30 Cool Protective Hairstyles You’ll Want to Try This Year
With winter on the horizon, it's time to start thinking about the protective hairstyles that'll keep your hair hydrated and well cared for as temps continue to drop. Cold weather can be especially drying for textured hair, as the wind dehydrates our kinks and curls and leads to breakage. That's why protective styles like box braids, Senegalese twists, and Fulani braids are so essential.
Not only are they tried-and-true methods for preserving our natural hair; they're also just plain fun. They can easily be switched up to add length, or you can mix in different colors and textures to change up your look. Our hair can truly do anything. But before you decide on your next style, make sure you know the basics.
How do protective styles protect natural hair?
In short, protective styles help keep textured hair healthy by limiting its exposure to any damage caused by the sun, the heat, the cold, or overmanipulation. Natural curls—and particularly type 4 coils—are already drier and prone to breakage, so a great protective style can both help your hair retain moisture and help it grow faster. Still, it's important to make sure your natural hair is in good shape before getting a protective style, says Christiana Cassell, a stylist in Los Angeles: “It’s better to get a good cut or trim before braiding so your hair can withstand having any tension.”
Once you've settled on your look, you'll want to be mindful of scalp tension and ensure the foundation isn't too tight, says Kamara Brown, a crochet-braids specialist: “Otherwise it may lead to traction alopecia, headaches, and scalp soreness.” While many of us grew up believing that pain was the name of the game when it came to getting braids installed, we now know that overt tightness can actually cause hair loss—the exact opposite of what you want when opting for a protective style.
What’s the best way to maintain protective styles?
To keep your protective style looking as crisp as it did when you left the salon, one of the most important things is to make sure you wear a silk bonnet or scarf at night. Unlike cotton, silk helps your hair retain moisture and eliminates frizz, which will help you extend the wear of your look. Simply put: "If you’re not sleeping with a bonnet on at night, don’t expect your hairstyle to last for two months,” says Helena Koudou, founder of Slayed in Braids.
Koudou also recommends adding a hair oil to your routine to prevent dryness. “My advice is to apply oils directly to your scalp and your edges and give yourself a nice three-minute scalp massage," she says. “Do this at least twice a week and your scalp will thank you later.”
Inevitably, you'll start to notice your protective braids looking less smooth after a couple weeks, even if you're diligent with your wrapping at night. To bring your style back to life, Koudou suggests grabbing some mousse. Her favorite? Vigorol Mousse Olive Oil Mega Moisture.
For how long should you keep protective styles in?
There isn't a steadfast rule for how long protective hairstyles should last, but according to Koudou, styles with extensions like knotless box braids can typically last up to two months, while you'll likely want to take out your feed-in cornrows after a week. Wear them any longer, and you risk dehydrating your hair and minimizing its growth.
The good news is that you can do back-to-back styles—just try to schedule trims every six weeks if you can. Brown recommends alternating between different ones: “I find it best to try a style like box braids, using extensions, and then switching to a more simple style like plaiting or twisting your natural hair." While both will protect your natural hair, they put “different strains” on it, she says.
Got all that? Scroll on for our favorite protective hairstyles for 2020. Loving them is easy. Choosing which to wear next? Good luck.
Box Braids - Instagram / @ciara
There's a reason box braids are one of the most popular protective styles—they're easy to maintain, yes, but they're also super versatile, meaning they don't have to be boring. One way to do that? Increase the drama by parting them into bigger sections, which coincidentally also saves braiding time and keeps maintenance to a minimum.
Knotless Box Braids - Instagram / @lacyredway
One look at these knotless box braids, and it's not hard to see why the technique has blown up over the past few years. Because braiders start with your natural hair (instead of adding extensions at the root), it doesn't create as much tension at your scalp, so it's more comfortable with less chance of breakage. There's also an added sleekness thanks to the knot-fee style, which creates a seamless look.
Fulani Braids With Beads - Instagram / @hairbysusy
Solange took her Fulani braids to the next level with beads that take up almost the entire length. Take a style cue from the icon and match your accessories (like your favorite mask) to your braids for a look that is bold and futuristic. Shook is not even the word.
Ribbon Braid - Instagram / @iamaraxilindsey
One of the biggest trends for 2020? “Adding materials like beads, fabric, or jewelry to your braids or faux locs,” says Araxi Lindsey, the stylist behind all the stunning natural hair looks on Black-ish. Here she's re-created a basic three-strand braid that's anything but.
Plaited updo - Instagram / @slayedinbraids
Take your braids to new heights with this regal updo, created by Koudou. Inspired by Yoruba royalty, it's a style that not only causes you to stop in awe, but also pays homage to the ancestors long before us who developed intricate and innovative patterns to take care of their natural locks.
Faux Fishtail Braid
All faux ponytails aren't created equal, and Tracee Ellis Ross leveled up both length and texture with this fishtail braid. To make your hair extra sleek and shiny, try adding a hair pomade like Carol's Daughter Mimosa Hair Honey. It'll easily slick back flyaways while making your hair look radiant.
Gabrielle Union with a faux ponytail - Instagram / @gabunion
Braiding cornrows back into a faux pony gives you the best of both worlds: intricate style and maximum volume. If you've been looking to experiment with color, you can weave it in the cornrows or just add in a bright pony to create a color-block effect. Either way is guaranteed to look cute.
Fulani braids - Instagram / India Love
Add a layer of textural dimension to Fulani braids with defined baby hairs. The beauty of these braids is that with so many parting options to choose from—overlapping braids, geometric shapes—you can always return to this protective look for a steady glow-up and not feel redundant.
