Confession time: I’ve never gotten braids. Growing up in the ’90s, my mom would plait my hair and add on barrettes or match my hair bobbles to my outfits. Then, in the second grade, I got my first-ever relaxer and started swimming lessons shortly after—let’s just say nothing has been the same with my hair ever since. Tired of keeping up with the “creamy crack,” I eventually did the big chop in college and wore my hair in twists and the occasional sew-in. But, lately, I’ve been thinking of actually switching things up—courtesy of Rihanna, whose Instagram feed has me dreaming of her waist-length box braids.
Being of Jamaican descent, I felt inspired to learn more about a protective hairstyle that could help me feel more connected with my West Indian culture. That’s why I hit up two hairstylists to soak up as much tea on box braids as possible. Ahead, everything you could ever want to know about getting box braids, including the price, time commitment, product recs, and so much more.
What are box braids?
First thing’s first: Box braids are plaits or three-strand braids that are divided into square-shaped sections, says hairstylist and Oribe consulting stylist, Stacey Ciceron. “Box braids can be done with natural hair or with extended hair for extra length, thickness, and fullness,” she says. “No matter how big or small your box braids are, they’ll always have four corners,” adds celebrity hairstylist Larry Sims, who regularly works with Zendaya, Gabrielle Union, and Danai Gurira, to name a few.
You’ve probably heard of knotless box braids, too, which have a more seamless look compared to classic box braids. “Knotless box braids give a more natural finish and look like the person’s real hair, while regular box braids present a small visible knot at the beginning of the braid where you can clearly see the added extensions,” says Ciceron. Knotless box braids also tend to put less pressure on the scalp, which is a big win for the tender-headed (@ me).
Whether you choose knotless or classic box braids is totally about your personal style, BTW—there’s no right or wrong approach. “Regular box braids are old school, the knots at the base reminds me of the ’90s and African culture, which is really great,” says Sims.
How much do box braids cost?
As with pretty much all hairstyling consultations, the cost of your box braids depends on a few different factors—namely the style, size, and of course, the length of your box braids. Unless you’re seeing a celebrity hairstylist or visiting a high-end salon, you can expect to spend anywhere from $100 to $300 for your box braids (which, BTW, kindaaa makes sense, since they take a decent amount of time to install).
Do box braids damage your hair?
Box braids are a great protective style because there’s no thermal heat on the hair, which means your hair won’t have any issues growing. That said, box braids can damage your hair if they’re installed incorrectly, as they can end up too heavy or be left in for too long. “To avoid damaging the hair, you want to make sure you treat the hair properly before and after the braids, keep up with night maintenance, and avoid keeping the braids in too long,” says Ciceron.
How long do you keep in box braids?
I get it: If you’re chilling in the salon chair for ten hours (more on that, later), it’s super tempting to keep your box braids in for as long as possible—but experts agree you shouldn’t keep them in for more than eight weeks, sorry. “Box braids should be kept in no longer than six to eight weeks on average because the hair grows out and causes matting and tangles which can ultimately lead to damaged hair,” says Ciceron. Remember: If you get mini braids, you’ll have more packs of hair on your head, which means they will be heavier (especially if you go for Riri’s waist-length box braids) and will probs require maintenance sooner rather than later.
What hair is best for box braids?
If you’re on a budget, don’t stress out thinking you NEED to use human hair for box braids. The pros agree that you can use either human or synthetic hair, including good ol’ Kanekalon braiding hair, which is more durable and lasts longer. If you aren’t totally sure what route you want to go, chat with your braider ahead of your appointment.
What to expect during your box braids hair appointment:
If you’re down to try box braids, it’s a good idea to go into your appointment with realistic expectations. Of course, every hairstylist works a little differently, but in general, Sims says you can expect the following:
- Have your entertainment, whether a book, Netflix, or an iPad on deck because you’ll be in the salon chair for a loooooong time.
- Your stylist will start by washing and conditioning your hair, followed by a quick blow dry.
- Depending on the size of your braids, your stylist will start at the back of your neck, creating little square sections from right to left. If you’re feeding hair into the braids, your stylist will take your hair and split it into two sections so you have three strands.
- If you’re going for classic box braids, your stylist will take the three sections of your hair, wrap it around the base of the box, and begin braiding from the base (root to tip). If you prefer knotless box braids, your stylist will feed the hair in.
- Remember when I mentioned you’ll be in the chair for a while? Uh, yeah, here’s where you do some serious waiting, because the process can take anywhere between three hours for bigger, shoulder-length box braids and ten hours (!!!) for smaller, waist-length braids.
How do you wash box braids?
There’s not really a definitive answer here, because pros are actually split on whether you should wash your box braids or not. At the end of the day, though, it’s best to consult your braider to figure out if you’ll be able to skip shampooing for the six to eight weeks you keep in your box braids. Here’s a couple things to keep in mind:
“I don’t believe in washing box braids unless they’ve been exposed to chlorine or salt water, which mostly occurs on vacation,” says Ciceron. “In that case, I would rinse only and allow to fully dry if possible. Washing the hair while in braids can lead to matting or cause the style to get fuzzy.”
Sims says some of his clients prefer washing their hair every couple of weeks, but he’s a fan of weekly shampooing. He suggests using a co-wash, which is more moisturizing than a traditional shampoo, so you don’t necessarily have to follow up with a conditioner. His favorite step? Using a scalp tonic, aka scalp refreshers that are loaded with soothing and clarifying ingredients like peppermint, tea tree oil, or spearmint.
The Bottom Line
In recent years, we’ve seen box braids pop up everywhere from the red carpet to Instagram—and with good reason. The low-maintenance and protective hairstyle is versatile (it can be dressed up or down) and is now seen as more “acceptable” in work environments thanks to legislation that protests against discrimination of natural hair. Box braids are, more importantly, a way for us to connect with our African culture (and look damn good while doing so).
As long as you don’t mind the time commitment of sitting anywhere from six to ten hours in the salon chair, box braids should be on your list of hairstyles to try ASAP. Once it’s finally spring, I’ll be first in line at my hairstylist’s shop to get box braids for the first-time ever.