How To Wash Your Box Braids To Keep Your Hair and Scalp Healthy

One of the most appealing things about box braids is that they're low-maintenance, but that doesn't mean they're no-maintenance. If you want your braids to last, you'll need to know how to wash them.

Knowing how to wash your box braids will not only keep your hair and scalp clean (and happy because nothing's worse than an itchy scalp under braids) but also help you extend the life of your style. To help you get the most out of your protective style while keeping your scalp happy, we tapped braiding experts Stasha Harris, Kamilah Dunbar, and licensed trichologist Bridgette Hill for their tips on how to wash box braids.

Experts In This Article

Is it okay to get box braids wet?

After spending several hours and hundreds of dollars getting box braids installed, getting them wet probably isn't the first thing on your mind. Still, if you're wondering whether you can get your box braids wet, the experts say the answer is yes.

"It's completely okay to get braids wet," Dunbar explains. "This has a lot to do with how the client feels about freshly done versus lived-in braids. Water will revert the client's natural hair at the root and curl or wave, resulting in what most people would say makes the braids' look old.'"

There are also ways to wash box braids while getting very little water on the lengths (more on that later), but it is okay and very possible to get box braids wet without ruining them.

How often should I wash box braids?

How often you wash your box braids will depend largely on different factors, including your scalp type (is it on the drier or oily side), your lifestyle, and your personal preference. Some people may find washing their scalp after a few weeks with braids absolutely critical. Others might not feel the need to wash their braids frequently. Still, Dunbar tells her clients to consider shampooing their scalp with clarifying shampoo at least two to three weeks into their style.

What happens if you don't wash your box braids?

If you're skipping out on washing your box braids in hopes of preserving the style, our experts say it's not worth the risk. "What I see with most underwashed protective styles is the development of bacterial and fungal infections on the scalp as a result of braiding and extension work," Hill says. "That's a direct result of improper shampooing, not enough cleansing, not letting the hair dry properly during the cleansing process, and using heavy oils and greases on the scalp."

Hill also explains that product buildup and oils left unwashed on the scalp can contribute to bacteria and seborrheic dermatitis. So, while box braids save you time from having to style your hair daily, it doesn't mean neglecting to cleanse your scalp, which is essential for hair health. 

How to wash box braids:

Whether you're washing traditional knot-in braids or (the recently more popular) knotless braids, the process is the same.

Work in sections

Dunbar suggests creating manageable sections before you begin the process, making reaching your roots at the back of your head easier. You can section off your braids with clips or hair ties to help you access your scalp without getting tangled in your braids. 

Wet your scalp

Some people are okay with wetting their braids completely under the shower head (like you would if washing your hair sans extensions). That is a totally fine option (as long as you thoroughly dry your braids at the end—more on that later), but you can also use a spray bottle to wet your scalp without completely dousing your head in water. Again, it's completely up to you.

Apply shampoo to the scalp

You want to avoid applying cleanser to the lengths of your braids and focus on the scalp. Dunbar suggests using a nozzle bottle, if necessary, to target shampoo along the parts of your braids. 

"Create small circular movements using your fingers or a small brush to lather and rinse," she says. Dunbar says using the pads of your fingers (where your fingerprints are) instead of your nails will help minimize friction, which can cause your braids to look fuzzy or worn in quicker than you want. 

Skip conditioner

Dunbar suggests skipping rinse-out conditioner. "Sometimes traditional conditioners settle into the braids and make it difficult to rinse out, and conditioner that isn't rinsed out can leave a heavy white residue on the hair. A leave-in is a safer bet," she says. 

Rinse thoroughly

To rinse your braids without creating more frizz, Dunbar says to stand under the shower head and allow the water to trickle down your hair while using your hands to guide the water down. "Directing the water downward keeps the braids as neat as possible," she explains. 

Another option is to tie the lengths of your braids up into a loose bun and use a cup or small pitcher to rinse the water from your scalp. This takes longer than standing under the shower, but it helps prevent the lengths of your braids from getting wet (which also cuts down on drying time). You should rinse your braids until the water is clear and soapless. Not rinsing shampoo out thoroughly can lead to buildup. Also, styling braids (in a ponytail, for example) while wet or damp can lead to your hair smelling moldy.

Dry thoroughly

Always dry your roots and scalp after washing box braids. Immediately out of the shower, use a microfiber towel to squeeze (not shake) water from your hair from root to end, trying to get as much moisture out as possible. Once you've sopped up as much water as possible, let your hair dry or sit under a hooded dryer for a few hours to jumpstart the process.

Apply product

Harris recommends adding oils to your braids after you've washed it and her go-to is the Ampro Vitamin E Oil ($7). For styling, Harris says you can use some gel on your edges, like the Shine 'n Jam Magic Fingers Gel ($12) and add mousse to your braids. Run the mousse through your braids with your fingers and then tie them up with a durag or headscarf to dry. "Your braids should look fresh. Not brand new, but fresh," says Harris. If you use mousse and spend some time under a hooded dryer, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how neat your freshly shampooed braids turn out.

How long does it take box braids to dry after washing?

Your hair might take a long time to dry (whether air drying or using a hooded dryer), which, honestly, comes with the territory. Removing as much water as possible when towel-drying your hair will help it dry quicker. However, patience is key.

How do you moisturize box braids after washing them?

Both Hill and Dunbar agree that traditional, creamy rinse-out conditioner is unnecessary when washing box braids. But that doesn't mean you should skip moisturizing your braids altogether. 

"A lightweight conditioner is my recommendation," Dunbar says, and we'd even further suggest using a spray instead of a cream to prevent product clumping in your braids. "Once your hair is moisturized and dry, follow up with an antibacterial or anti-inflammatory scalp oil, such as tea tree blend," she says. 

Hill is a fan of hair oils for locking in moisture at this step, too. She just warns that thick, heavy moisturizers can harm the scalp. "No pomade or grease should ever be applied to the scalp. These products are usually heavy polymers that the scalp does not need," she says. "Your scalp should be supple like the skin on your face. You need to let oxygen go through the scalp, especially for tightly coiled and curly hair." 

How do you refresh box braids?

When you don't have time to give your box braids a full wash or when you notice buildup between washes, there are ways to refresh hair quickly. Dunbar says that when you're in between washes, you can dilute apple cider vinegar in water (equal parts) and use a rag to "wipe down your scalp section and follow up with your scalp oil of choice."

Final takeaway

While box braids are a great low-maintenance style, your hair still needs to be cared for. Our experts say that washing your box braids three weeks after your initial installation will help keep your scalp healthy while your style is in. When shampooing box braids, it's critical to ensure your hair dries completely before styling. However, shampooing your hair while wearing box braids doesn't mean you can leave them in for longer than the recommended four to eight weeks. Remember, protective styles that create tension or buildup on your scalp can create more problems than not.

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