There are few things more rewarding than getting your curls to look just the way you want – but of course, that’s easier said than done. The key to perfecting your curls is understanding them and knowing that no two heads of hair are alike.
If you have curly hair, chances are at least once in your life you’ve wished you… didn’t. Curly hair care can be a drag if you don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s easy not to know what you’re doing when there’s no one-size-fits-all handbook for perfect curls.
But once you’ve figured out the best routine for your unique curls – with the help of this curly hair guide – you’ll find yourself flaunting selfie-worthy curls in no time.
Curly Hair Types: What You Need to Know
Anyone with curly hair has probably asked themselves: “What type of hair do I have?” Chances are, the answer is complicated, in part because there are nearly 10 different types of curls, ranging from Type 2, or wavy hair, to Type 4, or coily hair. (Type 1 is straight hair.)
Your curls could fall anywhere from Type 2A to Type 4C and might even be considered a combination of two or more of them. It’s not uncommon for the top layers of your hair to be a different curl type than the bottom layers. You might even have a head of mostly coily, tight curls...and then one single section that’s more relaxed. !
How to Find Your Curl Type: Where to Start
To start figuring out what hair type you have, take the “thread test,” which determines your hair’s thickness. Take a strand of hair (a loose strand from your hairbrush— don’t pull one out!) and compare it to a piece of sewing thread. The thread is the standard for “medium” thickness hair, so if your hair is thinner than the thread, it’s considered “fine,” and if it’s thicker, it’s considered “coarse.”
As far as your actual curl type goes, take a look at the curl pattern chart above to see which one matches your curls the best, and read on for a breakdown of each pattern.
Type 2 Hair: Wavy
Type 2 hair features the loosest curls on the spectrum. It generally lays flatter and closer to the head, with the waves not kicking in until about the mid-lengths.
- 2A hair is the most relaxed of the curl patterns. It’s usually finer than the rest of the curl types, delicate, and easy to straighten.
- 2B hair has a soft S-shape, with subtle waves developing at mid-length. Individual strands are thicker and harder to straighten than 2A hair.
2C hair is thicker and coarser than 2B hair, with distinct S-bends appearing nearer to the roots.
Type 3 Hair: Curly
Type 3 hair often features a combination of textures (think looser, softer curls closer to the root and tighter, coarser curls at the ends — or vice versa) and S-shaped tendrils.
- 3A hair is a low porosity hair type, generally defined by shiny, smooth, large, loose curls.
- 3B hair is comprised of tight, spring-like ringlets.
3C hair has tight corkscrews that are about the circumference of a pencil. They're closely packed together for a voluminous effect and typically look less shiny than Types 1 and 2.
Type 4 Hair: Coily
Type 4 hair tends to be either fine and thin, or wiry and coarse, with well-defined coils. It’s the most fragile of hair textures because it’s more prone to dryness – and subsequently breakage – than the other curl types.
- 4A hair has thick, springy, S-patterned coils. They have a similar circumference to Type 3 curls, about that of a crochet needle.
- While most curl types have an S-shape to them, 4B hair tends to look more like a series of Z-shapes, densely packed together.
- 4C hair is generally similar to 4B, but is more delicate with a very tight, small-scale zig-zag pattern. As a result, those with 4C hair usually experience quite a bit of shrinkage when their hair dries.
While the number system is considered the reigning curly hair categorization method, there’s also the LOIS System.
L: Hair is pretty much all right angles and no curves
O: Hair features O-shaped coils
I: Hair is generally straight with little volume
S: Curls are unmistakably S-shaped
This system is great for people for combination curls. For example, hair that’s made up mostly of O-shaped coils and S-shaped curls are considered “OS.”
