Your Ultimate Natural Hair Heat Application Guide

by Kristal C

No doubt. Heat has been a big player on black women’s hair for many decades now. It is a very powerful tool that can give way to beautiful styling results in less time.

But on the flip side, our hair has been paying a hefty price on our misuse and misunderstanding on applying heat to our delicate tresses.

Have you ever damaged your hair with heat at least once?

Yeah, sis. Me, too. Actually, more than I can count on two hands! Oh, the memories are horrible.

The flat, greasy, dirty, limp flat-ironed jobs that left me smelling like a bad walking barbeque.


BUT! Thank goodness there is a BUT. I have learned so much along the way. Although we are not very frequent users of heat here at our house, we do incorporate it as an important part of our regimen.

We no longer fear the heat because we have learned the proper techniques for safely applying heat on our natural hair.

Ready to learn all about natural hair heat application, the different types of heat, and how to safely use heat on your curly tresses?

Ok, let’s go! Feel free to jump around using the table of contents below and bookmark this page for future reading.

Disclaimer: Some of the links below are affiliate links and we earn a small commission if you purchase through those links at no cost to you at all. Any funds earned are used to help run and support our website, Thanks in advance!


Ultimate Natural Hair Heat Application Guide

Why Do We Use Heat on Our Hair

In a nutshell, heat (direct and indirect) is used for a variety of reasons on black women hair. It is used to:

  • Speed up drying time (because we know long it can take for our thick roots to dry even overnight)
  • Improve our deep conditioning sessions through dry heat alone or with heated steam
  • Set styles such as roller sets, twist outs, braid outs, and wraps to give us that crisp salon-style finish
  • Stretch our curly textures to make styling easier and reduce knotting/tangles (we love this tool to stretch our hair)
  • Straighten the curl pattern for a sleeker look

Types of Natural Hair Heat Application

There are two types of natural hair heat application: direct and indirect. Do you understand the difference between the two and how they are used on our hair?

Direct Heat

This type of natural hair heat application simply means that the heat source makes direct (or very close) contact with your hair surface. Using direct heat is super convenient but is also very harsh due to the concentration of heat on the hair at any given time. Therefore, many women experience the most hair breakage and damage from this type of heat when used improperly and/or way too often.

Because of this reason, many natural hair women have grown to fear heat and have become resistant in using this tool at all on their hair.

Let us preface that there is nothing wrong with going heat-free at all. We believe it is a great choice as long as it works for your regimen.

A disclaimer though: Going the no-heat route does not automatically free you of breakage and damage though.

Did you know that natural hair in a shrunken state can easy tangle and knot onto itself and lead to breakage? Some women have an amazing amount of shrinkage and rely on stretching their curls out with heat regularly to help reduce tangles and knots in their tightly coiled hair.

It is about management in ALL aspects of your hair care, with heat or not.

However, if you are seeing great healthy results from refraining from direct heat then we all for that! You are on the right track! The main point is that your natural hair can still thrive when using direct heat safely with proper knowledge and techniques.

How Often to Use Direct Heat

Once again, this is a completely individual decision based on how healthy your natural hair is, how you prepare your hair for direct heat, and how you maintain your hair post heat application.

Some women find that using heat a couple times a year is adequate for their needs. For instance, some women only straighten their hair for trimming, a special occasion, or a length check.

Other women use direct heat (like blow dryers) as a part of their monthly. They find that keeping their hair texture routinely stretched aids in management, reduces the amount of detangling sessions, and actually results in less breakage and more length retention.

Lastly, you have women who use heat twice or more times a month. These women may have no interest in applying chemicals to their hair but enjoy their hair straightened on a regular basis. Heat training is actually a technique some natural hair women use to break down the bonds of their natural curls in order to achieve a looser/straighter texture over time. This type of heat frequency is damaging but it is more so controlled.

Women who do heat train are advised to keep up a rigorous regimen in order to prevent excessive breakage. Nevertheless, there are success stories of women with heat trained, waist length natural hair.

Common Sources of Direct Heat Application

Blow Dryer for Natural Hair blow dryer for natural hair Flat Iron for Natural Hair curling iron for natural hair Hot Comb for Natural Hair Straightening Brush for Natural Hair

Indirect Heat

Indirect heat, as you have might have guessed, is when the heat is not sourced directly on one area of your hair. It may come in close proximity with your head but the heat is more evenly distributed across all your hair at the same time.

