Now I know you are reading the title and thinking, “um excuse me, embrace shrinkage…NEVER”. I am not going to lie, I love a good stretch technique as much as the next natural, but learning to embrace shrinkage has many more benefits than you may think!
For some naturals, stretching is used as an ideal preference visually but for others used as a tactic for easier manipulation of tresses. Falling in the tactical bracket, stretching my 4c strands has helped tremendously in my detangling sessions, cutting down on time and breakage, but constant or everyday manipulation to maintain a stretched technique can do more harm than good.
Though shrinkage may get more than the occasional side eye, shrinkage is actually a sign of health, a physical factor showing us our hair is not damaged from heat or other external factors. There are many ways of temporarily reducing shrinkage, but permanent alternatives such as “heat training”; slowly altering the strand by the use of heat to loosen the curl pattern is actual damage to the strand due to permanently altering the original bonds, similar to the effects of chemicals but in smaller less damaging doses. Depending on the density and “health” of the strand, heat training does work for some, but in short, still damaging; weakening the strand on a lower level.
As briefly stated above, our hair consists of several bonds, chemical and physical. Two of those several bonds ‘hydrogen’ and ‘salt’ fall in the latter category. Hydrogen bonds are responsible for the elasticity in our strands and the ability to return to its original form, basically showing the overall strength of the hair. Now these bonds are extremely fragile and can transiently be changed by heat and water, while salt bonds can be changed due to the ph balance of our hair, if the hair is too acidic or alkaline, it can break down the salt bonds and only rectify until neutralized. Products you place on your strands can greatly affect the ph balance of your hair as well (to learn more on the ph balance of hair click here). As previously mentioned there are also other bonds as well, such as disulfide, cysteine and peptide, but theses bonds are only affected by chemical properties; hair relaxers, texturizers, certain color agents, etc. Stronger than physical bonds, once chemical bonds are changed there is no going back.
Speaking of no going back, for “healthy” curls you want the complete opposite! Pull a strand of healthy curly hair and watch it quickly return to it’s original form or snap back! The “snap back” effect has always been my alias name regarding shrinkage . The snap back of the strand not only shows the original condition of the hair but demonstrates strength. The more elasticity to your curl, the more you protect your curls against breakage. Stretching equates to easier manipulation while shrinkage protects against breakage…I know… what’s a natural to do? Sounds like an oxymoron of sorts, you can retain length but also increase breakage.
The solution is to find a happy medium between the two. Stretching can be extremely beneficial but like most good things, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. So perhaps if heat is your preference, maybe stretch your strands no more than once a week with low heat. If heat is not an option you prefer like myself, the alternative, braidout, twistout or bantu knot out, is quite effective but take in account, even though heat is not used, be aware of the resistance once hair is in the stretch styled. Hair can still be damaged through mid-trichorrexis nodosa or mid-shaft splits that result in too much tension of the strand (to find out more on mid-trichorrexis nodosa click here).
Now if you are looking for less manipulation on stretched styles, less products will do just that, helping you to retain a longer braidout or twist out. When your strands are constrained with an abundance of products they are more likely to revert to their original state due to many products that posses humectants, (properties that draw moisture from the air) such as glycerin. Now if you embrace shrinkage and have normal porosity levels then this of course will not pertain to you, but for those looking for a longer stretch, especially during humid summer days stay away from products that contain glycerin. As for those dry winters days or if you live in Las Vegas, glycerin should be avoided as well if your hair is constantly grasping for moisture. The reason for the red light?…when humectants are not able to secrete moisture from the air it will take the next best thing…the natural moisture from your strands, yes, in the most kindest of terms, it is a moisture leech!
Shrinkage can sometimes be looked at as the ugly step sister but shrinkage is the true state of our hair, and denying that part is not accepting all aspects of natural hair. Accepting and loving are two different attributes but learning to appreciate the benefits of shrinkage may help you to see the beauty of natural hair in it’s truest form. Just think of it as a divorce with children. You love your child but not your ex, things ended amicably and he is a good father but you as a unit don’t work! So now you have to deal with his presence for the sake of your little one. You don’t have to love shrinkage but you do have to acknowledge it’s existence and let it come around more than you may like for the health of your hair.