Managing Black Hair While Studying Abroad

Top Articles on Studying Abroad from Students and Experts

story by Tara Matthews

My hair is what I’d like to call, “loud”. As loud as dead protein sprouting from your scalp (it’s true!) can be, that is. It certainly attracts attention, which is why one of the most common questions that I’m asked by students is, “How do I take care of my hair while I’m abroad?”
And thus, this mini guide for managing your hair while studying abroad was born. This article is for women with afro-textured hair, whether they are relaxed, natural or in transition. If you have any additional input, please add to the discussion in the comment section. The more tips, the better!


Know Your Options
When thinking about this issue, first consider how you want to wear your hair. There are essentially two categories – out or not. Some women prefer to wear their hair out, while others like to tuck it away in braid extensions or weaves. This choice is entirely up to your preference. When making your decision, keep these factors in mind:

How long will you be in-country?

What is your level of experience or comfort in maintaining your own hair for an extended period (without stylist assistance)?

How physically active do you expect to be while abroad? Do you plan on hiking, swimming, or anything else that requires additional hair maintenance? 

Does the country you’re studying in have a large Black population?

What type of climate or weather do you expect to experience while you’re abroad?

Keep these questions in the back of your mind, as different options may be more or less suitable depending on your particular situation.

Not Out: Braid Extensions
For many, it might be easiest to wear braids – it’s a style with relatively low maintenance and can last for up to two months. If you’re going to a country with a large African population – especially in Africa itself – it probably won’t be very difficult to find someone who can redo your braids for a reasonable cost. However, if you aren’t sure how your braids will get redone and you plan to stay in-country for longer than two months, it may not be the most practical option.
Another important thing to remember when wearing braids is that they too require care, although not as much as your actual hair. A few tips on wearing braids abroad:

Cleanse your scalp weekly (I used a mixture of apple cider vinegar and water that I brought from home) and moisturize your scalp and strands with hair conditioner (I mixed conditioner and water in a spray bottle), which is sealed into the strand with oils such as coconut or sweet almond oil. This can minimize build-up, which makes the take-down process easier.

To reduce frizz and tugging, sleep with a satin pillowcase or tie your hair up with a satin scarf or bonnet.

To prevent damage to your hairline, opt against tiny, tight braids and go for slightly larger, looser options. Also, consider giving your hair time between re-installations to prevent unnecessary stress. Be careful if your scalp is prone to irritation as braids, especially long, heavy ones, may be too hard on your scalp and hairline.

Braids are my preferred option when going abroad – I can leave my hair as-is for the duration of my trip without worrying about finding hair products or a stylist well-versed in taking care of my hair type. Plus, I’m low-maintenance by nature so the easier, the better. As you can see, I wore braids during my trip to Tanzania!

Sew-In Weave
Weaves are similar to braids in that your hair can be tucked away for months at a time and therefore protected from the natural elements as well as styling damage. As weaves are meant to mimic the appearance of hair in a way that braids do not, they require more upkeep.
As with braids, weaves have to be taken out after a certain amount of time – the exact timeframe can be determined by you and/or your stylist. For that reason, it may be best to use a sew-in when you are staying in a country for two months or less, unless you know that you will be fine with wearing your hair out or having your sew-in re-installed in-country. A couple of things to keep in mind:

When selecting the hair used in your sew-in, consider the climate of the area you will be living. For example, straight hair may not be the best idea in a humid place.

To prolong the life of your sew-in, take care of it at night. For curly hair, braid it and tie it up. For straight hair, wrap or pin-curl it before going to sleep. Try to use a satin scarf, pillowcase or bonnet when sleeping.


Wearing Your Hair Out

If you opt to avoid wearing your hair in braids or weave, there are still ways to ensure that your hair remains healthy and happy while abroad.

Protect Your Hair

For many people, natural and relaxed alike, protective styling is the way to go. When in a climate you may be unfamiliar with, without much time to touch up your hair, keeping your ends safely tucked away is one of the best options. This is especially true for people studying abroad for an extended period, because it can be easily maintained on your own.

Some of the simplest protective hairstyles are two-strand twists, flat-twists (or their cousin, cornrows), Bantu knots and mini coils.

 For tutorials and styling information, YouTube is your greatest resource.

When wearing your hair in protective styles, you can also wrap your hair in scarves or turbans to be ultra-low maintenance with added style. This is especially true if you can find great scarves in-country!


Finding a Stylist

This is perhaps the biggest concern, especially for people who require services that are not easily done without the assistance of a hair stylist, like relaxers. In this case, you may have to find a hair stylist that caters to your particular hair type.

Look for a beauty salon frequented by other Black people or ask the Black people on the streets where they get their hair done. This is easiest in countries with a large population from the African diaspora, such as France, the England or Brazil. You can also search online to see if any other travelers have recommendations.

 Look into local US Military Bases – Many bases have women who specialize in afro-textured hair in order to accommodate soldiers who would not be able to find experienced stylists in their area.

If you have a relaxer and are worried about finding a stylist, look into relaxer stretching techniques to maximize time between treatments. This way, you may not need a touch-up while abroad.


Final Tips

While these don’t relate to one hairstyle technique or another, they’re still good rules of thumb:

Stock up - You can’t be sure that the product of your choice is available in-country, so bring enough with you, even if you plan on seeing a hair stylist. Some products may be carried with the same brand name with different formulations, so search online before you buy. Worst case scenario; see if your favorite hair product can be shipped to you internationally.

Coordinate with classmates – If you plan on bringing hair styling tools (flat iron, blow dryer, etc.), coordinate with your classmates if you can, to make sure eight people aren’t bringing the same thing. Splitting up these bulky items can save room in your suitcase.

Hopefully that reduces some of the anxiety about taking care of your hair while abroad. Again, if you have any questions or specific experiences and tips you’d like to share, sound off in the comments! 


Tara Matthews


Tara Matthews is a Diversity Abroad Contributor. She is an honors graduate from the University of Pittsburgh where she focused her studies on global economy and governance throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

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