How to Handle Wet 4C Hair Without Causing Breakage

By Jc of The Natural Haven Bloom

One of the most important lessons that I now know is that my hair will always behave in a fixed and reproducible manner depending on how wet or how dry it is. My epiphany came during a PhD seminar on smart materials (i.e materials that give you a  set response depending on heat, light, pH etc  and if you change the environment they revert back to the original state).  I would hazard a guess that I had been natural for at least 8 years at the time and the most frustrating time for me was wash day when my hair had to move from wet to dry. I finally realised that the reason for my struggle was that I was expecting my hair to behave differently without really doing anything differently. I thought that products could spring my hair into curls or slow down shrinkage but in reality my hair (emphasis on MY), did not and still does not care for products. I finally grasped that my hair is a smart material, it has a fixed behaviour when wet, when damp or when completely dry. These are my rules for the first stage – handling completely wet hair.

Things my hair will do when wet

-Very high level of elasticity
-Very easy to section through with hands or a widetooth comb
-Very high level of shrinkage (my hair wants to be 1 inch long even when it is actually 1 foot long)

Things my hair will not do when wet

-My hair will not form clumped curls even with product
-My hair will not stay tangle free unless I force it to
-Attempting to start styling hair on soaking wet hair is futile

Things that I have to be aware of when my hair is wet
1. Silent breakage or breakage by stealth

When my hair is wet it, it can be stretched very easily especially if there is conditioner on it. This stretching happens with finger detangling or combing with a widetooth comb. It is really easy to manipulate but as the hair stretches, it is very easy to move from the elastic stage (where hair is like a rubber band and can easily stretch in and out ) to the snapping stage. The difference is that on wet hair the snapping is totally silent and nearly painless (unlike if you yank on a strand of dry hair).

The remedy: If my hair is wet, it will only be handled once it has been loaded up with conditioner. This helps to soften the hair and reduce friction. I generally will avoid wet detangling, it does not work that well for my hair, but if I have to, I will always take care never to rake through with a comb. I would always work in sections and always look at the shed hair to see if it has a bulb or not, this is the measure of success for me

2. Inter-twinning of strands

The high level of shrinkage when hair is wet comes with the high potential for tangling. This is especially true if I do not take the time to stretch out the strands and keep them separated and detangled by either twisting or braiding. I imagine my hair like a box full of little copper wire coils. Wetting my hair is like shaking this box and causing the coils to mingle. Separating the wires back into individual coils would take a lot of time, effort and undoubtedly damage to some coils.

The remedy: Prevention is better than cure. I choose to always wash my hair in braided sections. Prior to fully wetting my hair, it will normally already be detangled and all the braided into 10 or so sections. During the wash, the hair will shrink but as the strands are compact, they retain the detangled alignment and do not intertwine. Going back to that box full of coils analogy, it is essentially like tying a few coils together with a string and then shaking the box – it will be much easier to separate the coils which are contained together with a string compared to those that are free.

3. Products with slip

With the exception of coconut oil, my hair in general does not care for products. For wet hair,  I am looking to wash and condition my hair. Pretty much any random shampoo will work and I generally pick hair conditioners based on slip (some type of silicone, usually water soluble) and softness (generally the magic ingredient is behentrimonium chloride). Any conditioner with these two ingredients will generally work well with my hair and to be fair, even conditioners without these ingredients will work for my hair, I will just notice that the product is harder to apply and my hair has less softness. I believe the reason why my hair does not respond to products is because it is not that damaged (no colour, no heat use , generally finger combed and mostly protectively styled). Conditioners as a product will make a great deal of difference to people with damaged hair and those whose hair can clump into curls. Shampoos will make a great deal of a difference to people with sensitive skin which is easily irritated.

How does your hair behave when it is wet? What can you do with it and what would you avoid? Do products matter to you

The Natural Haven

The Natural Haven

Scientist on a hairy mission!


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87 thoughts on “How to Handle Wet 4C Hair Without Causing Breakage

  1. I have 4c hair, and I must say, I HATE IT. My hair is about 10inches long when flat ironed, but its barely THREE inches high with the shrinkage! I cant wear that out anywhere! No matter where I go I feel confined to wigs and sew in styles. Even when I have protective styles in, the shrink seems to “rule”. I know this is the proper forum to voice these types of opinions so this is why I am being so vocal. I’ve been natural for a few years, but Im just recently starting to experiment (WITH THE IDEA) of wearing it out. Ugh, to no avail though.

    also, <333333333 this site.

    • I’m in the same boat with my 4c hair. No curls + Lots of Shrinkage= No styling options.

      I hate it. I’d tired of wearing wigs & sew-ins but wouldn’t dare go outside with this bush on my head.

