How Dreadlocks Work

By: Matt Sailor & Yves Jeffcoat  | 

Bob Marley
Bob Marley, one of the biggest popularizers of the dreadlocks hairstyle, performs in Chicago in 1978. For Marley, dreadlocks were a symbol of his Rasta faith. Paul Natkin/WireImage/Getty Images

From a biological standpoint, hair helps humans regulate body temperature and provides a buffer against unwanted foreign objects. But it's not all about function — hair can also say a lot about an individual or group's style, status, values, religion, and beauty standards. Hair types run the gamut, and the way that people choose to groom and style their hair can vary widely and depend on factors like texture, preferences, and mood.

The exact origin of dreadlocks — a hairstyle in which strands of hair are combined into rope-like sections — is unknown, but there is evidence that people wore them thousands of years ago. People in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas have been known to wear some form of dreadlocks. Despite their long and global history, there are many misconceptions about dreadlocks and the people who wear them.

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But these misconceptions are often based on stereotypes and biases. Dreadlocks (also known as "locs," "locks," or "dreads") can form organically, when a person refrains from combing or brushing their hair. That doesn't mean they're necessarily dirtier or messier than other hairstyles — people who form them this way still clean and care for their hair. And many people who wear dreadlocks rely on more styling and manipulation, by building the locks strand by strand on their own or with the help of a professional loctician.

Dreadlocks became popular in the Western world through the rise of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica in the 1960s, and the philosophy and the hairstyle spread through reggae musicians like Bob Marley. Find out how thin strands of hair can permanently join up into thick locks, next.

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Anatomy of a Dreadlock

Bob Marley's sons
Some of Bob Marley's children, showing a variety of locks, pose for a photo in 2004. (L-R): Kymani, Julian, Ziggy, Damian and Stephen Marley. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

To understand how a head full hair develops into a head full of dreadlocks, you first need to understand what a single lock looks like at its basic level. At the root of the dreadlock phenomenon is the idea that when hair is left alone, over time it will tangle and separate into sections. Essentially, dreadlocks are individual masses of knots that the wearer encourages to continue growing into a coil that eventually resembles a piece of rope or yarn. Up close, a dreadlock looks similar to steel wool — fibers woven together so thoroughly that they form one solid mass.

Picture a very tightly knit rug. If you look closely, what you see is hundreds of filaments of thread woven together. If you followed one single thread, you would see that it moves in and out from between the other threads over and over. Since each thread is locked into place by the pattern of the knitting, the rug itself looks more like a single mass of fabric than a collection of many threads.

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A dreadlock is very similar, with the exception that the individual "threads" of hair are not woven together in any set pattern. They are random. In fact, some hairstylists actually offer immediate, temporary dreadlocks they create by knotting the hair quickly with a crochet hook or interlocking tool.

Once a dreadlock is formed and the individual locks grow, new hair will continue to grow and lock.

Read on to find out how dreadlocks form in different types of hair.

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Dreadlocks in Different Types of Hair

white lady with dreads
Certain types of hair are more conducive to forming into dreadlocks, but nearly any type can be twisted and manipulated into the knotted locks. Nikada/Getty Images

Even though you can grow dreadlocks if you just leave your hair alone to lock, there are disadvantages to the "freeform method." Simply allowing hair to form into locks by itself can take a long time, and it could take months or years for your locks to form. Plus, freeform dreadlocks usually lack uniformity, and if you don't have naturally kinky or curly hair, the locks can sometimes form too loosely or unevenly, or too far down from the scalp. So, many people use specific methods to speed the natural matting process along.

Locks can form in all textures of hair if it is left to grow without manipulation. But certain textures of hair are more conducive to forming them. This makes sense if we remember that locks are formed out of strands of hair bound together. Curly or kinky hair already grows in spirals, so it's easier to get it to form into a tightly wound dreadlock than it is with straight hair. Think of it like a coiled telephone cord becoming so easily tangled, while a straight laptop cord typically stays tangle free.

