How to Get Beach Waves With Natural Hair: A Surfer’s Guide

Let me start with the truth: I started surfing by mistake. About two years ago, I was invited to Rockaway Beach on a press-related surf retreat. Once I got over my fear of dying, I fell in love with the sport.

When I decide that I’m into something I become a bit of an obsessive. In this case, I spent hours watching films and documentaries about surfing and the ocean (Blue Crush is still top five, but who let Blue Crush 2 happen?) and I took swim lessons at the YMCA in Bed Stuy to help me better understand the ocean and feel more comfortable in the water. I’m still very much a novice, but since then I’ve surfed waves at Ditch Plains in Montauk, Playa Carmen in Costa Rica, Praia Grande in Portugal and of course, back at Rockaway Beach.

Now that I’ve somewhat overcome my fear of the ocean (it’s still terrifying) and I’m able to paddle out by myself, I’m ready to tackle my next big barrier in surfing: my hair. I’m the girl who always has to check a bag when I travel because I need to bring hair care products and a full skincare set. I am unapologetically high maintenance when it comes to beauty; when it came to my beauty routine and surfing, I knew I had to perfect it.

From experience, I already know what doesn’t work. Box braids don’t do it. The saltwater saturates the braids and makes them unbearably heavy. Weaves are fine. I wore one when I surfed in Costa Rica and Portugal, but consistently being in the water loosens the braids and shortens the longevity of the hairstyle. Other protective styles will definitely work (locs, cornrows, flat-twists), but this fall, because September is the best time to surf in NYC, I wanted to experiment with wearing my natural hair, which is low porosity (meaning it’s hard for it to retain moisture), fine and textured between a 3C and 4A. I spent two weeks on my own mission. Here’s what I learned.

A quick note: My hair is slightly heat-damaged, so these photos are not my hair living up to its full potential.

Moisturizing is very, very, very, important.

Normally, I get lazy and skimp on moisturizing my hair. When it comes to the ocean, however, I’ve learned to not even think about skipping. Saltwater will ruin your mane and make your strands super dry and brittle, especially when you’re spending over six hours per week in the ocean.

During my two-week trial period, I made sure my hair was saturated with moisture before I got to the beach, before I got into the water, and after I got out. At home, before surfing, I used a leave-in conditioner on my wet hair. My favorites are: Kinky Curly Knot Today, which I’ve been using for two years now, and Camilla Rose’s Coconut Water Leave-In Conditioner, which smells divine. Both products are lightweight and water-based, which means they penetrate moisture into the hair. I followed that with an oil to seal the moisture.

I used coconut oil on my hair forever until I learned that it’s not the best product for low porosity hair. Oils that are better: grapeseed oil, argan oil, jojoba oil, almond oil and hemp seed oil. Aesop’s Shine Oil is made with jojoba oil, borage seed oil, grapeseed oil and almond oil, and it smells (clearly, I’m into products that are appeasing to my nose) like a citrus forest thanks to the petitgrain.

Shea Moisture’s Manuka Honey and Marufa Oil doubles as a scalp treatment and claims to intensely moisturize (it does). Then, I completed my routine with a cream product to prevent moisture loss. As I Am’s Long & Luxe Curl Enhancing Smoothie is made with passion fruit, so of course I fell in love with the smell and its thick consistency which doesn’t weigh down my hair. R+Co.’s High Dive Moisture and Shine Cream is a little more lightweight and truly delivers on the shine.

That was just my moisture regimen before I left the house. By the time I got off the train, rented my board and got to the beach, my hair was already somewhat dry. I used a leave-in conditioner spray and a spray oil to dampen my hair again (spray bottles are easier to apply on-the-go). I’ve been using Oyin Handmade Juices and Berries since 2011 and even though the company is larger now, the results haven’t changed, it still works wonders for both moisturizing and bringing curls back to life. I layered that with Ouidad Mongongo Curly Hair Treatment, which is my new obsession. The smell is reminiscent of a black hair salon and the formula protects strands from heat and UV Rays, it’s like sunscreen for the hair. I have been using it every day now. After my extensive hair prep (my curls thanked me later), I attempted to catch some waves.

Apres-Surf: Beach sprays can be good for kinky hair, too.

