Afro hair has a reputation for being unwilling to cooperate: more often than not it seems determined to do the exact opposite of what its owner wants. But, while obedience isn’t this hair type’s forte, there are plenty of excellent haircuts for black men to experiment with. That’s because, when treated right, afro hair can shape up sharp and has an unrivalled ability to hold shape well.

The key to keeping afro hair in check is being a good listener, because like with any other hair type it has its own unique quirks which you need to work with, not against. Once you’ve got a grasp of what mother nature gave you though, half the battle is won.

If you’re feeling follicularly challenged and haven’t got a clue how to manage your mane then that’s where we step in. With the help of some barbers who are experts when it comes to black men’s haircuts, we’ve compiled all of the tips and tricks you need to make your afro hair majestic.

The Flat Top

What Is It?

In the late eighties and early nineties, the flat top went viral, sending sales of spirit levels and hair clippers soaring (probably). “The flat top features hair on the sides of the head tapered to the skin, working up towards a flat top – think Will Smith as The Fresh Prince and you can’t miss it,” says celebrity hairstylist Jamie Stevens.

Though the flat top has waned in popularity since its heyday, the cut can easily be tweaked to make it relevant for the modern man. “This style really works well on afro hair and offers such a striking look that I can’t ever see it losing its coolness in one form or another.”

Flat Top

How To Get It

As timeless as the flat top is, unless you’ve got the right hair type you’ll be fighting a losing battle. Case in point? Simon Cowell. “The most important factor here is ensuring you have very curly afro hair, because it’s those tight curls, once combed out, that gives the style its shape and definition,” says Stevens.

“For a traditional take, have your barber skin fade the sides and back, working up towards the occipital bone [the saucer-shaped bone at the lower back of the skull]. From there, they should continue to freehand cut the shape into your hair. To give the squared flat top effect, barbers often use a flat top comb to comb the hair out to stand on end so that they can freehand cut the shape for the sleekest finish.”

How To Style It

Unsurprisingly (because hair doesn’t grow into neat lines) maintenance of this style is mostly a case of getting a cut on the regular, but you can take measures to keep this geometric style looking sharp in-between trips to the chop shop.

“Invest in an afro comb; this will allow you to comb your hair into shape easier and, as the teeth are long, allows more flexibility when working through the hair. You might also find a hairdryer useful to help mould the hair if necessary, and some hairspray will keep it in place, too,” says Stevens.

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The Buzz Cut

What Is It?

Even those with only a passing knowledge of men’s hair will be familiar with the buzz cut: this all-over shorn style is as low maintenance as it gets, hence its popularity among recruits. “The buzz cut is a short military style usually taken to a grade 0 or skin on the sides of the head with only a little bit of length on top,” says Nick Campbell, a barber at Ruffians Marylebone. If you’re looking for the most minimal-effort hair situation, this is the one.

Buzz Cut

How To Get It

The buzz cut is one of those styles that it’s theoretically possible to take a DIY approach to, but if you want to nail it properly, put yourself in the capable hands of a clipper connoisseur. “Ask your barber for a traditional crew cut, for afro hair specifically this involves running the clipper with the grain on the top of the hair in order to remove weight and give a clean finish. A zero or balding clipper should be taken to the sides followed by a ‘shape up’ which involves outlining the contours of the hair with a cut throat razor for a super sharp finish,” says Campbell.

How To Style It

For the buzz cut, you don’t need to worry about styling per se, think of the task of keeping your sparsely decorated head looking its best as maintenance. “The buzz cut is pretty fuss-free, but it’s best styled with a matt finishing product wax or a low shine oil which should be brushed through your hair or applied with an afro sponge,” says Campbell. Keeping the buzz cut looking fresh AF is a cinch, basically.

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The Natural Afro

What Is It?

This was, of course, the go-to hairstyle for black men in the seventies, (incidentally, it was a time when subtlety didn’t rank high on anyone’s list of priorities). Back then afros swerved the natural look in favour of circular styling, but today the style has gone much more organic. “A natural afro is all about working with your natural hair texture, using products to enhance your curl to create length all over without too much uniformity,” says Stevens. With plenty of length but a rugged finish, the natural afro feels a million miles away from Saturday Night Fever.