This type of natural hair heat application is typically gentler on your hair and is commonly used for conditioning purposes rather than a styling tool alone.

Using heat indirectly as actually a great tool. It is recommended to employ this sort of heat more routinely especially when restoring moisture back into your hair. Many deep conditioners and oil treatments call for, in the directions, the use of indirect heat.

Our Natural Hair’s Reaction to Indirect Heat

Heat causes the hair cuticles to slightly lift (while cool temperatures keep them shut). Your hair’s reaction to heat in this manner increases the penetration and absorption of a conditioning product into your hair shaft thus rendering the process to work more effectively and efficiently than with product alone (and no indirect heat application).

Therefore, incorporating heat in these cases gives you the best bang for your buck in your intensive treatment products. Your hair will reap the benefits of increased softness and elasticity, decreased breakage, and greater length retention when you use heat plus conditioning treatments at least twice a month.

How Often to Use Indirect Heat

Many women use indirect heat treatments weekly with no signs of harm or damage to their textured manes. Our natural hair thirsts for moisture especially when wearing our hair loose and out of protective styles. Therefore those weekly treatments can hit the spot to maintain the moisture balance of our natural hair.

The takeaway is to not shy away from indirect heat as a reoccurring tool in your natural hair care routine. Experiment and see if biweekly heat treatments are adequate for your natural hair needs or if you need to bump them up to weekly sessions. Deep conditioning more than once a week may be an overkill however.

Incorporating other hair care practices during the week such as the LOC method (explained in the next section), regular spritzing with water-based products, and protecting hair overnight should suffice in maintaining proper moisture in your hair between deep conditioning sessions. Try not to overthink moisturizing your hair.

Common Sources of Indirect Heat

Hooded Hair Dryers for Natural Hair Soft Bonnet Hood Hair Dryer for Natural Hair Steamer Cap for Deep Conditioning Natural Hair diffuser for natural hair Gel Cap for Deep Conditioning Natural Hair Flaxseed Bonnet Cap for Deep Conditioning Natural Hair

How to Prepare for Direct Heat Application

Since natural hair is more susceptible to damage under direct heat applications, it is crucial that the hair is properly prepared beforehand to handle such high levels of heat.

Below is a basic regimen for preparing your hair for direct natural hair heat application. Following these steps will help greatly reduce to risk of heat damage.

1. Wash Hair

I failed to do this so many times when I first went natural and applied heat to my hair. I would rake a blow dryer and flat iron over my dirty hair and wonder why the room looked and smelled like a barbeque.

Literally, I was smoking dirty hair build up over dry hair. Do not do this.

Washing your hair and scalp provides a clean and healthy foundation for a successful direct heat application (and hair health overall). Over time, product can build up across the hair surface thus rendering it less able to further absorb any more moisture and nutrients from hair products.

This leads to your hair feeling limp and greasy from old product just sitting on top of your hair and weighing it down. Dirty hair can also become dull and feel crispy/crunchy due to its inability to absorb moisture based products. All these factors can suffocate your hair and scalp and potentially increasing your risk of damaging and breaking even before adding direct heat to your hair.

Regularly cleansing your hair (and scalp) will allow your head to feel much lighter and promote better product absorption into your hair especially when it comes to protecting your hair from the use of direct heat application tools.

Our Shampoo Recommendations

2. Deep Condition Hair

Seriously, this is one of the best things to do before applying any type of direct heat on your natural hair after cleansing. In our book, deep conditioning before using direct heat such as blow drying and flat-ironing is a mandatory step in reducing the risk of hair loss due to heat damage.

Natural hair is fragile and can lose quite a bit of moisture due to many factors such as weather elements (dry versus humid), type of style worn (loose versus protected), and lack of overnight hair protection. Deep conditioning your natural hair is like a much-needed spa treatment after a long week or two of abuse from these external elements.

The recommended time to deep condition is typically between 10-30 minutes under an indirect heat source (we love our flaxseed heat cap) for maximum product absorption. Shea Moisture and Cantu have been our go-to brands for years for our natural hair deep conditioning needs. If you hair is particularly fine, lean toward more protein deep treatments to help strengthen your strands.

