Protective Styles Are the Most Underrated Hair Growth Secret
Updated: Feb 17
We need to talk about the most underrated hair growth and hair health secret. What is it? Protective hair styles. What are "protective styles," and why is this even important? This article will tell you everything you need to know!
How Did Historical Women Grow Such Long Hair?
If you are anything like me, you may have noticed and wondered about the fact that as far as we can tell, it seems that the average historical woman was able to grow hair much longer than the average modern person. True, part of this is due to differences in aesthetics, and a shift towards cutting shorter styles into our hair today. However, there are so many people today who would LOVE long hair, and barely even trim their hair, and yet it appears to remain “stuck” at the same length - often as short as shoulder length - for years. Why is this? What are we missing?
For my full take on the answers to that question, be sure to check out my previous videos all about my own historically inspired hair care routine that has grown my hair from chin length to now almost tailbone length, which is longer than it has ever been:
"Historical Hair Care Grew my Hair to Hip-Length"
Protective Styles 101
One thing that I’ve been asked about a lot since those videos went a little wild with the algorithm is this: what are protective hair styles? Why are they important? And how do we do them? If you know me and my hair care videos, it is basically impossible for me to just give a quick answer to hair care questions. My reasoning is that if you understand the reasons behind any practice, you will be that much more empowered not only to try it, but to keep it up over the long haul as you are growing your hair. In the interest of efficiency I have decided to create two videos on this topic.
This article will be an explanation of what protective styles are, and are not, and why they are a vitally important and oft overlooked hair growth secret. I will also give an important break down of the differences between modern and historical hair styling, and why it matters.
My next hair care article and video, which will be released in about a month, will be a demo where I show you on my actual hair, how to do several of my favourite protective hair styles. I will keep this as inclusive as possible for those who currently have shorter hair than mine. I have been using protective styles since my hair was chin length, so there should be something for everyone! Be sure you subscribe to my newsletter if you haven’t already, so you will be able to see that instructional video on protective styles as soon as it comes out.
What We Will Learn
This article will cover:
The REAL definition of what a true protective style is, and what it is not
The biggest difference between modern and historical hair styling, and why we should care
Several of the hair health benefits of wearing out hair in nice updo's on a regular basis
And finally, a few defining features that we see women using in their hair styles for hundreds of years, that make a truly great protective style.
This article is for you if you are interested in historical hair care, if you are struggling to grow long healthy hair and avoid split ends, or just if you want to improve the overall health of your hair.
If you are person who is very attached to the idea of wearing your hair loose on a regular basis - this article may not be for you - fair warning!
What is a Protective Style?
Protective styles are hair styles in which your hair is tucked up and away from your body, and the ends are completely hidden within the style. Usually, this is some kind of up-do, like a bun, chignon, french twist, or milkmaid braids.
So, what makes protective styles the most underrated hair growth secret? It is simply this: there are two equally important factors when it comes to growing long, thick, or healthy hair . . .
The Two "Secrets" to Growing Long Hair
The first "hair growth factor" has to do with how fast your hair is growing from your scalp, how active your hair follicles are, and how long your follicles stay within their "growth phase". This tends to be what most people focus on when they are trying to grow long hair. And rightly so. But if they ignore the second, equally important factor, they will not see any increase in their hair length, no matter how many hair vitamins they are taking, or scalp massages and scalp treatments they are doing. What is the second important factor? Let's find out.
The second factor when it comes to growing long hair is "length retention" - which basically means keeping the hair strands you already have grown out of your head from breaking. Because think about it: no matter how fast your hair is growing from your scalp (and this will never be extremely fast - 1 inch a month would be a tremendously fast growth rate) if you are breaking off the ends of your hair due to lack of care or damaging hair care practices, you will see little to none of that growth.
This was my own experience when I began my hair growth journey 6 years ago with chin length hair. I was very motivated to do "all the things" to get my hair to grow faster and thicker from my scalp - and as far as I could tell, it was working. I had lots of baby hairs growing in. However, I hadn't yet learned the importance of being extremely gentle with my hair and preserving the health of the ends. Once I learned this, the rest is history, and my hair is now almost at tailbone length.
Once my hair became longer, it became necessary for me to begin a lifestyle of putting my hair into attractive yet gentle updo's on a regular basis, saving wearing my hair down for more special occasions, like filming a video or going out somewhere.
Historical Women's Hair vs. Ours
Okay. Let’s talk about historical women’s hair care practices vs ours. I think this is a great way to gain greater perspective on practices we choose to use and why, rather than blindly doing what our contemporary culture tells us is the right thing at any given time. There is no greater perspective than time, right
So when it comes to hair care, one of the reasons I love looking back in time is because historical women for several hundreds of years clearly knew something about hair care and growing long hair that we don’t today. From the Medieval times to the Edwardian period, women on average, as far as we can tell today, had typically much longer hair than people have today. True, this was due in part to their cultural aesthetics and choosing not to cut shorter styles into their hair like is common today, but that is not the only factor at play. Long hair is definitely returning as a hair trend today, and what do we see? So many people who would LOVE to have longer hair, whose hair is simply “refusing” to grow past a certain point. For more information on why I think this is, be sure to watch my first historical hair care video, here.