Natural Afro

How To Get It

As afro hair has a tendency to break more easily than other hair types it can be difficult to retain length. As such the natural afro is best suited to those who are able to grow 2-3 inches of hair without too much trouble. “Mid-length or longer hair is best as this will give the most scope for styling,” says Stevens. “The best example of this style is classic Lenny Kravitz; his is a great afro – the perfect shape and length to work with everything.”

How To Style It

As its names suggests, the natural afro should be the best version of what your mother gave you. “Apply a product designed to enhance curls to damp hair to define and boost its natural texture. You could also try mixing in some moisturising oil for a healthy shine,” says Stevens.

Thankfully, drying and styling your hair is a doddle here as the natural afro works best when things feel a little undone. “The best way to style an afro is to avoid heat, allowing your curl to take its natural shape. So, once you’ve applied product, allow your hair to dry naturally. And if you have a looser curl, try twisting small sections of your hair while damp to help define it.”

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The Shape-Up

What Is It?

For those men who like their journey from shower to street to be as rapid as possible, the shape up is a time-saving hairstyle for black men that doesn’t compromise on looking sharp. “This is a short, sharp-edged look that traditionally means the straightening of the hairline,” says Stevens. The shape-up’s closed crop (usually clippered at grade number 1 or 2) means there’s minimal styling involved, but precise cutting at the hairline saves the style from being a complete snoozefest.

Shape-Up

How To Get It

As well as being a time-saving mop move, the shape-up is pretty democratic too, so if you’ve got hair you can get one. “There are so many variants of the shape-up that pretty much any head of afro hair can be catered for,” says Stevens. Not all shape-ups are created equal though. “To get the best out of this cut and some proper structure, ask your barber for a hard shape-up to really define your hair’s perimeter.”

How To Style It

Though the shape up is low-maintenance in theory, a few canny styling moves will keep this closely cropped cut looking its best. “At home, you’ll want a good bristle brush to keep this look properly groomed and neat, and an oil to ensure your hair stays in good condition too,” says Stevens.

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Braids

What Is It?

Though braid hairstyles have, in some form or another, been around for centuries, in relatively recent history men’s braids have reasserted themselves as a classic style worth considering again. Braids refer to any plaited style, while cornrows are braids plaited towards the head which don’t move freely. “Made up of organised rows of plaited hair, braids are a great option for guys who want a striking look while minimising day-to-day upkeep,” says Stevens.

Braids

How To Get It

No prizes for guessing that length is essential here: anything less than two inches generally won’t do, and nimble fingers are necessary, but they shouldn’t be your own. “At the risk of stating the obvious, the key to this one is getting someone who knows what they are doing. I’d recommend finding a specialist as it’s a tricky style to get right,” says Stevens. Take along a picture of the braids you want: whether that’s loose braids, cornrows or a combination of both.

How To Style It

Braids take a long time to fix into place, so once you get them there, you’ll need to do everything you can to keep them there. “To prevent braids from fraying or generally appearing untidy, use a hair wax to lightly hold your braids and keep them looking neater for longer,” says Stevens. Wearing a du-rag at night will also stop grime or lint getting caught up in your braids.

It’s not just your hair that needs to be kept in check when wearing braids either: you’ll need to keep on top of your scalp health too. “It’s essential to look after your scalp as it’s constantly on show and exposed to the elements. To minimise the weather’s adverse effects, regularly apply an oil, which will prevent dandruff and ensure your scalp doesn’t dry out.”

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Dreads

What Is It?

Most people associate dreadlocks with the sixties and seventies. The look is practically synonymous with Bob Marley, but the premise of the style stretches back thousands of years. Like braiding, dreads gather together hair into bigger strands, but unlike braiding, dreadlocks encourage the hair to grow into matted twists. “The hairstyle consists of twisted or tightly knotted hairs that over time form together to make dreadlocks,” says Stevens. Unlike braids though, dreads can’t be unravelled, so be prepared to commit or cut off.

