I Stopped Heat-Styling My Hair For Nine Months and Got My Curls Back!

Anyone who knows me, knows that my heat-damage struggle took WAY too long

Not heat hair transition

Photo: Johanna Ferreira

Anyone who knows me, knows that my heat-damage struggle took WAY too long. I started experiencing pretty bad heat-damage almost six years ago, after years of getting Dominican blowouts — week after week. But my transitioning period took years because my stubborn ass was initially hesitant to go heat-free. Towards the end of 2018, I realized enough was enough. I got a curl cut around November, a month later did one last wash and set at the Dominican salon, and told myself from December 2019 on I was going to go at least six months straight without heat-styling and I wound up going 9 to 10 months — almost a year.

Like many curly-haired Dominican women, I grew up wearing my hair mostly straight. Many Latinas — Dominicans especially — grow up being told that straight hair is pelo bueno (good hair) and curly hair is “pelo malo.” We have been conditioned to believe, due to the influence of our Spanish colonizers, that textured hair is undesirable and unattractive. We’ve also been conditioned to be ashamed of our African and Indigenous roots. The mejorar la raza mindset that plagued our generation and previous generations, was that your worth was essentially based on your proximity to whiteness. It’s for that reason so many curly-haired Latinas like myself grew up with this pressure to straighten our curls, especially in the workplace.

While I had periods when I would wear it both ways like when I was a kid, my college years, and even my early 20s — heat-styling still happened quite frequently. At least once a month I’d say. When I became a full-time writer I felt even more pressure to wear my long hair sleek straight. At that time you didn’t see that many Afro-Latinas or even curly haired Latinas in Latin media. I would attend beauty and fashion events quite frequently and would notice all the girls rocking fresh blowouts — many admitted to going to Drybar on a weekly basis. I couldn’t afford to shed $50 plus there and Dominican salons always knew how to get my 3B curls looking sleek — all for $20 or less — so I started going on a weekly basis. After a year or so,  I woke up one day, washed my hair, and realized I lost all my curls. My hair was fried and barely curled. It was pretty traumatic, to say the least, but you’d think that trauma would have motivated me to throw out my hot tools and ditch straightening — but it didn’t.

The author during her heat-damage days.

The author during her heat-damage days.

Instead, I took the long route. I found myself a good and educated Dominican stylist who refused to blow dry fragile hair and instead had me do rollos (wash and sets) to avoid direct heat — even if it meant staying longer at the salon. She would lower the heat-settings on her blow dryer and only blow out my roots to avoid further damage and encouraged me to get a lob to cut off more of my damaged ends when she realized simple trims were just not enough. She encouraged me to do weekly hair masks and until this day the VERY few times I get my hair straightened, I only go to her or her cousin because I trust no one else. The commute from Harlem to Brooklyn is rough but so worth it.

My curls slowly started coming in, but as much as she was helping me protect my hair from further damage, after a while I realized the only way I was going to get these curls fully back was if I took a significant break from heat styling — period. The thing people don’t realize is that when you’re transitioning from heat-damage the last thing your curls need is heat! Your hair is in a fragile state and the constant straightening and pulling — even if it’s gentle and at lower heat-settings, prevents your hair from forming into curls. Hair has memory and when you straighten often, you’re essentially training your hair to be straight. My hair was trained to be straight and I needed to train it to curl again by just letting it be.

One of the hardest things about transitioning to healthy curls is what they call the “ugly stage.” Your curls will look funky as they start to recover, especially if you’re not willing to do the big chop. But girl, you have to suck it up! For years I couldn’t suck it up and would go right back to heat-styling and continue the unhealthy cycle all over again. This time around I was committed to really taking care of my hair, even if it meant putting my hair up in a bun on bad hair days.

In December of 2018, I promised myself I would go at least six months without heat-styling to see how much my hair would bounce back and I was shook by the drastic results. By March my hair had gotten significantly curlier. My very loose curls that almost looked like waves had finally formed into actual curls — many of them taking a spiral shape. Because I was also conditioning every single week with a hair mask, using the best products, taking hair vitamins, sleeping with a satin pillowcase, and mostly air drying (I’d occasionally diffuse on low heat settings), my hair was also growing at a rapid speed. My hair was thicker, longer, and significantly healthier. It was around this time I decided I was ready for my next curl cut. I went to Ona Diaz-Santin (also known as The Hair Saint) over at 5 Salon Spa in New Jersey, who is known for her curl cuts and styling. She cut the remaining heat-damaged ends and provided me with advice on how to bring this hair back to life. I noticed a significant difference immediately after the cut that made me feel even more comfortable about embracing my curls and staying away from the heat.

By the summer, I no longer had any straight pieces, just a few looser strands here and there that disguised pretty well. My curls spiraled and were bouncier than ever. My hair was also silky soft. I barely lost hair whenever I’d wash or detangle. If anything my hair was growing like crazy. At this point, I was pretty much sold on the idea of always wearing my hair curly — instead of wearing it both ways like I initiated had wanted. I told myself if I ever straightened my hair again it would just be once or twice a year at most and it would be a wash and set only by stylists who understood how to preserve my curls. I passed on complimentary blowouts or heat-styling press appointments, I let my bestie know I wanted to wear my natural hair for her April wedding, and I continued on my journey.

By October my curls were seriously poppin. My hair was so healthy by then that I was finally able to add some color to the mix. I got pintura highlights done without bleach and felt so confident about how my curls had been looking. My hair was also healthy enough to finally heat-style (ironically enough) so I decided to celebrate by getting my first wash and set in 10 months this past November. My stylist applied a deep conditioning mask after shampooing and had me sit under a steamer for 20 minutes before applying rollos to my hair. I sat under a hooded dryer for almost an hour and then she barely touched it up afterward, only gently blowing out my roots using medium heat settings. We both couldn’t believe how healthy and long my hair had gotten.

By day three I had already missed my curls but wanted to get the most out of my straight style so I waited until day 5 to wash my hair. I applied the Botanika Beauty The Mender Protein Treatment ($12)  after cleansing my hair with the Rizos Curls Hydrating Shampoo ($20). I left it on for the recommended amount of time while rocking a disposable shower cap to intensify the treatment. After rinsing it out I then applied the Botanika Beauty The Revitalizer Deep Conditioning Mask ($12) and left it on for 30 minutes before rinsing it out and styling with the Rizos Curls Curl Defining Cream ($22) and Camille Rose Curl Maker Jelly ($22). Fortunately for me, my curls looked exactly the same! Wearing my hair straight for almost a week made me realize how far my curls had gone and made me miss and appreciate my natural texture. I don’t miss getting my hair straightened every week. I have only gotten it straightened once more this past January and that will probably be it for the year. I’m finally at a stage in my life where I absolutely love my curls and find myself most beautiful this way. It was a very long journey — that many times had me considering giving up — but I’m so glad I did it!

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curls curly hair Heat-damage Heat-styling
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