What Is the Difference between Dreads and Braids?

Mandi R. Hall
Mandi R. Hall
A woman with a French braid.
A woman with a French braid.

Although they are similar hairstyles, dreads and braids are fundamentally quite different. Perhaps most apparent is the way each is structured — dreads take time to form, while braids can easily and quickly be patterned. Due to their maintenance and composition, dreads are meant to last much longer than braids. Dreads are also wrongly associated with various negative stereotypes, while many people consider braids to be appropriate for most anyone. Additionally, dreads are somewhat of a permanent hairstyle, while braids can easily be taken out.

Dreads, unlike braids, are somewhat of a permanent hairstyle.
Dreads, unlike braids, are somewhat of a permanent hairstyle.

The first step to creating both dreads and braids is typically to section off strands of hair, though the processes differ from that point on. While there are many ways to create the locks, it generally takes several weeks for the coils to take on the look of authentic dreads. One of the most popular methods is to take each section of hair, backcomb it and continually twist it into the traditional dread shape. The dreads continue to naturally form as hair mats together during growth.

Braids and dreadlocks can appear similar.
Braids and dreadlocks can appear similar.

Braids, on the other hand, are taken out just as easily as they are formed. Braids are created by taking three or more strands of hair and weaving them in an overlapping zigzag shape. They are typically quite long, and are used in more instances than hairstyling. Rugs, accessories, horse manes, and other fabrics are often braided into complex structures.

Human hair is generally braided with three strands. Solo braids, pigtail braids, and French braids have been popular hairstyles for centuries. These kinds of braids are typically tied at the end with a rubber band or pinned to the head. Likewise, whole heads of hair that have been braided into hundreds of tiny braids that are left loose at the ends, often called zillions, have become trendy in the last few decades.

Dreads and braids also have different maintenance routines. Braids are often left in for short periods of time — less than a day — and therefore require little or no maintenance. For those who keep zillions or micro braids in for weeks at a time, however, sleeping with a cotton bandana to absorb oil and avoiding residual conditioners helps maintain hair health. People with dreads often use waxes and residue-free shampoos in order to preserve the proper look and hygiene.

Dreads and braids have varied lasting effects. Braids can be unwoven with little to no breakage. Dreads, on the other hand, are teased and matted, resulting in a plethora of knots that are difficult to untangle. Many people who’ve worn dreads for years simply decide to cut their hair near the roots and start anew.

Contrary to popular belief, neither dreads nor locks are necessarily dirty or unhygienic. While many traditional dreadlocks have been formed into different sized locks by neglect, most people who wear locks today wash their hair every three to seven days. Additionally, many begin the dreadlocking process by sectioning hair into several equally-sized sections in order to grow a more presentable mass of hair.

When it comes to lifestyle association, those who choose to sport dreads or braids have varied lives. Contrary to popular belief, braids are not exclusively for black hair, nor are dreads exclusively for hippies. It is important to note, however, that the 20th century brought about vegetarian, vegan and other natural lifestyle movements that prompted many more people to choose the natural look of dreadlocks. After both hairstyles are formed, dreads and braids are said to be more easily maintained than other hairstyles.

What Are Dreadlocks?

Dreadlocked hair is a style that’s popular in many cultures and worn by both sexes. Although dreads have become a popular way to wear hair, they have a long history that dates back to biblical times. Dreads are long rows of matted hair that can take several weeks or months to form.

Forming Locks

When someone wants to develop dreadlocks, they start by separating different sections of hair and backcombing them. For those who want a more uniform appearance, the hair sections should be the same length to grow into similar-looking locks. After backcombing, the pieces are twisted together to form ropes and secured with clips.

Frequent Washing

Regardless of the negative stereotypes associated with the hairstyle, dreadlocks are not meant to be left alone entirely. Washing the locks three to four times a week keeps them healthy, but some dread enthusiasts wait several weeks before washing their locks. Wetting the hair encourages the locks to mat and develop further, but keeping them unwashed can eventually cause them to become brittle and crack. To keep the locks’ roots intact, some people wear a shower cap and only wash the long strands. A clear finishing spray or light wax can hold the dreads in place after washing, but you should avoid using conditioners or oily hair products. Using a conditioner can create a buildup that attracts more dirt and dust.

