Whether you get braids on the regular or you're a protective style first-timer, navigating the world of braiding hair can be a little daunting. For the novices, the first thing to know is that if you’re looking to get braided extensions, there are specific types of hair used for twists and braids, as opposed to other styles that require add-in hair. Fortunately, braiders quite often know which kind is best suited for the style you’re looking to create. Usually, it’s a type of synthetic hair called kanekalon, which most times resembles the natural pattern and kinks of Afro-textured hair in either a curly or blown-out state. Kanekalon hair, when it's used for braiding, typically looks like kinky hair after you hit it with a blow-dryer and a brush.
One last thing to keep in mind: Some brands mix kanekalon with toyokalon, which is another synthetic fiber. While this may look better visually because toyokalon is shiny, it doesn’t look as natural as pure kanekalon. "While toyokalon hair tends to tangle less and be shiny, there isn’t enough grit to lock the braid into itself," Kamilah says. "If possible, try to touch a piece of the hair through the package and feel if it is similar to a natural blown-dry hair texture as opposed to a plastic fiber feeling or too soft to the touch."
Most brands of kanekalon hair come in a range of colors that can be matched to your skin tone, but because of the material that it’s made of, you usually can’t dye it to be an exact match to your hair. This shouldn’t matter much with braids since in most cases, as your own hair will be hidden within the twists or plaits. Kanekalon hair also can’t withstand hot tools, but again, that's a non- issue since braids don’t require heat styling.
But the question remains — which brand of hair should you buy? We asked some hairstylists which ones they prefer, and for a few tips on how best to work with them, whether you're headed to the salon or you plan on braiding your hair yourself.
X-pression Premium Original Ultra Braid
"We can cut and manipulate the hair to our desired length and I find that you also use less of it, which is good for the overall cost of the style and weight on the head." Oludele notes that this type of hair is excellent when she's creating box braids, Senegalese twists, silky locs, and even updos. "They are best to hold the braids in and last longer that other brands I’ve tried." Oludele is particularly fond of the 72 to 84-inch option, as it allows the stylist more flexibility in cutting and styling.
Rastafri Original Classic Pre-Stretched 100 Percent Kanekalon
Los Angeles-based braider Asia Monae favors Rastafri hair for her braiding sessions. "It doesn't tangle, comes in a variety of colors, and even comes pre- stretched, which is perfect for feed-in and box braids." Pre-stretched hair, by the way, is feathered out at the ends, which keeps the braids from unraveling and tapering as you install them. "When the hair isn't pre-stretched, you waste time and sometimes some of the actual hair trying to stretch it."
Sensationnel 3X X-Pression Braid 84"
Kerry Washington's go-to hairstylist Takisha Sturdivant-Drew favors Sensationnel 3X Expression when she's doing braids. "It’s a higher grade that looks pretty good for the price it is," she says. "You can also use heat, steam, and hot water to help maintain the style. This hair is great for jumbo braids, ponytail braids, box braids, and cornrow braid hairstyles."
Sturdivant-Drew also mentions that this hair is easy to detangle while you're braiding it. Anyone who has ever gotten braid extensions knows that the braiding hair can sometimes knot up as you're pulling out small bits of kaneklaon to weave into the braid.
Takisha's ultimate tip for braid hair shopping? "Know what you want to get out of the hairstyle, meaning how long you want it to last without unraveling. Consider if you want it to have shine versus no shine and find one that isn’t going to frizz."
3X Ruwa Pre-Streched Braid 24” by Sensationnel
Ohio-based stylist Erynn Townsend loves to create box braids, Senegalese twists, and feed-in braids on her clients using Ruwa’s Pre-Stretched Braiding hair. "It has a solid color and length range, and a finger-soothing grip texture ideal for serious braiders." When the braids are installed, kanekalon hair needs to be dipped in boiling hot water in order to keep the ends from unraveling. Townsend mentions that Ruwa's brand of hair gives you excellent results post-dip. "[It has a] clean matte finish and [is] ultra-fast drying." Kamilah, who currently styles hair for Madonna's Madame X Tour, is also a fan of this type of hair. "There are three main reasons Ruwa hair has become my go-to hair for braids: First, the Ruwa hair is pre-stretched. This saves me a lot of time as a braider because the prep work is done. Secondly, the hair is water-resistant, making it more lightweight and quicker to dry. Third is the hair quality. Ruwa hair is soft and has a natural looking shine that mimics blown-out natural hair," she explains.Townsend has a tip for anyone who wants some custom color. She uses a technique called “brush blending” on her clients. "Get about three colors that get you excited and make seven custom bundles: three solid/pure colors, three dual blends, and one with all three blended together," she advises. "Ruwa is great for this since it usually comes in packs of three. Use a brush to blend the colors into one another, checking the bundle for unblended sections as you brush. And voil ! From here, your braids will have an unmatched dimension and tone that’s unique to you."
Innocence EZ Braid Pre-Stretched
Scalp irritation is a common issue for Black women who get braid extensions. The irritation may come from the extension hair itself, so it's important to be sure you're choosing something that won't have you frantically slapping your head once all those braids are installed. To avoid this, Kamilah likes to use the pre-stretched Innocence EZ Braid. "It is antibacterial and still has a relatively natural look to the hair," she explains.
When you're shopping for kanekalon hair, it's important to take note of the labels on the hair packs. “Look for [labels that say] itch-free or antibacterial. Some brands have become aware of the dangerous effects of the coating on kanekalon fibers that cause scalp irritation and have started to produce fibers that are less irritating," she says.
The Sassy Collection Kanekalon Jumbo Braid
Hairstylist Ursula Stephen isn't particular about her brand of braiding hair, but one thing she does look for when she's hair shopping is whether the package says "full" or "jumbo" across the front. "The best styles that are created with this is hair are mostly braided hairstyles such as cornrows and box braids," she shares. "I also use kanekalon hair as stuffing for styles like a French twist. It’s very helpful when you want to create different shapes and styles with natural hair." The Sassy Collection has jumbo braiding hair that is 100 percent kanekalon and promises to be easy on a braider's fingers. "Kanekalon is usually the key word, anything else is most likely plastic and could be hard to work with," Stephen explains.
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