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“Where can I find a Denman brush?”: How to navigate Afro haircare in a PWI

Part One

Photo Courtesy of Pxhere

I never knew how fortunate I was to grow up in Detroit. With a population that’s 80 percent African-American, its businesses cater to the dominant demographic. Practically every major street is lined with beauty supply shops, stocked in abundance with hair extensions, conditioners, hair masks, gels, bonnets, and silk scarves — all for the purpose of protecting and beautifying Afro-textured hair.

Coming to Princeton as a black, natural-haired girl was a wake-up call.


It’s just basic economics, right? Businesses rise and fall in response to the market. Princeton’s population demographics are nearly the inverse of Detroit. What predominantly white area needs a store dedicated to Shea Moisture and Camille Rose products? Why would barbers need to know the specific hand strokes and styling tools needed to cut Afro hair? They don’t, because there is relatively little demand for those resources. This is why Detroit shops have multiple aisles overflowing with different brands of gel, and Princeton has one “multicultural hair line” in its local Walmart.

On top of the classes and obligations that go into every Princeton student’s jam-packed schedule, black students at the University — a predominantly white institution (PWI) — face the added pressure of incorporating hair care. I’ve already once sacrificed a reading so that I could twist my hair. It was worth it — but, no matter how gorgeous my curls were, this kind of behavior is not sustainable in the long run. 

So, what does this mean for black students at the University? If we want to keep our curls defined and our braids neat while keeping up with readings, problem sets, and extracurricular commitments, we’re going to have to do a little legwork.

Makailyn Jones ’22 has devised a system that cuts down the commitment of wash day when removing a protective style to less than an hour.

“Make it as compact as you can!” Jones advises. “You’re gonna take your braids out, wet your hair, and put product on in the shower, while your hair is still warm and open. I prefer using a Denman brush instead of finger detangling and combing. Lastly, diffuse it if you have time. Whole process takes 30 to 40 minutes!”

Even if this process doesn’t work for you, Jones recommends that students have a designated day of rest, especially if they’re black girls. According to Jones, it’s important that we take time to reconnect with ourselves and our hair, spending an entire day deep conditioning or going to Trenton to get a protective style.


For Camille Reeves ’23 from Columbus, Ohio, changing her shower schedule proved to be the most effective way to balance her life and her hair. 

“I’ve sort of fallen into a managing routine,” explains Reeves. “I used to be a night showerer, but I switched to morning for hair maintenance. It doesn’t really require extra time, you just need to be really particular with products you use. Shampooing should be less about cleaning your hair, and more about cleaning your scalp, especially if your hair is really thick like mine. Make sure you scrub it all the way through! And, for easy styles when you have a lot of work, wigs became more popular recently, so they can be a really great alternative while in college.”

Reeves’ more extensive hair maintenance process involves wetting her hair in the shower and using a T-shirt to pat it until it is 50 percent dry. She splits her hair down the middle, shampoos both halves, smoothes them with a Denman brush, places a shower cap on for an hour, which she refers to as “domestic time,” and rinses out the product in the sink. She also deep conditions once a week in the summer and twice a month in the winter.

Jones and Reeves both speak from their experiences having long, healthy natural hair. But, as many black girls know, after years of chemical and heat processing, making the decision to embrace our natural coils can be an awkward transition. Once the dead ends have been clipped, the hair is not quite short, not quite long; some products work, others are useless; and there’s so much stress to achieve gorgeous, bouncy, defined curls when it seems like your hair is perpetually prone to shrinkage. To help alleviate some of the frustration, Imani Mulrain ’23 has some suggestions.

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“First of all, cut [the damage] off!” stresses Mulrain, who is from Boston, Mass., but has family back in Trinidad & Tobago. “Hair grows from the top down, so if the ends at the bottom are dead, deleted, and depleted, no nutrients can save them!”

Mulrain also says that focusing on other aspects of your beauty routine like outfits and accessories can boost your confidence if you’re feeling uncomfortable about your short hair. When Mulrain did her big chop, she framed her face with large hoops.  

Another highly important aspect of the natural journey, beyond stepping up styling and time management, is identifying the people, places, and products that your hair responds well to, and using them consistently.

“Staying within the same [hair care] line is best for washes, as mixing products can get flakey,” advises Jones.

Thankfully there are dozens of brands for you to test out before you settle on your perfect match. Shea Moisture is a favorable option with all of the girls. The same goes for Jamaican black castor oil, which all of the girls mentioned using as well. Other brands of note include Creme of Nature, Mielle, and A&G. And don’t feel pressured to go after name brands either.

“Cheap dollar store conditioner is actually really great for detangling!” Reeves exclaims. “It may make your hair greasy, but it gets the job done.”

Where to find these brands in a PWI? The general consensus seems to be online. Amazon is a particularly favored option, both for natural hair products and protective styling.

“Get your [braiding] hair online!” Jones recommends. “There’s really cheap Kanekalon hair on Amazon that comes pre-stretched; you can get eight packs for $20. Let the internet help you!”

Alternatively, for those of you who want to support black-owned businesses — which I don’t see why you wouldn’t — you can head over to Instagram, like Mulrain did.

“Some products you buy online are scams,” Mulrain warns. She suggests looking at the Instagram page @BintaBeautyOrganics, claiming that the products have done wonders for her hair.

And if you want to support a fellow Tiger, you can even get your products from Angelika Morris ’21, who has her own natural beauty care line. Jones specifically names Morris as one of her inspirations in her natural hair journey at the University.

So, here’s your guide for black haircare here at Princeton: set aside a specific day to take care of your hair, and develop a thorough wash day routine. If you are transitioning to a natural style, focus on highlighting other aspects of your appearance that make you feel confident. While you are natural, stick to one brand that works for you. And finally, whether you are in need of a particular product or hair for your protective styles, your best bet is to find them online, probably Amazon.

This article is part one of a two-part series by Auhjanae McGee 23.