The key to effective protective styling is having the patience to keep a style in for an extended period of time. But it's just as important to know when to take it down. Here are 6 signs that you're due for a re-set:
1. Your ends are snapping. The objective of protective styling is to preserve your ends, so if they start breaking you are defeating the purpose. Ends breakage typically happens when your protective style is too dry. Try pulling lightly on your twists or braids from root to tip. If there are broken ends in your hands, then it's time for a re-do. Note: If you are wearing a cornrowed or flat twist updo style, your are particularly susceptible to ends breakage, as most of the hair is hidden and tucked away, and can't be properly moisturized by a spritz.
2. Your hair is tangling. Your hair is constantly shedding and those detached hairs can sometimes get tangled with others and lead to matting, tangling and shedding. Feel your protective style for any bumps or inconsistency - that could be a sign of a clump of tangled/shed hair. Note: Tangles due to shed hair typically happen closer to your ends.
3. You no longer feel good about the way the style looks. The length retention/protective styling journey can be a challenging one. It takes focus and discipline, so it's important that you keep yourself motivated. If you are hanging on to a style that is no longer attractive for the sake of retention, you are making an already challenging journey more difficult. If possible, try re-doing your edges to get them crisp again. But if you are rocking a style, like a bun or cornrow/twist updo that can't be partially re-done, just let it go. Feeling bad about the way you look for the sake of length retention is not worth it. Note: A little fuzziness does not mean a style is unattractive. It is important for long-term protective stylers to learn how to tolerate a little fuzz.
4. The style is not retaining moisture. Natural hair needs immersion in water to be properly moisturized, and spritzing can only do so much. If you are sleeping with a satin bonnet, and spritzing regularly but your style still feels dry, then you need a re-boot. If your twists or braids can tolerate a weekly or bi-weekly deep condition, incorporate that into your protective styling regimen. But if you're wearing a style that can't be immersed in water without being ruined, you'll need a re-boot. Note: Lack of moisture leads to breakage. So no moisture, no length.
5. Your roots are tangled. It's exciting to feel your roots getting looser as the new growth comes in, but keep in mind that the new growth is coming in tangled. If your roots have grown out in excess of a half inch, you might consider taking your style down so you can detangle the new growth.
6. You can see lint and feel product buildup. Lint accumulation typically happens around the nape, or wherever your strands are finest. And product buildup can prevent proper moisturization. Both things lead to matting and tangling. If your style can tolerate it, try incorporating a weekly or bi-weekly cleanse into your protective styling regimen. Otherwise, take the style down.
So how long is too long?
As with most things related to natural hair care, it varies from person to person. But many 'protective styling gurus' like Cipriana of Urbanbushbabes.com, do so for one month at a time. 'Extreme protective styling' gurus like Chinwe of Hair and Health and Domineque of LongHairDontCare2011 keep protective styles in for months at a time, but do styles like box braids and twists that are good for long stretches. They also regularly re-braid or re-twist their edges. The six factors above come most into play beyond the 1 month mark, so if you plan on keeping a style in for longer than that, make sure you have a game plan.
For more on protective styling, check out these links.