Should We Be Wearing Our Hair Loose Everyday?
A huge difference we see between historical and modern hair care is how we style our hair on a daily basis. In the modern day, it is the typical belief that those with long hair, typically women, “should” wear their hair loose most of the time, unless they are involved in an athletic activity, or are having a particularly bad hair day, or are feeling particularly frazzled and busy. “Messy mom bun”, anyone?
Historically, it was actually the opposite. Wearing the hair loose was not done in public once a woman reached a certain age, due to a number of social and I would argue, practical factors. Wearing the hair up was viewed as a sign of maturity, elegance, and sophistication. But there were many practical reasons to wear the hair up as well - namely, it helps to grow and preserve long hair!
The fact is that when your hair is waist length or longer, it can be quite an encumbrance to wear it loose, especially if you have physical things to do in your day, or young children to care for. But when it comes to hair health, there is actually a very good reason to wear the hair tucked away in up-dos on most days. Can you guess what that reason is?
Why Protective Styles?
So what is the real importance of protective hair styles? You guessed it- length retention.
Wearing the hair up in styles where the hair ends are tucked away is the best way to preserve the life of any given hair strand, as it is protected from the elements, indoor heating or AC that can dry out the hair, as well as friction and mechanical damage. Not to mention that when the ends of hair, which are most liable to being dried out, are tucked away and not exposed to as much air, they can retain moisture for longer. If you are interested in more specifics of what makes a good, safe, and effective protective style for the hair, I will talk about that later in this article, and am planning my next hair care article to be an actual demo of a few of my favourite protective styles and how to create them whether your hair is long or shorter.
Protective styles are also practical and elegant. Most modern people tend to view long hair as a hindrance based on our busy lifestyles, but there is a very modern assumption built into that view. That assumption is that hair should be worn loose on most days, and its only on "bad hair days" that we wear it up. Of course long hair is a hindrance if we wear it loose all the time! And when we modern people do wear our up, these styles are typically very utilitarian, not particularly attractive, such as the modern pony tail or messy bun, and don't do much to protect the hair from the elements or from tangles.
Apart from these benefits, I am going to talk about one more little known benefit of daily protective styling of the hair. Something I like to call the “leave me alone” principle.
The “Leave Me Alone” Principle
When I was a girl, I was very self conscious of my “big and pouffy” hair, partly because I didn’t fit in with anyone around me, and partly because I was actually teased about my tightly curled hair type. One of the ways I would manifest this insecurity if I was wearing my hair loose, was by always touching my hair, trying to smooth it down, stretch it out, or flatten it down. What I do remember is my mom constantly telling me, “Katherine, keep your hands out of your hair! You will make it messy and frizzy if you keep touching it!” Of course, I always rolled my eyes at this counsel, but now, I know my mom was right. Which leads me to the first aspect of the “leave me alone” principle as it pertains to hair health. Hair doesn’t like to be touched all the time.
If our hair is loose, it is inevitable that we are going to be touching it more - smoothing it down, pushing it out of our face, swishing it behind our shoulders, fixing it up in front of the mirror part way through the day, you name it. Touching the hair, apart from getting it dirtier with the oils and whatever from our fingers, also can cause minute amounts of mechanical damage to the hair cuticle, that adds up over time and increases the rate of breakage.
Why Frequent Washing and Re-Styling is a Problem
Wearing our hair in protective styles also helps us grow long hair through another oft overlooked means - that is, of indirectly helping to decrease the amount of times we feel tempted to wash and restyle our hair! I think everyone can agree that if we are wearing our hair loose on a regular basis, we are going to be putting daily effort into either re-washing it, or at least restyling it with products and or heat tools. This is not the greatest for hair health and growth!
Let me explain. Is washing our hair inherently bad for its health and growth? Of course not. Is having dirty hair somehow beneficial for hair growth. Of course not! But there are other ways to keep hair clean apart from using litres of water and shampoos every other day. Check out my previous historical hair care articles for more info on that.
Dry-Cleansing the Hair
Boar bristle brushing is a historical practice that can actually help keep hair clean without the need for actual wet cleansing the hair, and can arguably do so in a more gentle way. Why? Because hair strands are at their most weak state when they are soaking wet, and since shampooing or cleansing our hair inevitably requires a high degree of handling and manipulating the hair while it is in this severely weakened state, it follows that more frequent wet cleansing of our hair is likely to increase the amount of breakage we experience, thereby decreasing our length retention. And thats not even going into the fact that many modern shampoos leave the hair and scalp stripped of their natural oils, and contain chemicals that can potentially weaken the hair, especially when used very frequently.