Depending on your curls, you might find one of these systems is better suited for your hair than the other. However, it’s important to keep in mind that while these curl types are a great way to get an idea of how to care for your hair, you don’t need to stick to them religiously. These curl patterns sit on a spectrum – just like you might have more than one type of curl, your hair could be completely uniform and sit somewhere in between any of these curl types. Maybe you’re halfway between 2C and 3A, or 4B and 4C, or mostly “OS” with a little bit of “I” thrown in. It’s all about figuring out what your hair needs and making sure it gets it.
How to Care for Curly Hair: The General Rules
Now that you know your curl type (or types), you’re likely wondering the best way to take care of curly hair. The thing is, there isn’t one route or routine for healthy hair – caring for naturally curly hair is different for everyone, because everyone’s curls are different.
That said, there are some basic rules – everything from cuts to cleansing to styling – for taking care of wavy hair, curly hair, and coily hair:
- It all begins with the cut. Curly hair doesn’t take to scissors the same way straight hair does, so find a stylist who specializes in curly cuts. Make sure to get frequent trims, and ask your stylist to teach you how to “dust” your hair (i.e., get rid of any damaged ends in between salon visits).
- Don’t wash your hair every day, unless you’re using a detergent-free cleanser like Hairstory New Wash. Generally, the curlier the hair, the more likely it is to dry out and break, and the detergents in traditional shampoos can make matters worse. Avoid excessive heat on your curls (including scalding-hot shower water!). Rather than using the highest setting on your dryer, try a diffuser on the warm or cool air setting.
- Try a leave-in conditioner! You don’t need to drown your hair in it, but you should use it regularly to keep your curls nice and soft.
- Only detangle your curls with your fingers or a wide-tooth comb or pick, and always start from the ends and work your way to your roots.
- Use a satin pillowcase or a satin headscarf or bonnet to reduce friction while you sleep.
How to Care for Different Types of Curly Hair
As we’ve said already, not all hair is created equal, so it shouldn’t be cared for the same way. Depending on your hair type, you should have your own specific routine, but here are some basic tips to get started:
How to Care for Wavy Hair
If you have finer waves (think 2A or 2B hair), try washing your hair no more than three times a week, or every other day. If you notice your hair drying out, cut back to twice a week.
Those with 2A hair should stick with lightweight, water-based hair products like gels and mousses, and only use them in moderation. Other, heavier products will weigh 2A hair down and actually make it harder to style – especially when it comes to adding volume.
A texture spray like Hairstory Undressed is perfect for 2B hair – it’ll give you that carefree, surf-inspired style without drying out your hair the way saltwater can.
Frizz can be a challenge for those with 2C hair, but a leave-in conditioning cream like Hairstory Hair Balm will define the innate wave pattern and boost hydration while keeping your waves from drying out.
How to Care for Curly Hair
Depending on what kind of cleanser you’re using, curly hair shouldn’t be washed more than twice a week. If your hair starts feeling dry and lifeless, cut back to once a week.
3A curly hair is relatively easy to maintain. The ideal refresher is a solution of one part Hair Balm to 8 parts water (shaken well) and occasionally misting it over your locks with a spray bottle. Post-mist, scrunch your curls liberally (3A curls love a good scrunch!) and let them air dry. Twirling small sections of your hair around your finger while it’s still damp will boost curl definition.
3B curly hair loves moisture, so look for products with humectants to lock it in, like Hairstory’s Wax with Shea Butter and Beeswax.
More often than not, frizz can be an issue with 3C curly hair, but it’s easily controlled with a creamy cleanser. Follow it up by applying a moisturizing styling cream like Hair Balm to still-wet hair.
How to Care for Coily Hair
Coily hair shouldn’t be washed more than once or twice a month, depending on the texture and natural moisture production. As with wavy and curly hair, if your hair becomes dry and seems damaged, cut back on the cleanser and load up on the conditioner.
Hair Balm, or a curl cream and leave-in moisturizer combo, will help add much-needed moisture to 4A hair. The LOC method can also be great for this curl type.
Hair Balm can also be used on 4B hair by rolling coils in your palm and twisting them into the desired shape.
