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Everything You Need to Know About Box Braids

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KmlPhoto/Adobe Stock Images

Whether your fam or besties braided your hair growing up or you’ve got your go-to salon, you know there are dozens of gorgeous protective hairstyles for your natural hair to choose from. One of the most popular styles is box braids. First things first, box braids are certainly not new. Box braid hairstyles have been around since ancient Egyptian times, and now celebrities including Rihanna, Kerry Washington, and Kelly Rowland prove they’re still a gorgeous protective style option today. We chatted with Meagan Sargent, writer and a braid expert, about how to choose a box braid style, how long they’ll last, and how to take care of your box braids so you’ll have endless inspo if you want to try them yourself.


About the Expert:

Meagan Sargent is a writer and braid expert. When she’s not working, she can be found blogging for IdentifyLA.

What are box braids?

If you’ve been dreaming of box braids since you saw them on Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, you’re not alone. The 1993 movie inspired women everywhere to ask their hairstylist for her exact braids. But what exactly are they? “Box braids are plaits that are divided into a square shaped section,” says Sargent. “It’s a protective hairstyle...because, when having box braids, you’re not putting heat to your hair or styling every day, which over time causes damage.” Sargent explains how this gives your hair time to rest and focus on that amazing growth. “This protective style also helps alleviate breakage. If your hair shreds or has split ends a lot, consider a protective style such as box braids,” she adds.

There are an infinite amount of different ways to rock box braids. You can play around with colors and beads, varying lengths and sizes, add bangs, and some metallic thread for a touch of glam. There are also seriously cool knotless box braids to try. The possibilities are endless and each provides a new way to show off your unique style and personality. Ready to find a box braid style for you? Before you add all the extras, you’ll want to start with the basics such as braid size.

How do you choose your braid size?

“It’s all a matter of personal preference,” says Sargent. “I love box braids that are medium-thick simply because it takes less time, so the braid-up and take-down session is shorter. I also think medium-thick braids shape my face nicely.” Chat with your hairstylist about different box braids hairstyles, if you want color or want to stick to your natural shade, or if you plan to wear your hair in an updo like a ponytail. A braider will know what size and length is right for you. Once you decide on a braid size, such as long box braids, medium box braids, or jumbo braids, just remember that you won’t live with these plaits forever. You can always switch it up and try a totally different protective style such as cornrows. Or, you can stick with classic box braids and change up the size, color (we love ombre and metallic hues!), and length. Now, it’s time to think about how long you want to wear your box braid hairstyle.

How long do box braids last?

“Box braids can last months,” explains Sargent. “It all depends on the upkeep and how fast your hair grows.” She explains that the common mistake people make is thinking they don’t have to care for their hair with box braiding styles. That’s not true. “You should still wrap your hair each night to eliminate shedding and raising of the braided hair and to also lock in any conditioner you may use,” she continues. “If you wrap your braids nightly—I prefer a satin-bonnet—then your braids will look like new longer.” Still, she suggests keeping them about six weeks and no longer than eight weeks. Just like any other protective hairstyle, there is some maintenance to ensure your hair stays healthy. That’s one of the reasons for a protective style, afterall. Whether you’re using human hair or synthetic hair, caring for your scalp is just as important as your stands. Be sure to continue using hydrating products for your scalp and hair.

What hair type works best with box braids?

“You can use your natural hair, but I prefer using braid hair such as Kanekalon braiding hair for added length and fullness,” says Sargent. “This hair is synthetic, however it lasts longer and can be more durable.” Sargent has 4c hair so the thick, coarse texture matches her hair best. While you’re looking at synthetic hair options, now’s the chance to choose fun colors and trendy lengths. Feeling long box braids a la Zoë Kravitz? Go for it! Or maybe you’ve always wanted eye-catching blonde box braids or chunky highlights. Give it a shot. You’re likely to find your new favorite box braid style.

Are they damaging?

Not only are box braids not damaging, they’re a great protective style option. “Box braids are a protective style and will stimulate hair growth,” says Sargent. Though, she warns, “damage can occur if they are left in too long or are too heavy. If the braids are too heavy, they can weigh down your hair and cause breakage, especially if you’re trying to style them in an updo.” Sargent recommends being honest with yourself and your hairstylist, especially if it’s your first time with box braids. If it feels too heavy, consider going with small box braids or short box braids as heavy hair extensions may damage your natural hair and scalp. You might even be able to build up to the long box braids of your dreams.

How do I prep for a box braids hair appointment?

Sargent jokes that you’ll want to ensure you have a magazine, a good playlist, and a good braider. You’ll be in the salon a long time, after all. But in addition to preparing for the hours you’ll be sitting in the salon chair, you’ll also want to prep your hair. “Everyone should be sure to properly care for their scalp prior to their appointment,” she says. “You want to make sure your scalp is not dry, but also not full of grease. If your scalp is too dry the process will not be enjoyable, and you will have a headache. If your scalp is too greasy then it will be more difficult to braid.”

Sargent says that your stylist will probably wash and condition your hair prior to braiding. But if your hair is on the drier side hair like hers, condition the night before to really lock in moisture. (We love BRIOGEO HAIR CARE Don’t Despair, Repair! Deep Conditioning Mask with its almond and rosehip oil, B vitamins, and antioxidants.) Leave the conditioner on for 5-10 minutes and rinse. Or, for deep conditioning, cover hair in a plastic cap for 30 minutes. This will help retain moisture and prepare you for your visit.

What can I expect from the appointment?

Sargent warns that you’ll be in the salon chair for at least three hours—but it’ll be worth it! “During the process you can be tempted to itch your scalp which will cause additional irritation, but try not to,” she warns. “Instead be sure to pack something to alleviate the itch such as a scalp tonic. Scalp tonic has a refreshing burst of soothing ingredients such as tea-tree oil and instantly alleviates the need to scratch or ‘pat.’” So grab that new book or pull up a new podcast and settle in for some “you” time. While you’re sitting there, you’ll be able to dream about your eye-catching box braids and all the fire selfies you’ll be taking soon. “After your appointment, you can expect to be sore for a day or two, depending on how tender-headed you are,” says Sargent. She suggests just “letting your braids be” and not putting them up in a ponytail for about a week. “Let the swelling calm down and allow a little growth from your actual hair to avoid unnecessary ‘pulling’ and potentially breaking your natural hair,” she adds.

How do you care for box braids?

Once you’ve got your perfect box braids, you’ll want to ensure you’re taking good care of them. Like we said earlier, it’s important not to just get a protective style and ignore your hair. Sargent prefers not to wash her braids as she would normally wash her hair as this can cause the braids to frizz and the style to not hold as long. Instead, she opts for scalp refreshers to moisturize. We love ORIBE HAIR CARE Serene Scalp Soothing Leave-On Treatment and OUAI HAIRCARE Hair Oil.

Though, if you must wash your hair, Sargent has a few tips. “I would suggest washing between the braids with a small towel wrapped around your finger and primarily using a moisturizer,” she says. “You don’t want to overly saturate your hair as this can do more harm than good. Maintain moisture on your scalp and use a satin bonnet to protect the braids at night.” Box braids are more than just a style, she notes, adding, “It's embracing culture, which is the most beautiful thing.” Indeed, it is.

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About the author
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Elizabeth Denton
Elizabeth is a freelance beauty writer. Previously, she was a beauty & fashion editor at Time Out New York, Seventeen, & Allure. She has more than a decade of experience in the beauty and fashion world, writing for Nylon, StyleCaster, Cosmopolitan & more.
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Article Last Updated September 8, 2020 12:00 AM