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People with African ancestry who have tightly coiled kinky hair, or people of any race whose hair is curly and falls into ringlets, have an easier time forming dreadlocks. For those who have straight hair, it takes more time and effort to encourage hair to lock. Forming dreadlocks is all about accelerating the hair's natural tendency to form tangles and twists, and very curly or kinky hair does this easily. In order to facilitate the locking process, you want the hair to be forced to stay as close together as possible within each individual lock.

Next, we'll talk about how to turn hair of any texture into dreadlocks.

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How to Start Dreadlocks

Developing dreadlocks requires the same basic preparation, whether you're paying a professional stylist or working on your own hair at home. The point of variation comes when it's time to separate and shape the locks. Depending on the preferences of your stylist and the texture of your hair, you can twist it up in a number of ways. Regardless, this simple step-by-step procedure will lay the foundation for dreadlocks:

  • Step one: Wash your hair and dry it thoroughly before beginning the process. Make sure that your scalp and hair is clean and free of residue and product buildup.
  • Step two: You can choose to let the hair loc and then separate it. But you can also part the hair in advance to divide it into distinct sections. Decide what kind of parting style you want, then divide the hair into sections. You can do this either to the entire head first and hold the sections with bands or clips, or finish each section one at a time.
  • Step three: Pay attention to the size of your sections. When you pull them tight, the roots of the hair you're holding should be outlined by exposed scalp. The amount of scalp that is exposed varies depending on the parting style and the thickness of your hair. The parting style also affects how they fall and how natural they will appear. The larger the sections, the thicker the final locks will be.
  • Step four: Add a small amount of product to each individual strand before you work with it. (Experts differ widely and passionately about what to use. Some use creams, waxes, oils, or gels to prevent the hair from drying out. Some dreadlock wearers tout the benefits of wax as a binder and moisturizer, but wax is also heavy and difficult to wash out. Purists just use water.)
  • Step five: There are several methods for creating locks. You can choose to backcomb the hair, a popular method for people with straight hair. This creates volume, is easy to do (though time-consuming), and makes it look like you have locks immediately. However, many people do not recommend backcombing, since it can damage hair and can create locks that unravel easily. To backcomb, pull each section of hair straight. While holding the tip, use a fine-toothed metal comb and run it through the hair from the tip to the root. Repeat to the same section of hair until the individual strands are drawn toward the root and tangled together. You want to continue this process until the entire length of hair has formed those tangles, and then repeat with each section. After backcombing the hair, you can palm roll each lock to shape it. You can also start locks using braids, twists, comb coils, the twist and rip method, the interlocking method and the crochet method. (See sidebar.)
  • Step six: Completely dry the locks with a hair dryer. If you used wax, this step will also melt the wax into each lock.

But the process isn't over. Maintaining these proto-dreadlocks, and caring for them over the years, also requires several important steps.

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The Stages of Dreadlock Development

woman shaking dreadlocks
The style of locks you achieve depends on how you twist your hair. PeopleImages/Getty Images

At first, dreadlocks should be washed sparingly. Experts differ somewhat about how often to wash, but about once a week initially is the general consensus. Consider covering your entire head with a nylon stocking at this stage and letting the soap run through to prevent damage to the fragile locks. You can also use a spray bottle containing diluted shampoo to avoid over-manipulating your hair.

If you have kinky hair, the texture of your hair works to your advantage at this stage. If locks start to come undone, they can be retwisted according to the twisting method you used to start them. One technique is called palm rolling, which will encourage the hair to grow into the spiral pattern of dreadlocks. Using your flattened palms, take each lock and roll it in the direction that it was initially twisted. Be careful not to retwist the locks too often, as it can put a lot of stress on the hair and cause thinning and breakage. The length of time a loc wearer should wait between retwists varies depending on the type of hair, type of locks and stage of lock development. And you only need to retwist frequently if you are going for a highly maintained look.

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Over the first few months, the curls and twists will begin to form knots close to the roots. This is sometimes called the budding stage, and is the first step to your hair forming secure locks. How long this takes will vary depending on your hair texture and level of maintenance. Hair may begin to form dreadlocks as early as two months, but sometimes locks will take six months or longer to develop.

