Taking care of curly hair can often feel like it takes mastering it down to a science. It's a game of trial and error where everything needs to align perfectly to get defined curls — even Marilisa Sears, a celebrity hairstylist and the artistic director at Marc Anthony agrees.
"The first rule of curl club is that the rules change…constantly," she says. "What works today may not work tomorrow or ever again." That's because curly hair is nuanced, which means it needs a special kind of TLC.
Curly hair is a spectrum that's categorized into four numeral categories (type 1 to type 4) and three subcategories (A to C). Type 1A hair type is pin-straight hair while type 4C is the tightest curl. It's also typical for one to have a combination of different curl patterns at once — be it loose waves, ringlets, or zig-zag curls.
Because curly hair requires special attention, we gathered a list of tips on how to take care of curly hair. From hacks every curl pattern can do, to specific styling advice for your hair type, keep reading for expert knowledge that will help you get beautiful, defined, and healthy curls.
1. Wash Curly Hair At Least Once a Week
"Naturally textured hair should be cleaned at least once weekly to maintain a healthy scalp and hair," says Dre Demry-Sanders, a professional hairstylist and self-proclaimed texture advocate. "The cleansing process is the most important part of any hair care routine as it provides the hair with the best and most effective source of moisture and establishes a blank slate for a styling product to work most efficiently."
"When washing, it's important to make sure your hair is completely wet before adding some of the shampoos to the palms of your hands and lather it up," adds Sears. "Get in deep with your fingertips to help shake the dirt out and if you don't have a lot of product build-up, gently massage the shampoo into the rest of the hair before rinsing to give the hair a gentle cleanse."
Curly hair is prone to dryness, which is why once a week is typically a good balance for holding on to the hair's natural oils without causing any other hair concerns. Depending on your scalp type (i.e. if you are dry or oily), you may be able to get away with washing less or more frequently. That said, a general rule of thumb to follow is to wash weekly to avoid product build-up or excessive oil production.
"Sebum is a naturally occurring oil that is secreted from the scalp to provide moisture and serve as a protective mechanism," explains Sanders. "These oils are released down the hair strand, but due to the unique patterns of naturally textured hair, these oils can get trapped at the root." She explains that the scalp microbiome also consists of yeast, and if the scalp is too oily, the yeast will feed off the trapped sebum and can trigger dandruff or dermatitis. "It's essential to reset the scalp frequently to prevent these scalp complications," she says.
2. Detangle Curly Hair Before Washing
Before cleansing the hair, it needs to be detangled. "Applying water to tangled hair will cause it to lock up," explains Sanders. You can detangle the hair just using water, but using a detangling spray will create more slip and lead to an easier process.
Sears recommends trying the Marc Anthony Strictly Curls Curl Envy Leave-in Conditioner ($10, cvs.com), which also prevents breakage and frizz.
If you have a fine hair texture with a loose curl pattern, running your fingers throughout the hair is a gentle way to detangle without causing breakage. For coarser hair textures and tighter curl patterns, Sanders recommends using a detangling brush or wide tooth comb.
3. Use the Right Shampoo for Your Hair Concerns
Styling products are necessary for curly hair. However, Sanders says many styling products are heavy and not water-soluble, which can cause product build-up. "I recommend using a clarifying shampoo for individuals who use styling products frequently," she says. The Pattern Beauty Clarifying Shampoo ($20, sephora.com) is a great affordable pick for curly hair textures. "If hair does not sud up upon first cleanse, it is a definite sign that you have product build-up, and additional cleaning is needed," she says.
That said, on the days where you don't need a deep clean, choosing a moisturizing shampoo, like the Pattern Beauty Hydration Shampoo ($20, sephora.com), is always a good choice for all curly hair types because it's typically prone to dryness.
4. Steam Your Hair
For the most defined and healthy-looking curls, moisture is everything. A hack that Sanders swears by is steaming your hair with conditioner. "The heat alters the hair's physical state," explains Sanders. The steam opens up the hair cuticle, giving more access to deeper layers of the hair strand and helps deliver the moisturizing ingredients of your conditioner to inside the hair cuticle.