Because 4C hair can dry out so easily, don’t be stingy with the leave-in moisturizer, and be sure to add castor, olive, or coconut oil into the product rotation to keep this type of coily, kinky hair hydrated.
The Best Products for Curly Hair
Now that you have a grasp on what kind of curls you’re dealing with, it’s time to figure out your styling routine. Just like no two heads of curly hair are exactly alike, no two product regimens are exactly alike – it all depends on your hair type (or types) and the overall look you want to achieve.
“Is shampoo bad for hair?” is a question more frequently asked with each passing year. There’s no definitive answer because, as we’ve established, everyone’s hair is different. We can say, though, that anyone with curly hair will want to skip traditional shampoos, which can create frizz, disrupt the curl pattern, and sap moisture. If you forego a regular shampoo but notice your hair getting greasy after a few weeks, you can try a cleanser without detergent for a “reset wash.”
You should also avoid using baking soda, which has a far too high pH, or vinegar, which has a low pH but doesn’t offer many benefits other than helping remove mineral build-up. Definitely avoid a combination of the two.
Many people swear by co-washing, or simply using conditioner to wash. But it can leave hair looking dirty and feeling heavy and full of product. It also attracts dust, pollen, and dirt.
“Reverse shampooing” is another cleansing method, which involves applying conditioner or oil before shampooing so less of the natural oils are stripped away, but has some of the same drawbacks as using only conditioner.
Others only rinse hair with water, which may refresh but doesn’t remove product residue, and some resort to not cleaning their hair AT ALL – not even rinsing it with water. It may be less damaged, but it may also look and feel greasy, smell funny, and be difficult to style as it lays flat.
Instead, try a completely detergent-free shampoo alternative, like New Wash. It’s made up of essential oils and Aloe Vera that will preserve the power of natural oils and remove only the things you don’t want. Plus, you can use it as often as you want without worrying about drying out your hair the way regular shampoos do.
Take it from Hailey Harns, New Wash convert: “I didn’t start wearing my hair naturally curly until I used New Wash; it was always frizzy, uneven, and lifeless, so I’d brush out curls rather than embracing them. The New Wash formula is gentle but effective and has been a game changer, and now I rock my curls every day!”
Sylvia Kerali, founder of the website Curls Understood, tried New Wash and says, “I thought it was fantastic. If I had to explain it to other curly girls, it’s co-wash 2.0, better than anything you’ve used because it leaves your hair super-soft and you can detangle as you’re putting it in, so it’s pretty perfect.”
Mel Burgos, founder of RockYoRizos.com used to undergo a cleansing regimen that was a weekly three-hour process including, “detangling, washing, conditioning, deep conditioning, and steaming, and then styling after that. Now, New Wash is all I use. I don’t even need conditioner,” she says with surprise – and relief.
Once you’ve got your wash routine set, it’s time to start styling. We’ve already sung Hair Balm’s praises, so we’ll let someone else have a turn.
“I use Hair Balm every time I wet my hair, whether after washing or just rinsing with water,” says Hailey. “It has lots of moisture and the perfect amount of hold to give my curls definition and bounce all day long.”
And if you’re wondering how to refresh curly hair without washing it, Hair Balm is great for that too.
Actress Irina Abraham was fanatical about conditioning daily to refresh the texture, “Always very careful about how I put it in, let it air dry, and not touching it, not letting anybody touch it.” But since discovering Hair Balm, “I put it in at night and the next day it’s fine, and can still be fine the day after. It’s really good. It makes my life easier.”
Sylvia uses Hair Balm as a leave-in conditioner. “For every style, I put it in to keep me going for three or four days, then maybe I’ll style it again for another three days. Hair Balm leaves my hair really, really soft, which is great; it doesn’t have that crunchy feeling. Curly girls really hate crunch.” Mel has also learned to love the simplicity of Hair Balm. “I always cocktailed my products, a leave-in conditioner, a gel, and then a serum, then oil to give me that shine. But I’m finding now that less is more.”