Part of the reason I get weaves or braids if I’m going on a beach vacation is because I hate dealing with my hair after I get out of the water. Realistically, I’m not going straight home to shower. I want to get some food, lay out on the beach, people-watch. My hair is always very dry and my skin is always very ashy (seriously, why don’t beach beauty tips ever mention lotion? You won’t find me at the beach without a travel sized Nivea Body Lotion or Goe Oil). As for my hair during the trial-period, I realized that while my hair was dry, my curls were at their best: elongated, defined and just the right amount of frizz. In this case, saltwater was good. Sometime I would come home like, should I even wash my hair?

In order to preserve my saltwater curls, I tried out some beach sprays. I never thought to try them before because they are always advertised to white women. Seriously, type in “beach spray,” “salt spray,” “beach hair” or “beach waves” in Google images.

Turns out beach sprays can work for curly coils, too. The key is to use the ones that have oil or some sort of protectant. To prep my hair for the spray, I applied either Oyin’s Juices and Berries or Bumble and Bumble’s Hair Invisible Oil Primer for some moisture and also to detangle by just rubbing my fingers through my wet hair. Then I added a bit of hair oil, and finally, the beach spray. This took only three minutes.

Ouai Wave Spray smells of Italian lemon, white musk and amber (read: it smells incredible) and while it doesn’t include oil, it does have a rice protein that claims to protect the hair from getting damaged and dried out. Oribe’s Apres Beach Wave and Shine Spray contains wheat protein and seed oil that conditions the hair. Both sprays helped me to achieve ideal curls on the beach and off, Ouai was easier to travel with but luckily Oribe comes in a travel size.

Do this when you get home.

Once I’d get home from the beach, I started what I liked to call my hair and skin therapy session. I began by mildly detangling my hair, working in some leave-in conditioner spray to make it more manageable. Then, I got really into pre-poo treatments. Shea Moisture’s Manuka Honey & Marufa Oil is an oil that can be used as a treatment, which I applied to my scalp and then massaged for five minutes. Once my ends were dry again, I tried out Oribe’s new Gold Lust Pre-Shampoo Intensive Treatment that’s strictly for your strands. It’s super fun to use: You take the cream, rub it in your hands until it turns into an oil, then apply.

In the shower, I used a co-wash instead of a regular shampoo. I really liked that Briogeo Be Gentle, Be Kind Avocado + Quinoa Co-wash, which is made with rosehip oil, argan oil, coconut oil and vitamin E, sounded like a grain bowl and detangled my hair with ease. Plus, the packaging is super chic. As I Am’s Coconut Cowash, which contains castor oil and coconut oil, has been a standard in my hair routine for years and it’s super affordable. If my hair still felt like it needed some love, I used a conditioner with the winner being Oyin Handmade’s Honey Hemp, or should I say, a miracle worker with an addicting scent.

Then, I deep conditioned with added heat: usually a hot towel over a shower cap because I haven’t invested in a hair steamer yet. Ouidad’s Curl Recovery Melt Down Extreme Mask is one of the best products that I’ve ever used. I audibly said, “Wooooww” when I rinsed it out because it was just that good. Camilla Rose’s Algae Renew Deep Conditioner was another wow-factor product for a fraction of the price. It left my hair extremely soft. Saltwater who? While my hair was in spa mode, I gave my face the same treatment. Saltwater might be a good skin detoxer but it also dries your skin out. I did a moisturizing face mask. I really liked Dr. Jart’s Vital Hydra Solution Sheet Mask and Dr. Barbara Sturm’s Deep Hydrating Face Mask.

Before bed, I slathered my hair and skin in oil. I’ve never met a hair oil that felt like wealth until I tried Shu Uemura’s Essence “Absolue” Oil. It’s velvety and thick without being overbearing, and it absorbs quickly. Moroccanoil Treatment is another oil that felt lavish and had a similar consistency. Both of these oils are definitely going to be mainstays in my regular hair care regimen. For my face, Joanna Vargas’ Rescue Serum immediately makes my skin glow and Pai’s Rosehip Oil is responsible for my blemish-free face.

And that’s my surfer hair journey, with the main lesson I learned being: Always stay moisturized, literally from head to toe. Also, for anyone who’s reading this and has questions, feel free to slide into my DMs.

Photos by Maggie Shannon; follow her on Instagram @maggiehshannon;  iPhone photos provided by Tahirah Hairston.

Tahirah Hairston

Tahirah Hairston is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @tahairyy and Instagram @tahairy.

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