Dreads

How To Get It

Getting dreads right should be left strictly in the hands of the professionals: making those twisted locks look uniform is no mean feat. “Seek specialist input for dreadlocks as there are many different ways to create and maintain the style,” says Campbell. “In afro hair, creating short or long dreadlocks involves twisting and palm rolling the hair with the incorporation of gel or balm sometimes even wax in order to form the dreadlocks. There are a number of specialist shops and stylists across the UK who can help you form the perfect dreadlocks.”

Whether your aim to keep your dreads short or grow a longer style, you’ll need at least two inches of hair to get this style going, so bear in mind before you book yourself in.

How To Style It

Once you’ve got your dreads fixed in place, you’ve got a fair few styling options which all depend on the length of your dreads. “Long dreadlocks are best worn half up half down or loosely tied up at the back or even in a bun on top of the head. It is important not to put too much tension on the dreadlocks as this can be uncomfortable for the hair,” says Campbell.

For shorter dreads, you’ve got a few more options. “Short dreadlocks can be worn loose and natural or pulled up into the top in a loose bun. The most popular way to wear short dreadlocks is to undercut them which involves shaving the sides and back of your head and wearing your dreads loose on top.”

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The Short Afro With Fade

What Is It?

The short afro with a fade is an amalgamation of some of afro hair’s greatest hits, for those men who want a bit of everything on their crown. “A combination of the classics, this style is both modern and versatile,” says Stevens. “It’s a great cut that can be tailored to suit both your look and lifestyle.” By riffing on the length of the classic afro and keeping things short and sharp on the side, the style is the afro equivalent to a short, back and sides: it’s never not a good look.

Short Afro With Fade

How To Get It

If your hair is on the short side, you’ll need to grow some inches before you can tackle this style head on. “You’ll need some length on top to create the perfect contrast between the fade and your afro, but you can take the fade as tight as you like. For a sharp finish, I’d suggest a short tapered fade at the sides and back and a relatively short but still textured top.”

This style looks its best when there’s a balance between what’s going on at the sides and up top: the fade should graduate into the top, which should be kept on the neater side of things for a less dramatic finish.

How To Style It

Adding a modern spin to the short afro with fade requires a textured, rather than uniform finish. “Try applying some sea salt spray to hair on the top of the head and either diffuse through the hair using a hair dryer and diffuser attachment or allow to dry naturally. Salt spray is a lightweight product that enhances texture and gives good hold – great for creating volume and defining curls,” says Stevens.

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The Hard Parting

What Is It?

Will.I.Am may be a relatively solitary wearer of the hard parting these days, but way back in the eighties, the sharply defined style was routinely adorning men’s heads. Although the style may initially seem like an A-list-only style move because of its sharp lines, subtler variations can easily be pulled off without a styling team on speed dial.

“A step up from a side parting, a hard parting is a shaved line in the hair. How defined it looks is totally dependent on how deep you choose to have it shaved in, with options scaling from a neat, office-friendly parting to a deeper, edgier take,” says Stevens.

Hard parting afro hair

How To Get It

While most afro barbers will be familiar with the hard parting, getting it exactly how you want it will take more than a forensic explanation of angles and measurements. “Your barber should consult with you on where you usually wear your parting before clippering in and shaping the hard parting,” says Stevens.

“With so many variations available, there is plenty of flexibility – you could choose a groomed, work-appropriate style or something a little more dramatic, like Tupac’s famous Juice look. It’s worth having some examples to hand, on your phone for example, so you can work with your barber to achieve exactly what you want.”

In short, because of the multiple ways to wear this style, taking along an example of exactly what you want is invariably your safest bet.

How To Style It

Hard parting enthusiasts take heed: this is not a get-up-and-go style, working those angles takes a bit of a hands on approach. “A comb is essential to be able to separate the parting, use [an oil] to keep your hair conditioned and, for a groomed finish, apply a touch of wax, which will give hold and a subtle shine. If your hair is particularly unruly, give it a blast with a medium hold hairspray,” says Stevens.

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The Lowdown On Afro Hair

Before you get to the business of whipping afro hair into shape, properly understanding what you’re working with will help you to make the most of your mop: here’s where it gets a bit sciency. “Curls are often dry by their nature, so without the use of products that offer intense moisture, it’s difficult to achieve shiny hair,” says Michael Lendon, advanced master creative director at Aveda.