Long Term Commitment

Unlike braids, dreadlocks cannot be created in a day. Everyone’s hair grows at a different rate, and some people may have to wait up to six months before their dreads are fully formed. Those who keep their style for several years cannot easily remove the dreads because the hair becomes too tangled. Thick locks cannot be combed out, and they can only be removed by cutting the hair at the base.

Negative Stereotypes

Before dreadlocks were accepted as a fashionable hairstyle by the media and fashion critics, they were considered a fringe look that appealed to hippies, African groups, and musicians who did not want to cut or clean their hair. Long hair, especially on men, is sometimes seen as a protest against society and Western values.

Cultural Influences

Dreadlocks are associated with several African cultures, but the hairstyle gained more attention after being worn by Jamaica’s most famous Rastafarian. Bob Marley helped popularize the reggae sound, and his influence went beyond creating beautiful music. Marley’s locks evolved from shorter ropes when he was younger to thick, long dreads that measured over 24 inches. The image of Marley and his impressive hair adorned posters and record albums in the 1970s, and his style convinced several young men and women to adopt the look.

Starting in the mid-1980s, celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg helped bring the style to the mainstream, and the demand for hair care products for dreads rose steadily. Dreadlocks were once only embraced by small groups throughout the world, but now, the long locks are worn by athletes, actors, musicians, children, and anyone with enough patience to attempt the lengthy process. However, if you’re not patient enough to grow dreadlocks, you can purchase faux locks that attach to your existing follicles like hair extensions.

What Are Braids?

From a distance, braids appear to look much like dreadlocks, but on closer inspection, you see that braids are not matted or formed into solid ropes. Braided hair is made by taking three or more hair strands and weaving them together to create an interlocking pattern. The hairstyle has been used by women and men for thousands of years, but African women in Namibia living in 5000 B.C. are said to be one of the first cultures to adopt braids.

Some of the most stylish types of braids include:

  • Three-strand braids
  • French raids
  • Fishtail braids
  • Rope braids
  • Lace braids
  • Ladder braids
  • Lattice braids
  • Crochet braids
  • Lemonade braids
  • Feed-in braids

Unlike dreadlocks, you can braid your hair one day and untangle them that night. Braids can be kept in longer like dreads, but since they’re woven rather than matted, some strands must be re-braided after being washed. Depending on the length and type of hair, some braids are more complex than others.

Men and women with shorter hair have more trouble braiding than those with longer hair. Also, the hair’s texture plays a role in the ease of braiding. Softer hair with more natural oil is easier to manipulate than dry, coarse strands. If you want a temporary look, braids are the style for you, but dreadlocks are preferable for the long run.

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Discussion Comments

anon991999

Regardless of whether you backcomb or neglect your hair, it has to be clean to dread. Some people have a misunderstanding that neglect means not washing hair but that's not the case. It just about allowing the hair to do what it does naturally. I personally don't recommend using wax because it does make hair greasy.

candyquilt

I think dreads and braids have one similarity, in that they make the maintenance of hair easier. It's great for people who don't want to spend hours fixing their hair.

It's also great for the environment because you don't need hair dryers and electricity, you also don't need hairspray. You save money, time and help protect the earth.

turquoise

This is a good article to clear up misconceptions about dreads. I also had the same beliefs. I was told by relatives and friends that people who have dreads never wash their hair, have lice and will be forced to shave their heads if they ever want to change their hairstyle.

I inevitably remembered these words every time I saw someone with dreads. The truth is far from it. It's sad that such misconceptions are passed on as fact.

Thanks for the information!

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    • A woman with a French braid.
      By: Madeleine Openshaw
      A woman with a French braid.
    • Dreads, unlike braids, are somewhat of a permanent hairstyle.
      By: dimedrol68
      Dreads, unlike braids, are somewhat of a permanent hairstyle.
    • Braids and dreadlocks can appear similar.
      By: poco_bw
      Braids and dreadlocks can appear similar.