As much as I love the curly/natural hair movement, I’ve realized that it could often times be hella judgmental. I have naturally curly hair that I wear curly more than straight these days since recovery from really bad heat-damage. But even after getting my curl cut this September, I told my stylist that though straightening wouldn’t be something I did often, it wasn’t going to be something I do away with for good because I crave the change sometimes. Since the natural hair movement kicked off, I’ve noticed a lot of shaming towards curly-haired girls who choose to wear their hair straight which is not okay. What I will say though, is that heat-styling curly hair straight does eventually take a toll on curls which is why I’ve become extra careful whenever I do choose to wear my curls straight. Fortunately, there are ways to straighten your natural hair without actually damaging your curls. I hit up Dominican stylists and salon owners Cynthia Henriquez and Carol Urena for some advice.
Heat-styling and natural curls usually don’t make a good match. But at Urena’s Punta Cana Beauty Salon, a Dominican salon in Ditmas Park Brooklyn, straightening natural hair without damaging curls is a top priority.
“I’ve seen a huge difference in my clientele since the natural hair movement,” she tells HipLatina. “A lot of clients have decided to go natural, have stopped using relaxers and embrace their curls so we have had to cater to that. We definitely encourage deep conditioning treatments and using the steamer but the key is to use minimal heat.”
At Punta Cana Beauty Salon, like many Dominican salons, wash and sets a.k.a rollos, is a common way of drying the hair. The hair is set in rollers and then the client sits under a hooded dryer until the hair is completely dry. But what sets Punta Cana Beauty Salon apart is that they aren’t blasting the blow dryer on your hair afterwards and then following up with a flat iron. They also don’t charge more or make anyone feel bad if they have a tighter, coiler curl texture.
In fact, you won’t hear the words “pelo malo,” “bad hair,” or kinky come out of Urena’s mouth. She’s even careful about her wording, making sure to refer to super tight coily hair as extremely curly, which is not typical of most Dominican salons but definitely progressive and refreshing.
“First, we do rollers sets on any and every texture as opposed to straight blow drying to minimize heat. The client then sits under the hooded dryer. We always apply a heat-protectant to hair before styling and we often encourage to just gently blow dry the roots but if a client wants us to pass the blower on the whole head after a wash and set that’s fine too. But all you need is minimal heat for styling after that.”
Urena’s cousin Henriquez owns Mary Salon II in Flatbush Ditmas, which is currently undergoing a rebrand to Beautique Dominican Salon and has a similar approach to styling natural hair. Henriquez is also responsible for nurturing my curls back to life after years of heat-damage from getting weekly blowouts when I lived in Queens. By the time I found Cinthia my hair was practically straight. After multiple haircuts and her refusing to directly blow out my hair, my curls have finally come back.
“The trick to not damaging curls is to not apply too much heat or direct heat. We do a lot of wash and sets here. We set the hair in rollers and have clients sit under the hooded hairdryer which dries the hair but not directly, so it’s not causing any damage,” Henriquez says. “When you blow dry your hair and it’s totally wet, you have to put direct heat on top of the hair. The hair is also more vulnerable and fragile when it’s wet. You’re pulling the hair and also directly drying with hot settings to dry and straighten it versus the rollers which is indirect heat so it’s a lot less damaging.”
Dominican salons tend to get a really bad rep when it comes to curls. They’re known for blasting the heat and straightening hair until it’s bone straight and fried. In fact, most naturals I know wouldn’t step foot in a Dominican salon.
“I’ve had clients come to me and tell me ‘Oh I went to this other Dominican salon and they were just blow drying the crap out of my hair, burning my scalp and they don’t listen,’” Urena says. “What we try to explain to our clients is that you really don’t need that much heat especially after you’ve done the rollers. The hooded dryer completely dries your hair so all you need is minimal heat for styling after that.”
In terms of products, the cousins both stress using high quality sulfate-free shampoo and conditioners, a deep conditioning mask at least once a week preferably under a steamer or hooded dryer, and a heat-protectant ALWAYS before styling. The less heat—the better. That means try to avoid flat-irons and curling irons as much as possible. In fact, at both their salons you don’t need any of those tools to get your desired looks. The rollers achieve bouncy voluminous curls and the blow dryer even with minimal heat is often enough to get the hair soft and smooth. But Urena keeps it real about the fact that if you want healthy curls, you shouldn’t be straightening your hair often—period.
“In all honesty, if you want to maintain healthy curls, number one is to try not to go to the salon or straighten your hair too often. If you’re straightening weekly, your curls will be affected. With time it will soften up the curl and you can eventually lose your curls,” she says. “Once or twice a month is okay and you want to make sure that you’re always using heat-protectants. If you’re going to a Dominican salon definitely try to go for a wash and set versus direct blow-drying.”
Henriquez recommends doing your research before stepping into just any Dominican salon. “Not all Dominican salons do wash and sets on natural or extremely curly hair and not all of them cater to keeping your curls healthy but we do exist, you just have to do your homework and find us,” she says.
As for coloring, Urena who is also a colorist expert and known for her impressive balayage hair transformations, insist you can color—even bleach your hair— without damaging your curls. “There are a lot of products that can be added to bleach and colors to protect the hair,” she says. “I would highly recommend that you go to a salon that uses these products that they can add to the color to protect your hair from any damage.”
Not everyone has access to a Dominican salon or a salon that does wash and sets, but fortunately, hooded dryers and rollers are easy to get. You can buy them at any local beauty supply store or even on Amazon. And for the girl who doesn’t have a clue how to wash and set her hair, try letting your hair air dry a little before direct blow drying so that your hair isn’t soaked and you don’t have to use as much heat. Of course, apply a heat protectant before styling.
Heat-styling naturally curly hair can be a very risky game. But finding the right routine and stylist can make all the difference for those of us who love to switch from a blow out one day to wash and go curls the next.