Many Black women face the constant conundrum: Should I work out or keep my hair pristine? As a Black woman, I have had to make this very real decision on many occasions.
Most of the time, I choose to work out because there are so many positives that come from being active, including good heart health, improved mood and weight management.
But my relaxed pixie cut (hello, quick slick-down) also gives me the luxury of easy maintenance. Unfortunately, I am the exception among Black women, as many feel that their hair can be a barrier to getting in a good sweat session.
In fact, a May 2016 research letter in JAMA Dermatology, which focused on reasons Black women have lower rates of physical activity than other racial and ethnic groups, found that 18 percent of Black women exercised less than they would like to due to concerns about preserving their hairstyles.
It doesn't help that many doctors don't understand how this issue may affect Black women's exercise routines, either. A November 2019 research letter in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine surveyed 62 primary care doctors and found that 76 percent had never had a discussion with their Black female patients about how hairstyle maintenance may affect their workouts.
"If we can educate our clinicians to have these important cross-cultural conversations about this important topic, we may be able to encourage African American women to engage in regular physical activity, which could lead to improved health outcomes and decreased rates of chronic disease, including diabetes, hypertension and obesity," says lead study researcher Sophia Tolliver, MD, MPH.
For many Black women, hair care is no minor thing. "Not surprisingly, increasing physical activity is met sometimes with hesitation, as the cost-benefit analysis of physical activity and perspiration versus the upkeep and maintenance of a hairstyle is considered," says Dr. Tolliver, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine and faculty wellness lead at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Department of Family Medicine.
To put into perspective just how important hair care is, consider this staggering statistic: According to a February 2018 report from analytics firm Nielsen, Black Americans spent $473 million on hair care in 2017 and account for more than 85 percent of consumers of ethnic hair and beauty products.
Our hair doesn't have to be a hurdle, though. Here, Black hairstylists and trainers share some of their top tips for maintaining their 'dos while working out.
How Sweat Affects Hair
First, it's important to understand that for people of color "hair textures tend to be lighter with a thinner cuticle, which makes the hair more susceptible to damage," Brian B. Badie, a celebrity hairstylist based in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com. So taking care of your hair, in general, is important if you want to prevent damage and keep your tresses looking healthy and strong.
Sweat is a big culprit when it comes to Black hair. "When we work out, the salt from our perspiration can dry the hair out, says Marvin Carrington, a master hairstylist and colorist and certified personal trainer in New York City. "Our roots swell regardless of texture, which can give our hair a puffier look. That accumulation of sweat can also cause odor over time."
Although sweating during your workouts is inevitable, there are ways you can help prevent damage to your hair and maintain your hairstyle, says Joann Gruny, a texture hairstylist at Maggie Rose Salon in Davie, Florida.
How to Keep Your Hair Healthy
1. Perfect a Protective Hairstyle
"If your kinks or curls are poppin' you'll want to preserve the pattern of those but also keep hair off of your face while working out," says Vernon François, a celebrity hairstylist, educator and founder of the Vernon François Collection.
"Pin sections back with bobby pins or use fingertips to gently gather it into a puff with a silk or satin hair tie. I'd avoid using rubber bands, which if used aggressively, can pull on the roots and lead to hair breakage," he says.
Carrington also recommends that natural clients do two-strand twists or large braids for intense workouts, which you can unravel once your hair is dry.
Hope Elliot, a certified yoga instructor and wellbeing educator, who is on the mat multiple times throughout the day and week, takes care of her hair a few different ways.
"I either have it in twists and wear it underneath a headscarf or in a braided or twisted protective style, like box braids or Senegalese twists," she says. "I love protective styles, but I avoid heavy options because while bending and twisting in asanas, my hair has broken due to the heat and tension of the style."
Those with relaxed or straightened hair have a variety of options, Carrington says, including wraps, ponytails, large braids, twists and pin curls. The same goes for weaves. Regardless of the style, each "should be tied in place, preferably with silk," he says. Silk is the smoothest material and can hold the hair in place without friction.
Gruny also advises wearing a scarf because it can help prevent sweat from spreading, while a headband can "secure your edges and prevent your hairline from frizzing," she says. "I always wash around my hairline to get the sweat out of my hair and get it off from sticking on my skin."
2. Limit Shampoo Washes
Too much hair washing can strip hair of its natural oils, so you want to limit how many days a week you actually wash it, Gruny says. "Textured hair is already dry on its own, so washing your hair every day only contributes to dryness."
Instead, those who exercise regularly should tackle sweaty strands on a case-by-case basis. How often you should wash your hair depends on the level of oils produced from sweat, which varies by person.