      • So some good youtube channels that will give you tons of styling and product options specifically for 4c hair are:


        • My neighbor had a pool when I was a kid. It seeemd like she never wanted to swim and I ~always~ did. I loved going in that with her. It’s funny that I remember how much I loved to swim as a kid and yet now I almost never get in. It’s such a big deal to wash, dry, and style my hair. I feel silly admitting that. LOL

    • I can relate to this article & also to you comment. I’ve been natural for almost 7 years & my hair hasn’t grown past 10 cm. I’ve only recently (last 4 months) started following natural hair blogs & vlogs with similar hair types. I’m hoping to learn to embrace it, because to be quite honest I hate my 4c hair.

      • That’s a no-no Kabo! You have to love your hair FIRST and then it will show you love you back! Dissatisfaction and frustration with your hair is what causes us to mishandle our hair, leading to breakage. With 4C hair, you MUST be extra attentive, patient and (most of all) LOVING with your hair because it has a temper. Hair of all types grow, but its up to you to keep it on your head with your particular techniques.

  2. I always dtangle my hair when its filled with conditoner and after going through my full head brushing each section before twisting i only have a few strands or a dime sized hair bal in my denman brush when I’m done. I know I’m not pulling out my hair by wet detanglin but could i be damaging it some other way and not know it. How do i tell if wet or dry detanging is lessdamaging for me?

  3. I just came across your website and am so happy to read this information! I believe my youngest daughter has 4c hair and I have been having so much fun doing braids, twists and yarn extensions but so struggle with detangling and am in need of ideas for getting wax build up out of her hair. I make my own sheabutter/olive oil/coconut oil/beeswax braiding paste which holds so nicely but is causing buildup. Caring for her beautiful hair is still new to me as we’ve only been together for two years and my oldest daughter has straight blond hair… I so want my baby to grow up loving her natural hair. I’m looking forward to learning lots of helpful ideas from everyone on here!

    • You know what the problem is? Our branis are so white-washed that it gets us to think that everything should be done in a certain way. The white way. So, if your hair doesn’t flow like the girls in commercials, or if you can’t get this comb through your hair, you have bad hair.Switching from relaxed to natural made me realize that if our hair doesn’t look the same, then it surely doesn’t require the same treatments. You don’t wash silk as you wash cotton. You don’t take care of an orchid the same way you take care of a rose. It’s as simple as that. Step back and see that the haircare regimen is not harder, just different. Too bad most people can’t look at the big picture.I see our hair as a poppy in a wheatfield. It stands out, it’s different, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

      • What??
        a) Where did she say caring for her Black daughter’s hair is harder??
        b) If you’ve only ever worn cotton, you either need instructions or trial and error to learn how do deal with silk. That would be why she’s asking.
        c) She already said her daughter’s hair is beautiful, so…

  4. This is a good website and full of accurate information. I have a lot of shrinkage too and must keep it separated when wet. If I let my hair dry after shampooing, I would never be able to comb it. It locks if I don’t detangle it wet and plat it up, or blow dry it and plat it up. Sometimes I get frustrated with my hair because it will not hold any style. I have been natural for about 2 1/2 years and my length is past my shoulders. I wear wigs to work. Braids and twists pull my hair out. I don’t know what else to do with my hair.

  5. I learned the hard way. I seen a lot of breakage from my hair when I detangle it wet. So now I detangle on dry hair and see a big difference. Dry detangling isn’t as bad as I thought, it’s alot better than wet detangling. I also wash my hair in braids or twists. It takes waaay too long and it’s just a mess to wash my hair without braids/twists. My hair is 4c and bra strap length so you can imagine.

    • same here my hair generally does not respond to what most people find useful to them! I have no trouble washing my hair with sulfates or dry detangling.

  6. When I wash my hair in twists or braid the dirt ( dandruff) doesn’t go it gets trapped in the twist/ braid what do you think I should do

    • U get in the shower with your hair braided or twisted, and then you wet the hair. Then you undo one twist/braid at a time and shampoo once or twice, massaging your scalp to remove dandruff and dirt. Finger comb hair in this stage. After you are satisfied your hair is clean, rinse out the poo and retwist the hair and move on to the next braid or twist. Do this until the entire head is cleaned. Dirt will only be trapped in the hair if you attempt to wash your hair with braids intact.

    • I would suggest sectioning your hair into 4-6 large twists and wash your hair section by section and with each section unravel the twist and wash and detangle the re-twist it.

  7. As a southern femlae born and raised in South Carolina, I find this situation especially appalling, but I am not surprised. Yes, this is a prime example of why beauty is not everything, but it is also evidence of a serious problem within our school systems. For children coming from poor families, the problems are detrimental.