Our Deep Conditioner Recommendations

High Porosity Conditioner for Natural Hair Shea Moisture Treatment Masque Renewal Treatment Masque for Natural Hair Hydration Treatment for Natural Hair

Some natural women prefer overnight conditioning. We found that overnight conditioning does not provide much more benefit outside of the standard 30-minute session using (indirect) heat. Frequent deep conditioning (more than once a week) can actually promote moisture overload. This can lead to limp, superelastic strands that can stretch and weaken over time which can turn into hair breakage. A protein treatment can help restore the moisture/protein balance.

3. Detangle Hair

You will not achieve your best heat stretch or style on natural hair that is tangled. Period.

Ensuring that your hair thoroughly detangled before applying any type of direct natural hair heat application will provide a smoother and shinier result. Check out our ultimate detangling natural hair guide that includes a video tutorial and details on how to achieve a pain-free detangling session.

In general, remember to:

  • Dampen hair a waterbased product with good slip (such as a leave-in conditioner)
  • Use finger detangling to gently remove major knots in an outward motion (not downward)
  • Proceed to a wide-toothed comb or detangler brush to remove tangles and shed hairs. Start from the ends and work your way up to the roots
  • Twist each untangled section to prevent re-tangling before moving to next section

Following these steps will guarantee that your hair is at its best state for using heat.

Our Detangler Tools Recommendations

Denman Brush for Natural Hair Detangling Tangle Teezer Detangler Brush for Natural Hair Detangler Brush for Natural Hair Detangler Wide Toothed Comb for Natural Hair Wooden Detangler Comb for Natural Curly Hair Shower Detangler Comb for Curly Hair

4. Moisturize

Yes, you deep conditioned your hair a couple steps before. However, if you plan on wearing a heat stretched or flat-ironed style, you need this cherry on the top moisture. Especially if you plan to avoid applying moisture for an extended time following the heat application, you need this step.

The LOC (and LCO) method is highly used in the natural hair community. This method ensures that your hair is fully moisturized and that the moisture is sealed for longer lasting results.

  • L is for liquid: This can be simply water or a water based product.
  • O is for oil: Oils such as coconut, argan, jojaba, and avocado work great.
  • C is for cream: This is your favorite leave-in cream or conditioner.

If your hair is still damp from the detangling, simply apply your oil and cream to lock in that moisture. You can also moisturize your hair with the LOC method as you are detangling to save some time.

Our Moisturizing Product Recommendations

Shea Moisture Curl & Style Milk for Natural Hair Cantu Coconut Cream for Natural Hair Curl Enhancing Smoothie for Natural Hair Strengthen and Restore Leave-In Conditioner for Natural Hair

5. Apply a Heat Protectant

When hair is heated to temperatures above 400 degrees Fahrenheit, the keratin protein bonds start to melt. Sounds horrible, right? Well, you guessed right. Beyond this temperature, an irreversible change in your hair structure (aka heat damage) is more likely to occur.

Heat protectants are used to guard your natural hair against such heat damage. Visit this page for some technical information about heat protectants.

Do Protectants Really Work?

The verdict is out on how well heat protectants actually protect the hair. Different articles will tell you different things.

Many direct heat styling tools can reach up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (and more!). Therefore, the pressure is on for protectants to provide the needed protection.

But can they really deliver at such high temperatures?

While the debate is up in the air, we’re on the bandwagon that an extra layer of protection won’t hurt. As long as the protectant is lightweight and non-sticky, adding this step in the routine gives us a more peaceful state of mind. If the protectant does not do anything else, it at least adds vitamins and moisture to the hair before applying heat.

The bigger factor is to not use heating temperatures so high to cause heat damage. A safe heating range is around 300-325 degrees Farhenheit. The lower, the better.

As our now, we have been using the TRESemme Heat Tamer Protectant with good results. The only quirk about this protectant is the poor design of the spray nozzle. It spins around and is hard to manage during use. Nevertheless, it is a popular choice for natural hair women.

Other naturals have recommended the following products:

Heat Tamer Spray for Natural Hair Cantu Thermal Heat Protectant for Natural Hair HSI Heat Protectant for Natural Hair

6. Apply Direct Heat

Here are some general tips to keep in mind when applying direct heat to your natural hair:

  • Always start with the lowest setting available on your heating tool and adjust accordingly. Stay under 400 if possible.
  • Do not apply heat on sloppy wet hair. Allow your hair to air dry or towel dry for at least 30-60 minutes. Working with damp hair is ideal.
  • When using blow dryers, curling rods, hot combs, and flat irons, it is important to keep the tool moving across section of hair. Too much heat on a single area for an extended period (aka a few seconds too long) greatly increases risk of damage.

