No two heads of hair look alike, and no two heads curl alike. While there are systems that attempt to categorize curls by type with advanced algebra, the fact remains that your curls are uniquely yours, and what works for one person may not work for another.
So start by taking a hair quiz to know thyself – you’ve been wearing curls your whole life (unless you’ve been styling a straight and narrow path) – and follow these general rules to curl by.
The Washing Quandry
Curly, kinky and wavy hair depends on natural oils in the form of sebum from the scalp to moisturize and reduce frizz. And since curls create natural barriers to sebum making its way down the hair shaft, dryness toward the ends is a common condition.
Curly people know from experience that shampoo is problematic. It creates frizz, puts discernable curl patterns out of reach, and makes the quest for moisture even more urgent. 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.
Others only rinse hair with water. It may refresh but it doesn’t remove product residue. Many people swear by co-washing, also referred to as co-poo, or simply using conditioner to wash. But it can leave hair looking dirty, building up and feeling heavy. It also attracts dust, pollen, and dirt.
“Reverse shampooing” 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.
In another camp are people who use baking soda and/or vinegar. We can’t stress strongly enough that this is NOT a good idea. Baking soda has a pH that is too high for the body. Vinegar has a low pH but very few benefits aside from helping to remove mineral buildup, and the idea that it closes up the cuticle to add shine is a myth.
So what to do, especially when traditional shampoo is not your (anybody’s) friend? Yes, paraben- and sulfate-free formulas can be gentler, but the best alternative is a completely detergent-free one. This doesn’t mean living with dirty hair. On the contrary: Hairstory New Wash cleans hair with a complex of essential oils and Aloe Vera to preserve the power of natural oils and remove the things you don’t want. The best part? You can use New Wash as often as you like. If you insist on a daily dousing, go right ahead without worrying about sapping moisture.
Yes, paraben- and sufate-free formulas can be gentler, but the best shampoo but the best alternative is a completely detergent-free one.
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 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.
Know Thy Porosity
Porosity determines the ability to absorb and retain moisture, and the tendency to look smooth and healthy or dry and frizzy. Two methods will help you find out how porous your hair is or isn’t:
The Float Test: Take a couple of strands from your comb and drop them into a bowl of water. Let them sit for 2-4 minutes. If they float, you have low porosity (less water is absorbed); if they sink, you have high porosity (more water is absorbed).
The Slip Test: Take a strand of hair and slide your fingers up the shaft toward the scalp. If you feel little bumps along the way, your cuticles may be lifted, indicating high porosity. If your fingers slide smoothly, the porosity is probably low.
Low porosity means a tightly bound cuticle layer with overlapping scales that lay flat. This is usually considered healthy, is often shiny, repels moisture, and may be difficult to chemically process as it resists penetration. It can also be difficult to condition deeply with oil treatments (though they may be less necessary), and it’s a good idea to use moderate heat or steam when doing so to open cuticles and make strands more receptive.
Highly porous hair loses moisture quickly, tends to be dry, and requires frequent replenishment. This can be either an inherent property or the result of damage from chemical processing, styling or environmental damage. High porosity means gaps in the cuticle, which allow too much moisture in and leaves hair prone to frizz and tangles in humid weather. Showering or swimming can invite more damage and breakage due to the amount of water absorbed.
Highly porous hair loses moisture quickly, tends to be dry, and requires frequent replenishment.
Porous hair needs leave-in conditioners, moisturizers, and sealers such as Hairstory Hair Balm. “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.”
Before you leave the shower, flip your head over and scrunch or wring out excess water. Beware: Drying your curls with a towel = instant frizz; terrycloth is simply too rough on the strands. Get cheap 100% cotton T-shirts and use those instead to dry hair without roughing up the cuticle. Another great option is a microfiber towel or turban – made of super-absorbent fabric that soaks up excess water – to reduce frizz by not disturbing the cuticle and speeding up drying time.
Give Brushes the Boot
Brushes and bristles are not good curl companions unless you’re intentionally going for a floating, diaphanous texture. Brushes break up natural curl patterns and cause frizz. Instead, reach for a wide tooth comb to smooth out snags, and make it easier by dividing your hair into sections first.
Detangling doesn’t have to be battle: The trick is to comb from the bottom up instead of pulling them down the hair shaft and causing breakage and split ends. It’s faster, and less stressful to hair so you’ll lose less of it.
Ultimately, your fingers are your best detangling tool. Be gentle, and be patient.
