Olympic Swimmer Lia Neal Shares How To Care For Hair In And Out Of The Water
Stock Images/Gettty

We’ve heard the stereotypes many times and they come mostly during the summer when the weather reaches peak temperatures: Black women don’t swim. Black women don’t get into the pool. Black women can never get their hair wet. It always comes back to the hair.

Olympic swimmers such as Brooklyn-born Lia Neal help to dispel these untruths. The 25-year-old holds top medals in her freestyle swimming category, and she was the first Black women to swim an Olympic final for the United States. She is now training for the Tokyo 2021 Olympic games and preparing for MBA applications. She recently co-founded Swimmers for Change, a grassroots movement to raise funds and awareness for charities giving back to the Black community during the Black Lives Matter Movement.

So she was the perfect person to ask about how Black women can care for their hair in and out of the water if they’re going to be swimming, taking aqua aerobics, or just relaxing in chlorine-riddled pools this summer. She shared swimmers hair hacks, her go-to products and her step-by-step routine with ESSENCE.

When you’re in the water do you use some kind of protective product? Or is that a market opportunity?

Lia Neal (LN): It’s recommended that you get your hair wet in the shower before getting in the pool. That way, your hair soaks up that normal shower water first rather than being completely dry and then soaking up all the chlorine when you dive in. Getting your hair wet prior serves as a bit of a barrier. My hairdresser tells me to put a little bit of conditioner in my hair to also act as a barrier but that just makes my cap slip off!

Do you have to wash your hair constantly because of the chlorine? If so, how do you keep your hair from breaking?

LN: Yes! I do have to wash my hair every day and it does come at a price. My hair does get dry—but that’s only if you’re swimming every day, sometimes twice a day. It’s always good to wear a hair mask once a week to help restore some moisture. There are also a bunch of DIY natural remedies that you can find on YouTube. Since quarantine, and not being able to swim for 3 months, I can already tell that my hair has gotten a bit healthier. 

Lia Neal
Photo by Iris Sullivan

Do you have a tip for ladies out there with your same hair type when it comes to styling after you’ve come out of the water?

LN: I have a mix of 3B and 3C, but you can probably find every type of curl in my hair depending on the day, how wet or dry it is, how I slept on it, how I tied it and basically whatever it feels like being at any given moment. My routine is [the following]:

1. Silicone free, sulfate free, paraben free shampoo.

2. Silicone free, sulfate free, paraben free conditioner. 

3. Comb my hair with the conditioner in my hair and my while my hair is sopping wet. It’s easier to comb that way; I don’t comb it any other time rather than just in the shower. Plus, it usually takes me about three minutes to comb through all of my hair. That leaves some more time for the conditioner to soak in and work on my hair before I rinse it out.

4. After I rinse it out I wring out the water from my hair but leave it damp so I can put product in it. It holds product better that way. I switch up the products I use every so often. It’s good to do that because your hair gets used to products after using them for too long at a time.

5. I don’t touch my hair and I just let it air dry.

What are your must-have hair products?

LN: Right now I’m using Deva-Curl Leave-In Decadence followed by Deciem The Ordinary’s argan oil. That argan oil is a literal staple of mine and is so [affordable]. I don’t go too long without using it.

Are there styles that you’re unable to wear because you’re constantly in the water?

LN: I don’t even know what I’d really do with my hair, my entire life has been wash-n-go. But when I used to get keratin (the natural cane sugar version of it just to tame the frizz and make my hair easier to detangle) I would always have to schedule it around a holiday like Christmas when I’d be guaranteed to have a few days off from training because you can’t get your hair wet for like three days after getting a keratin treatment.

Lastly, what’s one thing ladies should avoid as it pertains to their hair if they’re going to be in the water constantly?

LN: If you’re going to be in water and not really doing rigorous training like 6k-8k sessions, then I would say using conditioner on your hair and wetting your hair before you get in the water under a swim cap (has to be latex or silicon) would be able to help a ton.

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