5. Use Conditioner the Right Way
We're all guilty of applying conditioner and leaving it in our hair for longer than suggested in hopes of getting softer, smoother hair. However, doing so may be causing more harm than good. "Note that most of the work that a conditioner will do is done within 15 minutes," says Sanders. "After that, nothing else is happening but clogged cuticles."
Additionally, not thoroughly rinsing out your conditioner can make styling more difficult. "I know we love the soft feeling of our hair the conditioner provides, but if the conditioner is not rinsed out completely, it creates a barrier, making it challenging to absorb any styling products that may follow," explains Sanders.
Essentially, use your conditioning products as directed on the packaging, which typically is on damp hair throughout the mid-lengths and ends of the hair. "You'll know the conditioner is evenly applied with the right amount of water and absorbing into the hair cuticle if the hair feels slimy with the conditioner in it," says Sanders.
VIDEO: Shampoos That Actually Won't Dry Out Your Coils
6. Choose the Right Styling Product Based on Your Hair Type and Texture
"Knowing your curl type can help you establish what kind of styling product works best with your specific curl pattern," says Sanders. Curl type has to do with the shape and tightness of your curls, such as zig-zag, kinky curls, or s-shaped loose waves.
Tighter curl patterns require hair products that are heavy, like creams or gels, to help control shrinkage and volume. Think something like the Mielle Organics Pomegranate & Honey Twisting Soufflé ($13, target.com), which shapes the curls while conditioning them.
Loose curl types benefit more from foams and mousses, like the Ouai Air Dry Foam ($28, sephora.com) to avoid weighing down the hair.
In addition, to curl type, you need to consider hair texture. Hair texture describes the circumference of an individual hair strand. "There are three types of hair textures, fine, medium, and coarse or thick," explains Sanders. "Hair texture is important to identify in order to establish what type, how much, and the adequate application method." Fine-to-medium hair textures require lightweight formulas with less product to avoid greasy hair. "Coarse and thick textures may require heavier and larger amounts of product," explains Sanders.
7. Learn About Your Hair Porosity
"It is important to identify your hair's porosity when choosing a product to ensure the product can be adequately absorbed," says Sanders. Hair porosity describes the hair's ability to absorb water. There are three levels of porosity — low, medium, and high. "Lower porosities struggle with absorption because the flaps of the hair cuticle lay flat to the hair strand." It's best to use light products like foams and mousses to help the cuticle absorb the product.
"Higher porosities struggle with retaining moisture because the flaps of the hair cuticle stay open," explains Sanders. So, while water can be absorbed, it cannot be retained. High porosity hair requires heavier products like creams and gels to lock in that moisture once it's absorbed.
8. Always Apply Styling Products to Soaking Wet Hair
When applying a styling product to textured hair, it's best to apply the product on soaking wet hair to help define the curls and also reduce frizz — another common curly hair woe.
With your fingers or a detangling brush, work the product in evenly throughout the hair and scrunch or use the finger curl method to enhance the look of your curls. "Keep in mind scrunching activates and enhances curls, while finger coiling elongates them," says Sanders.
"For tighter hair texture, twisting them after brushing them out can give a pretty finish," adds Sears. If your hair gets dry throughout the process, continue to add water in sections.
9. Protect Your Curls Overnight
Protecting your curls while you sleep can help ensure your hard work of caring and styling your hair doesn't go to waste in one day. "For styles that require the maintenance of volume, tie up the hair at night," says Sanders. You can try a hair buff ($10, amazon.com) or the pineapple method using a silk scarf, which Sears says is the most common method used by her clients.
"Flip your hair over and very loosely tie it up high on the head (like the top of a pineapple) with a scrunchie," she says. "This is not about the firm hold, you want it loosely secured before taking a silk wrap and wrapping it around the hair. This will keep the roots from moving around as much while keeping the curls in formation."
Also, swap out your pillowcase for a satin or silk pillowcase for extra protection. "We love silk pillowcases and bonnets because the hair glides, causing less friction and frizz," says Sears. She recommends a silk pillowcase for looser curl types or a silk bonnet for tighter curls.
10. Don’t Touch Your Hair
Keep your hands out of your hair to keep the hair frizz-free and smooth. "Our fingers attract the moisture and product from our hair and create frizz," says Sanders. If you must touch your hair, wait until it's completely dry.
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