Heat from hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons or hot rollers can leave hair dry, damaged, and more frizz-prone. Try to keep the use of hot tools to a minimum, and take precautions when you do. Read all about safe heat styling here. Always use a protectant first such as Hairstory Dressed Up. Much less risky is diffusing hair on the cool setting to boost shine and minimize frizz. Try it with your head flipped over and scrunch at the same time to create bounce and volume.
Try to keep the use of hot tools to a minimum, and take precautions when you do.
But when it comes to natural-looking curl, those ringlets tend to form more easily when air-dried.
To minimize exposure to heat tools, pick your straight days wisely so rain or snow doesn’t ruin your hard work, and always use protection (see above). And try not to keep reapplying heat on subsequent days to prevent more damage.
Moisture: A Must
Some people with thicker, tighter curls swear by the LOC method – which stands for leave-in conditioner, oil, and cream – layered onto damp hair to help protect, moisturize and soften.
After toweling (or teeing) hair, add a bit of leave-in conditioner. Then use a few drops of oil – argan, coconut, shea, walnut, hazelnut, monoi – to keep it hydrated. Or, use a product that conditions, is made with essential oils, and comes in a cream form, such as Hairstory Hair Balm, which our curly clients can’t live without.
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.”
Always apply your products when your hair is wet to efficiently distribute them and lead to less frizz later – those oils form a barrier that keeps water in (just like moisturizing your body right after a shower.) Rub products all over your hands as you would when using hand lotion so that when you run your fingers through your curls you’ll get an even coating.
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 really 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.”
A neat trick is to add about 10 pumps of leave-in conditioner (again, Hair Balm is a perfect choice) to a spray bottle filled with a cup of water, Shake really well and spritz whenever you need moisture or want to quickly reactivate or scrunch your curl.
Hair steaming can dramatically change the appearance of your curls and the health of your hair by bathing hair in moisture and working to open the cuticle to allow products to better penetrate when you apply them. Another option is to use a wet t-shirt warmed in the microwave. Do either for about 20 to 30 minutes to get the job done.
Look, Don’t Touch
The more you fiddle with and tousle your hair during the day, the more frizz you’re going to get, and the more oily it’ll get. Touch up mid-day by moistening broken curls and reshaping them around your finger.
Make sure to protect hair year-round with hats and scarves – channel your inner Garbo.
Sun or UV light can stress cuticles and lead to drying and breakage. Studies show that hair exposed for 200 hours starts showing signs of damage. Make sure to protect hair year-round with hats and scarves – channel your inner Garbo. Wearing wool? Look for caps lined with silk or put on a scarf first.
On the Edge
Hair styling products are your best friend. Wax or pomade is a great way of defining the perimeter of a hairstyle to make the baby hairs and fuzzy bits take form. Try Hairstory Wax, and to get really detailed, use a toothbrush to smooth it onto hair. Warming it keeps it workable longer, and a little dab will do.
One of the easiest ways to boost hydration is leaving conditioner in overnight. Wrap your hair in a silk scarf or a satin-lined cap to keep your pillowcases clean, and settle in for sweet (and softening) dreams. If your hair feels weighed down in the morning, just rinse. If not, go ahead and style knowing hair won’t dry out.
Before you go to bed, do the ‘pineapple:’ Take all of your hair and pile it on top of your head, and secure it in a really high pony, but not too tight; scrunchies work best.
When sleeping, wear your scarf or cap, or use a satin pillowcase for less tangling, frizz, breakage, and fuss the next day. Remember to wash your head coverings and pillowcases weekly to avoid product buildup, dead skin, and detritus that makes the silkiness less effective.
Making the Cut
Regular trims are key. Ask your hairstylist to cut your hair dry – not wet – to see exactly where each curl falls. It takes out all of the guesswork.
When considering a change in the color department, hairdresser Jennifer Covington-Bowers recommends the ‘low and slow process,’ or using the use the lowest volume developer and lightener combination for the best results that will also maintain the integrity of your hair. In other words, the change from dark to light should happen gradually; you may not be able to shock all your friends with the transformation, but you won’t shock your hair with chemicals either.
It’s amazing how many people with curly hair think it’s frizzy when it really isn’t. They describe it as a burden and something to get rid of. But curly hair is an expressive, organic statement against looking like everyone else. Curls may require some extra work, but they’re also extra special. Don’t succumb to spirals of self-doubt, and please, pleeeease don’t go anywhere near chemical straighteners. And if you’re finding curls occasionally nightmarish, just remember that they offer you options that straight-haired people can only dream of.
To wrap your head around the culture and challenges of Afro-centric curl, read this.