A good rule of thumb, according to Badie, is to stick to no more than two shampoo washes every week, noting that a thorough rinse after a sweaty workout will carry your mane through until another shampoo day. He turns to Biolage HydraSource Daily Leave-In Tonic ($20, Amazon), which he "loves for its moisturizing qualities without weighing the hair down or feeling coated."
"One wash can be your deep clean, where you spend a lot of time getting rid of any buildup you might have from products or just sweat. For that deep clean, you'll need a clarifying shampoo. You then want to follow that up with a moisturizing or pH-balancing shampoo because using a clarifying shampoo can raise the pH in your hair and may even strip your hair of its natural oils," Gruny explains.
"In order to replenish [your hair], you'll want to bring the hair back to its natural level and continue with your routine. The second wash during the week can be your co-wash or a quick rinse," Gruny says. (FYI, co-washing is when you use one product as both the shampoo and conditioner, so you cleanse and condition your hair at the same time.)
She keeps these brands on hand:
If you have kinky, coily and curly hair, "it's not essential to always wash your hair after exercising, only if you feel it needs it," François, says, who regularly styles celebrities like Lupita Nyong'o, Serena Williams and Willow Smith.
An exception is if your workout includes swimming. "Hair is fragile when wet," François, says. "Using a hair mask or conditioner with natural oils before swimming will help to create a barrier between your strands and the chlorine."
He recommends applying a light spritz of one of his spray-on conditioners, Pure-Fro Conditioner, Curl-Conditioner or Leave-In Conditioner — all of which are infused with moisturizing oils, such as lavender and tea tree — "to put goodness into dry strands first."
After you've done your laps around the pool, Carrington says you'll want to shampoo and condition. François recommends using a microfiber towel or a cotton T-shirt to dry your hair, gently patting and squeezing it — no harsh rubbing — to help preserve the kink or curl pattern and minimize breakage.
"Dry shampoos are an option if used once between actual shampooing, and co-washing is fine as well, but I prefer that those with relaxed hair stick to a once-a-week wash and deep conditioning," Carrington says.
Anyone with natural styles can refresh the scalp with an astringent like Sea Breeze ($18.83, Amazon) and a cotton ball every three to four days to remove trapped oils, dirt and smells, Carrington says.
3. Nourish Your Hair With the Right Products
Whether you've just finished washing your hair or are in need of a pick-me-up product to get you through post-workout, what you put into your hair is crucial. Of course, finding what works best with your style and texture is a process, but Badie highly recommends L'Anza's KB2 Leave-In Conditioner, especially for styling natural hair straight because it won't compromise the body of the hair.
"Leave-in conditioners for me are the base of a great end result of styling and maintenance. They provide moisture to the hair, which is essential for healthy hair amongst people of color. L'Anza is a great moisturizing conditioner that keeps the hair soft and healthy without weighing it down," says Badie, who warns against products with too much protein, which can make hair brittle, and ultimately cause breakage.
For avid exercisers, when it comes to refreshing your curls, Gruny recommends having an oil, such as coconut oil, which can be absorbed into the hair fiber due to its high concentration of lipids and minerals that work to protect and keep the hair hydrated.
She also reaches for rose, castor, avocado, grapeseed, jojoba or argan oils (like Moroccanoil, $34), noting that oils are essential for strong and healthy hair. However, she says to be mindful of how much oil you're using and how often; you want to avoid buildup and weighing your hair down.
In addition to oils, Gruny is a fan of these curl revitalizers:
- Carol's Daughter Refresher Spray ($11.97, Amazon)
- Miss Jessie's Curls So Fresh ($20.99, Amazon)
- Ouidad Botanical Boost Curl Energizing and Refreshing Spray ($20, Amazon)
- Rizos Curls Refresh and Detangle Spray ($19.99, Target)
Elliot takes a more bare-bones approach, completely saturating her hair with water and then letting it air dry with a mix of leave-in conditioner and shea butter. Her "most-used products," she says, are:
Carrington also recommends:
- John Freida's Frizz Extra Strength 6 Effects + Serum ($8.49, Amazon)
- Chi Pliable Polish ($9.67, Amazon)
Ultimately, these hair strategies will give you one less excuse not to hit the gym, the pavement or the mat. Because while rocking a fresh style is cool — our hair has always been a form of adornment that dates back centuries and is a way to express ourselves — living a long, healthy life is even better.
- JAMA Dermatology: "Hair and Scalp Care in African American Women Who Exercise"
- Nielsen: "BLACK IMPACT: CONSUMER CATEGORIES WHERE AFRICAN AMERICANS MOVE MARKETS"
- Journal of American Board of Family Medicine: "Primary Care Provider Understanding of Hair Care Maintenance as a Barrier to Physical Activity in African American Women"