At this point, your dreadlocks are in the locking or teenage stage. Just like it sounds, this is the period when the locks become denser but don't appear to gain much length. The mature stage begins when the dreadlocks grow longer and take on a firmer, more established shape. You won't have to retwist your new growth (loose, new hair near the scalp) as often, and you won't have to worry about the locks unraveling as much. Locks are relatively solid and fast-growing in the rooted or adult stage of the lock journey. The pattern of hair growth is consistent, and hair that has fallen out of your scalp remains inside the dreadlocks, adding length beyond what your loose, shedding hair could reach.

This process will take longer for people with straight hair. But no matter your hair texture or goals, patience and proper maintenance are key to growing healthy dreadlocks.

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Dreadlock Hair Care

Now that we've talked about how to form locks, let's talk about some grooming and hair care tips for all locks, regardless of hair type:

  • Washing: Once they're mature, you can wash locks as often as you want. Some people wait a week; some do it once a month. There is no single correct timeline, but you may choose to wash your hair more often if your scalp is oily, as oil can cause knots to loosen. When you do wash, massage the scalp very carefully, and just let the soapy water run through the dreadlocks.
  • Drying: To prevent mildewing and buildup of product (known as dread rot), dry the dreadlocks thoroughly every time you wash them. You can squeeze them with a towel to wring out excess water, and then let them air dry, use a blow dryer, or use a bonnet dryer.
  • Hair care: Everyone with dreadlocks seems to have their own opinion on what products and treatments are best for mature dreads. Some use hot oil treatments to prevent the hair from drying out, while others use gels or salt water "accelerators" to tighten individual locks as they form. Many advocate using only natural and/or clarifying shampoos. In general, you want to avoid shampoos that leave a lot of residue, since this can lubricate the hairs and cause them to come loose from the locks. There is debate over whether lock wearers should use conditioner on their hair. Ultimately, the decision is up to the wearer — there are many alternatives to cream-based conditioners, which are formulated to smooth and detangle hair and can be counterproductive to the locking process.
  • Sleeping: Wear a bandanna, stocking, do-rag, scarf, or loose pillowcase over the locks if you don't want them becoming crushed as you toss and turn. This also helps keep debris out of your locks. Another option is to sleep on a satin or silk pillowcase, to avoid the damage that other materials may cause to your hair.
  • Exercising: Wear a bandanna, cap or sweat-wicking headband to contain the locks and keep them from becoming too sweaty. If possible, consider wearing a style that will keep your locks in place, like braids or twists.
  • Repair: Dreadlocks can begin to fuse together if you don't roll them individually on a regular basis. Unless you want certain locks to grow together, you'll want to separate any newly combined locks by pulling them apart or by tracing the parts with your index finger and dividing sections at the root.
  • Tension: If you twist your locks too tight during the first few months, without leaving enough room at the roots, they can put strain on the scalp and sometimes break off. Avoid applying too much tension at the root. You need some loose hair at the root to allow your hair to continue growing.
  • Removal: If you want to get rid of dreadlocks without cutting them, there are heavy duty conditioners on the market that can help you loosen the locks so you can individually pick out the tangles. Your hair will be undamaged afterward, but removal without cutting takes a lot of work.

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Dreadlocks in History

sadhu
In India, sadhus (Hindu ascetics) wear a style that closely resembles dreadlocks and has existed for centuries. DrRave/Getty Images

Dreadlocks have been discovered on mummies in Peru, dating back to sometime between 200 C.E. and 800 C.E., and Aztec priests dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries wore matted hairstyles resembling locks.

Often, dreadlocks become a symbol of religious devotion, an ascetic's vow not to alter God's creation through grooming. In Ethiopia, priests in Christian Coptic churches have worn dreadlocks for hundreds of years. In India, sadhus (Hindu ascetics) wear matted locks. Buddhists in Tibet, members of the Black Muslim Baye Fall sect of Senegal, Maori in New Zealand, and tribes in Namibia and Angola all wear dreadlocks [source: Mastalia].

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But by far, the most recognizable group to wear dreadlocks is Jamaica's Rastafarians. The Rastafari movement began in the 1930s in Jamaica, as a small sect that believed that Haile Selassie I, who became the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was the messiah.