Now, am I saying our scalps and hair should be left dirty and oily? Again, no, of course not - but there are other, gentler ways of cleansing the hair while in a dry state that have been used for at least several hundreds of years, such as regular boar bristle brushing, which distributes natural oils from the scalp down the hair strand. This is actually where our scalp oils are supposed to be - they are like a natural built in conditioner that your scalp produces. Boar bristle brushing also removes dust and debris from the hair. Before the advent of boar bristle brushing, women and probably people in general would use wooden or bone combs to cleanse their hair of dust and debris and distribute natural oils. Look into medieval hair combing if you would like to know more about that. Of course, if you have a curlier hair type than me, I wouldn’t recommend using combs - stick with your fingers and a 100% boar bristle brush to dry cleanse the hair.
You can also combine these tools with the use of natural homemade dry shampoo made from cornstarch and cocoa powder. This is a very effective way of removing visible hair oils, and has stood the test of time.
So, with all this talk about the benefits of protective styles, let’s get into the three factors that define a safe and effective protective hair style.
What Good Protective Styles Should Include
A true protective style is one in which the ends are tucked away, protected from the elements. Ends are old and most prone to breakage, especially if they are out and exposed all the time. So let’s talk about what a protective style is NOT. A braid is not a true protective style, as the ends of the hair are still exposed, and the hair is still down and rubbing against ones clothing, body, and anything else one comes in contact with. A braid is a great low manipulation style, however. In other words, its better than nothing. It is also a great way to protect the hair at night when one is sleeping, while allowing the scalp to breathe and have a rest from supporting the weight of all of the hair clipped up.
The Problem with Ponytails
Let’s talk about two more examples of what a protective style is not. A ponytail is not a protective style, neither is a loose messy bun. Let me explain. Both of these can still be low manipulation styles, but in a ponytail especially, your ends are certainly not protected, not to mention that most elastics or things people use to put their hair up in a ponytail can cause excessive pressure on one very concentrated area of the hair and scalp. The same goes for a loose messy bun. Everyone has different definitions of a messy bun of course, but I am thinking of those loose buns where it is really just a ponytail folded in half, and there are ends of hair sticking out all over the place. Ones hair ends are not protected, and this kind of style can also cause a lot of tangles, especially for longer hair.
So, now let’s move on to what a good protective style includes. And remember, I am planning for my very next hair care article and video to be all the protective styles I personally like to use.
Hair Ends Tucked Away
As already mentioned, a protective style should be one in which your ends are firmly tucked away and hidden. A perfect example of this is a twisted bun. Another great thing to have in a protective style, especially for curly or tangle prone hair like mine, is that it can minimize hair tangles. Again, a twisted bun is a great example of this - since the hair is twisted up on itself, there is no room for tangles to form. Another great style for this is milkmaid braids, where the hair is braided, and then pinned up around the head like a crown, with the ends hidden away. These. types of styles also help preserve moisture in the hair, which is especially important in the winter time.
Front Hair Styled Separately (there's a good reason)
Finally, a good refining feature to have in your protective styles is that it preserves your edges. ie the hair around your face. Let me explain. When we look at historical hair styles, we almost always see that if the hair is put up in some kind of bun or updo, the front sections of the hair are usually styled and incorporated in separately. There is a very good reason for this - the hair edges around our face are the most fragile and prone to damage. There is an actual scientific name for this - Traction alopecia - and it literally means hair loss caused by excessive tension or pulling on the hair. This can manifest in mild forms, such as your hairline simply starting further back than it could if your edges weren't under so much stress. Or, many of us struggle with thin hair at our temples.
This can happen if one is always putting one’s hair straight back into a bun or a ponytail, especially if ones hair is long and thick and therefore heavier. All of the strain of the style is pulling on the fragile edges around one’s face. This is why when I put my hair up in a bun, I almost always separate out the front sections and french twist them in separately.
My New Favourite Hair Styling Tool . . .
Before we move on I would like to quickly mention an amazing little inexpensive hair tool for putting the hair up in protective styles safely. I will be showing how to use this tool in depth in my protective styles demo video, so be sure you watch that when it is posted. This tool is something I became aware of recently, and it has changed my hair styling life in some significant ways. It’s called “Holdi-Locks” and it is a small but effective tool for putting the hair up in all kinds of different styles, but very gently and without the potential damage that things like hair elastics and bobby pins can cause. It was invented by a woman named Hilary, who has beautiful long fine hair, that she needed to put up daily in her work as a machinist. After struggling for years with all of the modern available options for doing this, she invented her own.
I love the huge but comfortable buns I have been able to accomplish by using my Holdi-Locks tool and a hair stick, while keeping my hair protected and tangle free.
Definitely check it out, and use the code "KAT10" at checkout for 10% off your order. I will be demonstrating how to use this tool in the protective styles video, coming soon.
Not to mention that I will be teaching you how to do all of my other favourite protective hair styles, as well as showing how to get perfect protective styles even if you have shorter hair. In fact, I will be revealing the protective style I personally wore daily while my own hair was at chin length - so stay tuned!
I hope you found this helpful and I’d love to hear your opinions on hair styles - are you a wear it loose kind of person, or do you wear your hair up a lot? Have I inspired you to try out some new hair styles? Let me know in the comments!
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Let me know in the comments what you think about protective styles. Are you feeling inspired to wear your hair up more often? Have you already been doing this? I'd love to hear from you either way.
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