You can also try Hairstory Dry Shampoo. It’ll help boost your volume back up and help allay grease –just remember that it’s not a substitute for cleansing.
One final note on products: If you’ve been squeezing out all the water from your hair after you rinse it, the time to stop is now. Styling products work best on wet hair — the water distributes them more easily and helps reduce frizz during the drying process, while the oils from your products help lock in moisture.
Common Questions for All Curly and Wavy Hair Types:
How Should I Blow Dry My Curly Hair?
While it’s best to avoid any kind of heat-styling whenever possible, we know air-drying curls can take a very long time. If you’re going to blow dry your curls, always use a hair protectant first, like Hairstory Dressed Up, and use a diffuser. The cool air setting can help boost shine and minimize frizz. Flipping your head and scrunching your hair as you dry it will add bounce and volume. Here's everything else you need to know about safe heat styling.
How Should I Brush My Curly Hair?
In a word: don’t (unless you’re specifically going for a lightweight, fluffy look). The bristles of brushes can cause frizz and breakage and disrupt your curl pattern. If you’re worried about snags and snarls in your hair, use your fingers or a wide-tooth comb or pick through your curls while they’re still wet. Waiting until you’ve applied your conditioner will make it even easier.
What Makes Hair Curly?
If you’ve ever tried to wish away your ringlets, you’ve probably wondered why they’re curly in the first place. It all starts at the follicle. The shape of your follicles is what determines whether hair is curly or straight — round follicles produce straight hair, while the unevenness of oval, or flatter, follicles produce the shapes in curly hair.
How Do You Sleep With Curly Hair?
If you’re looking to boost your hair’s hydration, try leaving your conditioner in overnight. Just be sure to wear a silk or satin scarf or cap over your hair to keep your pillowcases clean.
If you don’t want to sleep with conditioner in your hair, try the “pineapple.” Pile your hair on top of your head into a really high – but not too tight – ponytail, using a scrunchie or hair coil to secure it.
Whatever you decide to do with your hair at night, we recommend investing in a satin pillowcase. Unlike other fabrics, the smooth satin will help prevent tangling, frizz, and breakage. Make a point to clean your pillowcases and any head coverings you’re using weekly.
How Does Heat Styling Affect Curly Hair?
The curlier and coarser your hair is, the worse heat styling can be for it. This is partially because most people use their heat styling devices at far too high a temperature. You also have to spend more time drying tighter, thicker curls. For example, while fine, Type 2A hair is easy enough to straighten with a flat iron, the same can’t be said for coarse, Type 4C hair. Using heat – especially a flat or curling iron – on thicker, curlier hair can lead to breakage, split ends, and frizz.
If you want to style your hair in a looser curl or wave than your natural pattern, try separating it into separate sections while damp and then braiding them while they dry.
What Should You Not Do With Curly Hair?
We’ve mentioned some of these “don’ts” already, but they bear repeating: Here are a few things to avoid when taking care of curly hair:
- Heat styling: If you need to blow dry, use a diffuser and the warm or cool air setting.
- Bristly brushes: Go for a wide-tooth comb or pick instead.
- Traditional shampoos: They can strip your hair of necessary oils and moisture, leaving it more susceptible to frizz and breakage.
- Terrycloth towels: This rough material can cause tangles and frizz. Instead, use a gentler fabric, like a cotton t-shirt or microfiber towel.
- Chemical processing: Most people with curls consider getting their hair relaxed at one point or another, but even temporary treatments like Brazilian blowouts can permanently affect your hair.
- Touching your hair a lot: Whether they’re wet or dry, touching curls can mess up the curl pattern and cause frizz.
- Leaving split ends: Don’t skip out on hair trims. If you ignore your split ends, they’ll simply continue to fray.
Contrary to popular belief, having curly hair doesn’t have to be a big production. It might take some time, but once you figure out your unique curl type and establish the ideal routine for it, the curls of your dreams are a big win!