisturise depends on the health of your scalp, but generally, when it comes to keeping the scalp balanced and hydrated, you can "moisturise your hair with a mixture of water and light oils, such as olive oil, coconut oil, or jojoba oil", Yonkel Chamberlain, curl expert and founder of Hair Pop Lounge, recommended. If the oil is diluted with water, it reduces the chance of build-up whilst still providing the scalp with the moisture it needs.
Furthermore, to avoid messing up the braids when applying the oil (especially if you're someone who needs to apply the oil undiluted), "apply it to where the scalp is exposed and also press it into the braids themselves instead of rubbing the product in," Kaur said. "This not only ensures that they're nourished, but it also helps to prevent the braids becoming loose."
Have Your Washday Plan Down Pat
"To extend a protective style by a couple of weeks, continue to give your hair love and attention by feeding the new growth with hydrating products so the hair doesn't get dry," celebrity hairstylist Ursula Stephen previously told POPSUGAR earlier this month. "The longer you keep these styles the dryer the hair becomes. Dryness leads to breakage and breakage leads to hair loss. I'd recommend doing periodic washes to keep your scalp clean and hair moisturised."
When the hair is in cornrows, there is a particular washday technique that helps maintain the style. "First, start with a clarifying shampoo as this helps to lift and cleanse product and environmental build-up from the surface," explained Florence Johnson. "Follow this with a moisturising shampoo, massaging it gently into the scalp (avoiding rigorous movement) and then apply your conditioner." Once patted dry, "finish by using a leave-in conditioner to prevent breakage and apply a moisturiser or scalp oil for nourishment", Waterman shared.
Johnson further outlined: "Conditioners are best focused on the hair as the scalp creates its own moisturising and conditioning agent (sebum). An overload of heavy conditioner on the scalp can lead to an irritation and inflammation, therefore if you have a particularly dry scalp, apply a lightweight oil like the Afrocenchix Soothe Natural Scalp Oil or the Olaplex No. 7 Bonding Oil for additional nourishment."
Ensure a Long-Lasting Style
"You will have to accept the fact that after the second or third day, your braids won't look like they did on day one," Lindsey said. "If you're not able to use correct grooming techniques such as wearing a scarf and moisturising the scalp, there is a chance that your hair will not look the same. The biggest things to take away are moisturising your scalp, wearing a scarf, and avoiding products that have build-up."
Keep reading to shop these experts' product recommendations for maintaining and caring for your cornrows.