  8. I have an African American daughter, I am white. From what I gather her hair is 4c. It is very dry, as is her scalp and breaks off very easily. I recently starting washing it in twists on a whim and found it does help so so much. When she came to me at the age of 5, her previous home had shaved her head, so her hair was still very short. She wanted to grow it out and by keeping it braided a lot we have finally gotten it long enough to pull it all back into a ponytail in the back. Our routine right now is to basically keep it in twist. She likes twists because I can do them much faster than braids. I twist her hair, we wash it about once a week and then condition it, she showers every 2 to 3 days so on those days I just condition it. I take out about half the twists afterwards each time, comb them out and redo them so it stays pretty neat. She likes this cause she hates sitting for long. So my question: her hair gets frizzy very quickly, I put a lot of leave in conditioner on it when I twist it, is there something better that you might recommend to help the frizzy ness? I spray leave in conditioner on it on the days she doesn’t get it wet.

    • I have very very fine strands of 4c hair. The only way I have been able to grow my hair long is by using henna. After several times using it, frizz has greatly reduced and my curl pattern has loosened a lot, my hair shrinkage has reduced. Detangling has become so much easier. Sometimes I think my strands are as fine as spider webs.

    • Hey Laura! Kudos to you for learning how to work with your daughter’s hair. Try some of the Shea Moisture products–to be specific, the Curl Enhancing Smoothie and the Curl & Style Milk. I LOVE using them on my natural hair! Shea butter can also help to smooth the hair and combat frizz. :-)

    • Use products that are not water based. Such as Shea butters and oils. I have 4c hair that that is mid back length. Takes me 7-8 hours to do every 2 weeks. When i have twists, To maintain during those two weeks frizz free, I use shea butter every night or organic olive oil to moisturize and then I TIE MY HAIR DOWN with a scarf every night and cover with a bonnet so the scarf does not slip off. My hair lays down like silk. Now if the hair is really dry I use a spray bottle and LIGHTLY mist my hair with distilled water before tying it down. Hope this helps.

    • I am glad to see you are figuring her hair out but I have a question. She showers every 2-3 days? I hope she is bathing the other 4-5. Please everyone don’t take offense, it just sounds really strange to bathe twice a week unless a doctor has said you have skin problems and can’t do it any more than that.

      • 2-3 days? I was thinking the same thing!!!! @Laura, I applaud you for learning your daughters hair. I don’t comb my hair every day, miss Jessie’s butter cream is awesome but expensive as all get out, and olive oil mixed with a tad bit of water in a spray bottle works. The water is to help oil get out so u don’t need much. I wash mine once every 2 weeks but beeswax attract dirt so u might need to do it more often. Start at ends to detangle and work ur way to the roots. 2 strand Twists helps but watch out for comb twist (starter locs)!! Our hair naturally locs with little to no effort so I would only wear comb twist for 4-5 days and then I would finger separate for a different effect. Oil and moisture is key with 4c. Find a reputable natural hair salon (for african Americans and have them help U find a protective style for her hair but be sure to emphasize NO pulling/stress on her edges!!! God Bless

    • Sorry, I forgot to answer the frizz question. I use Frizz Ease by John Frieda and a little castor oil. My twists hold, are very defined and shine.

  9. What is a 4c natural to do when her hair is only about 5-6 inches long? I cant twist it to wash it because that takes too long. How do i wash my hair and keep it tangle-free?

    • Another good alternative for people with short hair (or even for the lazy naturals among us lol) is PLASTIC CLIPS! The metal ones will rust with water, but the plastic clips will allow you to keep your hair separated without having to twist/braid them.

    • Braid or twist at night and pick it out into an afro in the morning. Afros do look good. We don’t all have curls nor can we all get them from products so an afro may have to be our mainstay until it grows longer. Mine is about that long too. You could try flat twists they hold better than two strand twists on my hair. If its humid I can forget it all, my hair does what its supposed to do – fro out! I’m hoping to grow a huge fro.

  10. Frustated newbie natural chiming in:
    Hi, Sisie,
    I’m about to ask a very naive question. What are plastic clips? Could u post a link with a picture? I’m serious.

    Like others, my hair is about 4 inches…i could post pics but i don’t want you folks to have nightmares…lol! While i wait for pics of plastic clips….what to do with my shrub???

    • lol sure, no problem! I posted pics of two types, the smaller one is good if you think your hair is too short for the regular size clips. You can find them at ANY hair supply store for real cheap.

      As for tips, the more you join hair care communities and pages on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see so many cute styles for any length of hair and you’ll learn to embrace your hair while it grows. Love your hair and it will love you back! Just moisturize, protect it and have a healthy dose of PATIENCE.

  11. I have 4c hair and one thing i absolutely hate is the shrinkage. Braids and twists don’t help much either. Every day after twisting my hair, the twists shrink to like 2-3 inches. (My hair is 4″ in short areas and 6″ in the longer areas). Even when i wear extensions (braids in Jamaica) the strands do nothing but laugh at my efforts. And my hair breaks really easily due to the mass of tangles. I still love my hair but i don’t know what else to do to stop the shrinkage. Not to mention it needs to be moisturized daily (which encourages shrinkage) and sealed with heavy oils cuz i have high porosity hair. I’m just working with it for now, have no choice. I just try to moisturize heavily when i am taking down the style to minimize breakage

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