Rastas see dreadlocks as a way to keep themselves in a pure state of nature as God intended. They use the Biblical story of Samson and his vow never to cut his hair as justification. Rastas tend to wear freeform locks, allowing them to grow in random lengths and even combine together to form large, matted clumps. That said, the Rastafari movement is diverse, and not all Rastas wear dreadlocks.

The beliefs of Rastafari are also heavily rooted in the idea of Africa as a paradise, and the West as a place of captivity. So, the idea of freeing the hair from European ideals of beauty is a way of celebrating that ethnic pride. Rastas likely began wearing dreadlocks in the 1940s, and the practice became more widespread in the late 1950s and 1960s, but there are competing historical explanations for their adoption of the hairstyle and its name. Scholar Horace Campbell theorized that Rastas may have been inspired by a guerrilla army in Kenya known as the Mau Mau, who wore locks and rebelled against the British in the 1950s. Anthropologist Barry Chevannes concluded that Rasta dreadlocks can be traced back to an organization in Jamaica called the Youth Black Faith. The term "dreadful" may have been associated with Rastas who were considered disciplined and upright [Chevannes, 1994]

In the early days of the movement, Rastas faced persecution and imprisonment in Jamaica. But their religion and hair style has become more widely accepted [source: Barrett, Price, Mastalia].

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Dreadlocks Today

Lenny Kravitz
Lenny Kravitz attends an event in Mountain View, California in 2019. Kravitz has worn dreadlocks for decades. Rich Fury/Getty Images

As dreadlocks and Rastafari spread to the United States and abroad through the worldwide success of Bob Marley and the Wailers in the late 1970s, the hairstyle and religion were often met with fear and hostility in mainstream culture. The religion's ties to Black nationalist ideology, marijuana smoking as a central tenet, and misconceptions about dreadlocks as an unclean hairstyle contributed to the controversy.

In popular culture, films like "Marked for Death" and "Predator 2" (both released in 1990) depicted stereotypes of dreadlocked Jamaican gangs that menaced American cities and children by selling drugs and engaging in violent pagan rituals. However, over time, dreadlocks have become more mainstream, thanks in part to figures like Marley, singer Lenny Kravitz and baseball player Manny Ramirez.

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Today, there are hair stylists throughout the United States, Canada, Japan, the U.K., and other countries that will assist in locking your hair. The hairstyle has become popular not just with Jamaicans and people who sympathize with the Rastafari cause, but with people of all races and backgrounds.

However, dreadlocks can still cause an uproar in some circles, and there are many people who still see the style as being dirty or unkempt or who associate it with radicalism. Employers in the U.S. generally have the right to fire people with dreadlocks, or to force them to cut their hair or lose their job. This is more common in the service industry or conservative professions. If you are a Rasta or otherwise wear dreadlocks as a form of religious devotion, you have a chance of winning a discrimination suit. But those wearing dreadlocks as a style choice have less legal footing to stand on: Employers have the right to enforce grooming and appearance standards, provided they don't discriminate based on protected categories like race and religion [source: Pating and Cruse].

But employers are facing increased scrutiny of their decisions to fire or not hire people based on their hairstyles. In the federal circuit court case Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, a Black woman's job offer was withdrawn because she refused to cut her dreadlocks. The court dismissed the claim, saying that discrimination is based on traits that people cannot change. But CROWN Act bills — which prohibit discrimination based on hair texture or hairstyle in the workplace and public schools — are also gaining steam across the U.S.

The social stigma associated with dreadlocks is less pronounced than it was in the 1970s. Still, people who wear locks are often viewed as less professional, less hygienic, and more disruptive. And other controversies around locks have popped up, including the debate over whether white people wearing dreadlocks is cultural appropriation. But high-profile celebrities like Willow Smith, Justin Bieber, Zendaya, and Whoopi Goldberg sport dreadlocks and faux locks (dreadlocks styled with extensions). Dreadlocks are in the mainstream now and are trending toward more acceptance.

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Originally Published: Oct 5, 2010

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More Great Links

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