Direct Heat and Hair Health Considerations

For those of you who are open to using direct heat on your natural hair, it is important to keep certain rules in mind to reduce your chance of heat damage on your natural hair:

Heat on Damaged Hair

  • If your hair is damaged, first you should focus on healing and upping your hair regimen. Applying heat on top of already damaged hair is a recipe for more damage, breakage, and heartache.
  • Our recommendation is to refrain from heat for a period of time and solidify your hair routine towards one that is conducive to healthy natural hair. Need help? Sign up for our newsletter and receive a Free 4-Week Solid Regimen Builder Packet.

Heat on Healthy Hair

  • If your hair is healthy and you have a solid regimen, consider the frequency of using heat. The more heat you use, the greater the risk of heat damage if you are not careful. Using direct heat often requires a strong moisture/protein upkeep to maintain healthier hair. Also, with more use of heat, more trims may be necessary.
  • Our recommendation is to balance the use of heat with protective styling. Using heat once a month or less is a great starting point. Make sure you beef up your moisture game (in shampoos, conditioners, leave-ins) as continually using direct heat can be very drying to the hair.

Alternatives for Stretching/Styling without Direct Heat

No-Heat Natural Hair Stretching

The notion that heat is ALL bad has been instilled in many natural women. However, the health of your hair, frequency of direct heat use, and techniques employed are key factors to how your hair handles direct heat.

In recent years, I have witnessed how more naturals are responsibly incorporating direct heat in their regular routine with beautiful and healthy results. So no more heat shaming! It can be done successfully without experiencing irreversible heat damage.

Nevertheless, if you are still feeling apprehensive or need a break from direct heat, you are covered!

For the no heat camp (and we have rocked that camp for many years), you have the following no heat options:

  • Braiding (has much less shrinkage versus twisting alone)
  • Banding (the more bands used in closer intervals, the more stretch obtained)
  • Threading (involves the use of weaving thread or yarn and from our experience gives the best no-heat stretch)

Gentler Heat Application for Stretching

If you want to test the waters with using heat, try the tension method. This technique is a great way to obtain a good stretch without having to apply heat directly over your strands. The tension method is one of our favorite methods whenever we need a good stretch in a short amount of time.

Although the tension method still involves heat, the heat is coming 6-7 inches from the blow dryer over the section of hair. For more information on how to use the tension method, read this post.

No Heat Curls Options

Going the no-heat curl method can yield some beautiful curly hair results. If you have the time to allow your hair to air dry, definitely consider these options for creating various curly styles on your natural hair sans the heat:

If you find yourself a little short on time, sitting under a hooded dryer can help set your curls much faster via indirect heat.

Using Heat on Natural Children Hair

The rules for the heat application of women’s hair apply to children’s hair as well. It is important to note that early in your child’s natural hair journey, the focus is more about learning how to manage your child’s natural hair texture and creating a solid and consistent hair regimen.

Kids can become fearful of something really quick. Therefore, make sure that whenever using a direct heat source on their hair that you are patient and careful. One burn can really turn a child off. Getting the edges and roots as straight as possible is not worth your child experiencing pain or a burn.

Besides, kids (young ones especially) sweat much and play hard. That press or flat-iron may look great on Sunday but is gone by Tuesday. It is all about growing up as a natural hair child.

The Wrap Up

Whew! You made it to the end! Kudos to you. There was quite a ground of information to cover about natural hair heat application.

As you can see, heat is a very versatile tool used not only to manipulate our natural hair in many ways directly but to also restore moisture and strengthen our hair when used as an indirect source. We hope from this ultimate natural hair heat application guide, you have a greater understanding of the following:

  • The two different types of heat sources (direct/indirect)
  • The benefits of each type
  • How to prepare your hair for using direct heat application tools
  • Tips and recommendations for successfully using heat on your hair
  • Alternatives to using direct heat for stretching/styling your hair

For your convenience, here are two pinnable flow charts detailing the process of properly stretching and blow drying natural hair:

For a pinnable flow chart of the detangling process, check it out in our ultimate no-fuss detangling natural hair guide.

Ultimate Natural Hair Heat Application Guide

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