'I didn't comb my afro for more than a year. This is what happened'

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Photo supplied by Phelokazi Mbude
Photo supplied by Phelokazi Mbude
  • After breaking two wide-toothed combs, I decided to follow the advice of some natural hair YouTubers and stopped combing my hair. 
  • Finger detangling is promoted for removing knots in hair with minimised breakage and stress on the strands.
  • Natural hair professional Sonto Pooe explains that not brushing hair at all can lead to tangles, matting, and overall frustration.
  • However, the severity of the effects of not using a hair tool to detangle depends on an individual's hair type.

Sometime around 2020, I decided I would stop combing my afro. I had gone through two wide-toothed combs in less than a year, both of them snapped into multiple pieces thanks to my voluminous afro and lack of patience.

I often get complimented for how abundant my hair is, which I usually accept graciously. But that same fact haunts me when I go through multiple tubs of moisturiser and bottles of conditioner that I have to comb through section by section in front of my bathroom mirror. 

It was around spring in 2020 where my hair seemed to have gone through a "growth spurt" and, after having maintained a short haircut for over a year, I had forgotten the patience and bicep strength I needed to get through a "wash day". 

Phelokazi Mbude

Photo supplied by Phelokazi Mbude

I typically enjoy the days I get to put on a mask and spend time meticulously detangling each section and watching the curls recoil as I let them go. In light of this, I remembered how numerous natural hair YouTubers advocated ditching combs altogether, and only finger detangling. After my second wide-toothed comb literally split, I thought I'd give this a go. 

READ MORE | Is your hair breaking all your combs? Careful, you may be risking hair breakage too 

I loved the first few months of finger detangling my hair with no comb in sight. I relish my hair care routine, similarly to how I experience indulgence when I do my skincare. It's a pocket of time to myself, a multisensory experience of amalgamating aromas from the products, periodic massages as I apply them, and the transformation that unfolds right in front of the eyes. 

A few months had passed (having not made significant changes in the hair products that I used), I started to notice changes to my hair. It curled tighter, knotted frequently and didn't hold form the way it used to. At first, I thought I must not be moisturising it enough, because the YouTubers I watched said nothing about a tighter curl pattern and increased shrinkage. 

I added richer moisturising products, but still noticed that my afro was different. I figured maybe I was due for a trim, so I did one, but only having detangled my hair with my hands and not with a brush or comb. My hair still had the deep brown – almost black – colour it has when it is well fed. It produced thick hair strands and even thicker braids, but when it was time to let the 'fro out, it still didn’t hold form like it used to. 

When it finally dawned on me that this could be because I hadn't run a comb or a brush through my hair for close to two years, I wondered if it was the reason my hair was behaving differently. When I was short on time on some mornings, did I perhaps miss a spot when detangling with my hands?  

It turns out, not combing an afro at all is not always the best idea if you're gunning for having locs. Hair knots, mats, and can recoil to its base when left long enough without continuous thorough detangling. 

To get more clarity, I tapped the shoulder of Sonto Pooe – founder of natural hair care line Native Child. Sonto recently opened a hair salon after almost five years of running Native Child. She had some interesting insights of what happens to natural hair when it is not combed through with an actual hair tool. 

READ MORE | The benefits of hair detoxing and powerhouse ingredients you want to include in your routine 

She immediately points out that no two people's hair is the same, even people from the same family can have different hair types. I can add to that and say even one person can have multiple types of curls on their head. Using myself as an example, some of my hair strands are a tightly coiled kinky pattern, while others are a looser type. 

hair strands

Photo supplied by Phelokazi Mbude

Sonto says combing the hair too often can result in micro-tears on the hair strand, but not combing at all can also have unfavourable results. She says: "I'm of the opinion that it really just depends on someone's hair type. Some people can get away with not combing hair where the curly pattern is not too tight, but some people's hair is so tight that it becomes impossible to manage without actually using some form of a detangling brush."

But, she adds, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this. Many people are already aware that even one person can have multiple curl patterns in their hair.

While there's no one answer, the rule of thumb when it comes to hair is to minimise manipulation as much as possible. Finger detangling is often recommended to minimise hair damage and breakage as the first step to a two-part detangling process. Following up by detangling with a comb or brush as a second step of detangling has been praised because it further removes tangles which cause stress on the hair. 

READ MORE | Juanita Khumalo on her hair journey and low manipulation hair care routine 

However, with forgoing combing or brushing entirely, Sonto says the effects of that depends on how your own hair responds to it.

"It's a very individualised thing, depending on your own curl pattern, one; two, how easily your hair absorbs moisture or not because you can imagine the dryer hair, and you're not really detangling properly using a brush, you're just going to have knots, you're going to have more frustrations."

With that said, most things are recommended in moderation – the same goes for hair brushing. Combing your hair too often brings its own issues, because it is a form of over manipulation. Sonto says other forms of over-manipulation include using too much heat styling and braiding styles that pull on the hair, or are installed with synthetic extensions, which can all inhibit your hair from thriving. 

All in all, I think the YouTuber's are well-intentioned in their advice for limiting access to combs. Watching a comb or brush glide through the hair is a fun activity, making it easy to go overboard. However, having my afro tightly coil at the base, while falling over and not holding form at the tips, made me realise it's not a look I want for myself. So, I'll be shopping for a detangling brush soon.

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