If you’re going to play a literal long game with your hair, then you need to be thinking a few steps down the road. Growing long hair is a slow process, with a few awkward stages along the way, which will test your patience. For that reason, you need to keep your eyes on the end game, and do what you can along the way to minimize the annoying phases.
Here’s a guide to growing your hair out, in which we keep the advice as general as possible for all hair types. It operates on the assumption that your hair grows half an inch per month (the general average). For that reason, if you’re looking to grow your hair out beyond 6 inches (when pulled taut), you may need to add a few stages of growth—though once you’re past the year mark, the same rules generally apply: Keep it tidy, cutting the ends and defining any details every 8-12 weeks, and prioritize hair strengthening conditioners and masks.
First quarter: Starting from scratch
In your first three months of growth, you can typically operate as if you weren’t growing your hair out for the long run. Instead, you can enjoy the steadily longer hair styles as it sprouts more and more. You can even keep fading or tapering the sides and back, since you don’t want to grow it out like a tennis ball. (Hey, the exercise here is also to look nice all along the way).
The most important thing would be to not taper or fade around the curves of your head too much. Since you are growing things out, let the top of your head and the curves of the skull get as much length as possible. That being said, you can let the barber lighten or texturize the top for the first couple cuts, too, since you may need to thin out the bulk in these early stages. However, after a couple months, you should let all of that start growing out as much as possible, too.
Get cozy with your conditioning regimen in these months. You’ll be sporting this hair for the next year or more, and so you want to prevent it from splitting or fraying as it grows. While splitting won’t likely happen at month 2 or 3, it’s more about building the habit now and incorporating other long-term measures that will become part of your regular routine. For this reason, try to avoid blow drying your hair if you can—or using ionic/ceramic dryers (along with heat protectant sprays on the strands), so you preserve moisture levels and don’t fry out the hairs so early in their run.
The stylers you use are entirely a matter of preference in these first months. Use what suits you—there’s not much that can weigh your hair down yet.
Second quarter: Keeping it clean
Your friends will start to notice that you haven’t worn your hair super short for a month or more now. Still, you should be visiting the barber every 6-8 weeks for tidying. This will allow the hair to continue growing out in a flattering way; just make sure your barber knows your end goal and doesn’t set you back a month or more. Rather, they will texturize or lighten the bulk as needed, and snip at any possible dry/split ends while drawing clean borders around the perimeter of your hair.
This is when you’ll start to round the awkward corners—literally—at the upper outside of your crown (around the curves of the head). Just keep enduring it, even if it begins to poof or look geometrically awkward. (Your barber will even tell you that there’s only so much s/he can do to avert the awkwardness). Your hair takes on a new look every couple weeks in this window of time, so you might only be a few days away from something flattering.
You should incorporate a weekly hair mask into your regimen, whether it’s a pre-shampoo scalp/hair mask, a post-wash deep conditioner, or a leave-in curl cream conditioner. This will plump the strands with moisture and nourishment, so that you avoid things like frizz, splitting, poofing, etc.
You should also be conditioning after each shampoo—which can be every 2-3 days, though it’s often totally fine to condition on the non-shampoo days. If you notice that your hair seems a little too weighted down despite regular conditioning and washing, it might mean that you need to space out the routine even more. Give yourself an extra day before shampooing where you simply rinse the hair with water.
Pick shampoo and conditioner that suit your hair type, too—moisturizing ones for straight styles, volumizing or thickening ones for thinning styles, and ultra hydrating and defining ones for curls. A scalp cleansing shampoo or scalp balancing mask once weekly can also preserve harmony up top the head, and give the hairs an optimal base from which to grow.
Third quarter: Things take shape
You’re officially in the medium-length territory now. Your haircuts can be closer to 8 weeks instead of 6, and they should mirror the previous quarter’s, wherein you don’t lose much length anywhere on the head. Instead, keep things tidy around the edges and mind any split ends.
By now, you should also have a good visual of how the longer hair is working with (or against) any recession or thinning patches. When you have shorter, textured styles, it’s easier to use volumizing products to mask this—and even now, you might be wearing the bangs down over the recessed temples. Growing out your hair can really call attention to existing hair loss, so as the hair sweeps back or curls downward, note whether or not it calls the wrong kind of attention to your male-pattern loss. If so, you might reconsider the journey ahead, or even speak with a dermatologist about countering hair loss to prevent further thinning.
Try your best to avoid hats. The best way to do this is to keep your hair clean—every second or third day—and properly conditioned. It can be easier to tame with a blow dryer, but make sure to adhere to the aforementioned advice: Use a heat protectant spray or oil on the hair to seal off the cuticles, and prioritize ionic and ceramic dryers to utilize safer heat and air.
Keep up the hair masks, too, especially nourishing the ends of your hair, since the scalp’s natural oils won’t likely reach these ends. Again, this is how you can avoid drying and split ends.
You should have switched over to a lighter styler by now, too. There are creams for all different hair textures and lengths, so start there with your own hair type. It could be wise to invest in an air-drying cream, too, to get just the right amount of control without hair feeling too light or heavy. (JVN’s is terrific.)
Fourth quarter: The endurance test
Your haircuts should be every 8 weeks by now, and if you intend to keep growing the hair out, then they can soon switch to every 12 weeks apart (after the one-year benchmark).
It’s really difficult in this timeframe to enjoy any single phase of growth, because every month the hair will be just long enough that it falls or styles differently from the month before. (Especially with straighter or wavier styles, where the curl pattern isn’t causing slower visible length.) This can be frustrating because you can never get comfortable with one look or hair styling product, but the good news is that the maintenance and product usage doesn’t evolve much past this point (until you can clip it or tie it back).
So, at least you can get comfortable with the regimen, even if you aren’t sure about whether the hair flatters you from one week to the next. It’s a total endurance test.
Keep the hair mask, heat protectants, scalp nourishers, and lightweight stylers in rotation, along with regular shampooing and frequent conditioning. It’s fine to wear a hat every so often, but don’t get too comfortable with that (plus, it can start to influence the ends of the hair, by encouraging the hair to curl upwards around the brim of the hat (after continued, frequent daily use)—if you don’t otherwise have curly hair, of course.
More than anything, you want to get comfortable with the maintenance here, instead of turning into Guy With Hat. After all, you aren’t growing it out to only cover it up. You have all this hair, so you should show it off proudly.
And yeah, it might only be 5 or 6 inches long at this point, considering the barber has snipped away at it along the way. There’s a lot of growth ahead, especially if you want to tie it back eventually (probably another year of growth, at least). Stay the course, follow these tips, and enjoy the process.
Want to influence the process some more? Here’s some of the best ways to trigger hair growth.