“Another great way to put a cool spin on box braids or faux locs is combining textures and curl patterns with extension hair,” says Brown. If you're looking to up the ante, you can also add in different colors (don't be afraid of contrast) for an update on this classic protective style.
Wavy Bantu Knots
These bantu knots are the perfect mix of playful and chic, thanks to the curved parts and chunky, braided knots. This is a prime example of how switching up your parting can instantly refresh a tried-and-true classic.
This layered cornrow look by celebrity stylist Susy Oludele and Aeon Elliott is far from your standard straight-back cornrows. The curl pattern is both a fun and elegant way to switch up the protective style, and the red highlights add just the right amount of pop.
Faux Three-Strand Braid
Yara Shahidi showed off not one but several three-strand braids that are topped off with a delicate gold accessory. This style is perfect for those wanting something a little different but not too avant-garde. The versatile look can also be easily modified to a high bun depending on your mood. It's simple and simply stunning.
Some prefer the more boho look of goddess locs versus faux locs. The ends are unsealed and a silkier hair extension is required. Opting for natural hair rather than synthetic to achieve the ultimate sheen is also an option. You can customize with beads, shells, and cuffs to make this look one-of-a-kind.
Koudou was inspired by Beyoncé's Lion King red-carpet look when she created these sharp finger waves. Usually finger waves end at the nape; however, the added extension provides length as well as the option to let it drape over your shoulder or wrap in a low pony or bun. We love versatility over here.
Faux Three-Strand Braid
Tender-headed? This may be the perfect style for you. For those wanting the least amount of scalp tension because the pain just outweighs the look, opt for a slicked-back faux three-strand braid. All you need to do is put your hair up into a high bun, attach your braid, and voilà.
Senegalese Twist Updo
Take a fresh approach to a mainstream chignon by styling it with Senegalese twists. Although it may look complicated, it's anything but: Just pull back your twists into a high pony and swoop to one side. If you're looking to dress it up even further, give gold or jewel-toned accessories a whirl.
Locs With Highlights
“Color is such a great way to give your box braids or faux locs a fresh look,” says hairstylist Cristiana Cassell, who teamed up with hairstylist Sparkle to create Chloe Bailey's warm, highlighted locs. The neutral tones are perfect for fall but can easily be rocked in the winter months.
This look is a mix of two—flat twists and Bantu knots—proving there's no one way to do protective styles. This look is perfect for when you just can't decide which style to get. You can opt for twists laid to the side like these or have them go straight back.
Braided Box Braids
Never failing to prove how flexible they are, box braids don't have to be worn either down or in a pony. If you're looking for added height, try braiding your singles into a three-strand braid like Ayesha Curry and pin them up into a sculp.
Neon Box Braids
“Color is such a great way to give your box braids or faux locs a fresh look,” says Cassell. Add some extra edge by throwing two ponytails in with pieces left out at the front like Amandla Stenberg.
Not all protective styles require braids—in fact, the easiest ones are a low bun or a long pony. Writer Elaine Welteroth proves that adding the right amount of volume to your base can quickly raise the bar on this go-to look. You're regular ponytail isn't so regular anymore.
Boxed Halo Braids
Sometimes you just want your hair up and out of your face while still looking effortlessly good. Weaving box braids into a halo braid gives you double the texture for a truly unique look. Use your favorite mousse or edge styler to lay those baby hairs down, says Koudou: “This always makes the hairstyle extra cute.”
“One protective style that's often overlooked is the good old-fashioned two-strand twist,” says Brown. “It's a great way for you to protect your hair, while keeping it moisturized and defined.” While Brandy is wearing extensions, you can easily re-create this look on natural hair alone. Post-removal, you'll be left with a “beautifully curly ’fro” you can wear afterward.
Another lengthening look is the high pony. You can wear it with sleek strands or mirror Issa Rae and add some soft waves to create more dimension.
Box Braid Bun
The more braids the merrier, as this honey brown swept-back bun proves. To minimize scalp tension, be sure your braids aren't pulled back too tight. You'll also want to be mindful of not keeping the bun up for too long and alternate with wearing your box braids down in between to give your scalp a break.
Wrapped Box Braids
Want to break up the uniformity of your box braids? “A great way to revamp styles like box braids or faux locs is combining textures,” says Brown. “It's a fun way to add color and turn a classic look into a new style.” Add a few strands of colorful thread for some extra dimension.
Floral Box Braids
Combine box braids into bigger strands and finish them off with a few floral accents for an instant protective style update. This look is perfect for the fall, but if you want to make it more winter-friendly, you can swap out the florals for golden rings. The beauty of this style is that it knows no limits.
Cuffed Halo Braid
Who needs jewelry when you can add hair cuffs to a full halo braid? Of course, doubling up on the accessories is just as cute, the decision is entirely yours. If you're looking for the illusion of straighter hair or a sleeker finish, just look for silkier Kanekalon bundles and get to braiding.
Curly ’Fro Ponytail
This is one of those protective styles that don't need extra hair but look cute either way. But on days when you want to take a break from the extensions, grab your hair pomade and gently brush your hair up and back. You can finish off by delicately laying your baby hairs.
Halo Braid - Instagram / Jackie Aina
We'll stan for any hairstyle Jackie Aina tries, but this faux crown braid is a winner. The blond extensions instantly warm up the look, which can be worn casually or dressed up for those special (socially distanced) occasions. Pop in some thin hoops, and you'll be ready to serve wherever needed.