“Unlike other hair types, the structure of the hair is not cylindrical, which means that it isn’t good at reflecting light needed to achieve shine. What’s more, because of this hair type’s structure and lack of moisture, breakage happens easily, so gently does it lads.

That’s not all there is to afro hair through, there’s a lot more at play which differs from head to head. “Textured hair varies between each person – no two people have the same head of hair. Curls typically vary both in thickness and how loose or tight the curls are,” says Lendon.

The bad news is that this means that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to styling afro hair. The good news is that most afro hair falls into one of three categories which will enable you to work out how best to style what you’ve got up top. To decide which hair type you have, look at a product-free strand of hair and see which of the below descriptions rings most true.

Wavy Afro Hair

Wavy afro hair has a loose curl pattern which forms an ‘S’ shape naturally.

Coiled Afro Hair

Coiled afro hair forms loose or tight curls with a clearly defined shape pattern which is circular in appearance.

Kinky Afro Hair

Kinky afro hair has very small and tight curls which have a less defined ‘Z’ shape pattern.

Afro Hair Dos & Don’ts

Afro hair requires lots of TLC and is less get up and go than most other hair types, but by incorporating a few helpful habits into your routine, keeping your follicles fighting fit will become stupidly easy.

Don’t Over Wash

Thinking that afro hair must be washed every day is a mistake: shampooing will strip your hair of essential natural oils and cause more dryness, so lather up once a week for optimum hair health.

Do Add Moisture

Because of afro hair’s tendency towards dryness, regularly using moisturizing product is essential to ward off brittle, damaged hair and will add that all-important shine.

Don’t Brush And Brush

Getting OCD with brushing is a fast track to terminally unhappy hair. Brush your hair gently with a paddle brush on shorter hair or a wide tooth comb for longer styles. Never brush afro hair vigorously or while it’s wet either.

Do Choose A Low Maintenance Style

By choosing a shorter style such as a crew-cut or a taper fade you’ll minimise time and effort spent on day to day maintenance, as keeping these styles in good shape is primarily down to the work of your barber.

Don’t Use Too Much Heat

Blasting afro hair with heat is one of the fastest ways to cause irreversible damage so where possible, leave your hair to dry naturally or choose the lowest hair dryer heat setting when time is tight.

Do Read Product Ingredients

Avoid products which offer a matte finish and instead look for products containings oils (such as coconut, jojoba or castor) which will increase shine, combat dandruff and reduce breakage. Products containing alcohol and sulphates are also no-nos for this hair type.

The Best Products For Black Men’s Hair

Most men have to undergo plenty of trial and error before finding the best hair product but for those with afro hair, chancing on the stuff that’ll make your hair look its best can be even more of a pain. If you’ve done your homework on the ingredients, tools and techniques to have at your disposal though, you’ll easily thwart the intentions of troublesome tresses.

Shampoo & Conditioner

No matter what cut you’re looking to achieve, before you do anything else, make sure that your washing and conditioning game is in turbo moisture mode. For this you’ll need a shampoo and conditioner (you should never skip the latter) which are full of ingredients to nourish parched locks. Avoid drying ingredients such as alcohol and sulphates and make sure natural oil and cream-based products are high up on your shopping list: jojoba, castor and coconut oils are all good shouts as is shea butter.

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Styling Tools

As dryness and breakage are the most common complaints for afro hair, every last strand needs to be treated gently. To reduce damage, make sure that you’ve got an afro comb and a paddle brush to hand which will go easy on your hair and will let you tame long and short styles respectively. Make sure that you invest in a dryer with a very low heat setting too which will ensure that intense heat doesn’t sap your strands of life.

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Styling Products

The best styling products for afro hair should add plenty of moisture without weighing hair down. The golden standard here is a moisturising oil (again, jojoba, castor and coconut oils and shea butter are ideal ingredients) which will add shine without weight and can be applied to wet or dry hair. For longer hair which need to be held into place though, opt for a water-based pomade which will offer hold and a non-greasy shine.

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