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Taking Care of Curly Hair

Many of us dream of having perfect curls—including people with naturally curly hair. This hair type is misunderstood surprisingly often and having a head of full of healthy and attractive curly, wavy, or kinky-coily hair remains a difficult but not impossible goal.

Taking care of curly hair is no small task. Achieving luscious, healthy curls, ringlets, or even shiny waves take time, energy, and yes, also money. Due to its unique structure, curly hair requires more moisture and care than the other hair types.

Do I have curly hair?

You might think that if you have curly hair, you must be aware of it. But many people who have naturally curly or wavy hair have damaged the structure due to certain styling practices and the use of hair care products that overwhelm the hair. What many people think of as hair care basics—including the way we brush our hair—must be performed slightly differently for curly hair.


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If your hair gains volume and goes frizzy in humid weather conditions or if you brush it dry, it is very likely that your hair is naturally curly or wavy. The way each strand of hair grows depends on the shape of the hair follicle just below the skin. Straight hair grows from round follicles and curly hair grows from flat, oval follicles, which curl the hair much like you can curl a length of gift-wrap ribbon by flattening one side with the edge of a scissor blade. The difference between the two sides causes the hair to curl. Curly hair is inherently drier because the scalp’s natural oils do not distribute evenly throughout the hair as they do in straighter hair, and the twists and turns weaken the outer layer of the hair strand—the cuticle—making curly more brittle as well.

Changing your hair care routine may reveal that you have natural curls or return a more natural curl pattern to your existing curls.


Taking care of curly hair properly might mean relearning some haircare basics.

What is my curl type?

When choosing products and deciding on a haircare routine it is helpful to know your curl type. Curly hair is generally classified into three types from largest to smallest curl or ringlet:

  • 2—wavy
  • 3—curly
  • 4—coily

Each of these types also has 3 subtypes (A, B, C) and each subtype can be fine, medium-textured, or thick and coarse. Hair type can be determined by looking at individual strands of hair.

Type 2A is almost straight with relaxed waves showing up in the texture; 2B falls in loose “beach hair” waves, and 2C has defined waves in the structure.

Type 3 has more clearly defined curls, and the hair is bouncier than type 2. A type 3A curl is sometimes likened to a loose spiral, type 3B is more like a corkscrew, and type 3C curls are about the diameter of a pen.

Type 4 hair is described as coily. The curls are extremely small, tight, and bouncy. Long hair appears much shorter than it is because the coils “bounce back” to the head.

To make things more fun, one person can have various types of hair at the same time.

About the frizz 

For people with naturally smooth straight hair, frizziness is a common sign of damage. For curly hair, frizz is normal—a side-effect of the natural curl pattern of each strand of hair.

A curl pattern is the way in which a hair spirals. Curl patterns and curling directions can vary in different places on your head, for example your hair may curl in opposite directions on either side of your face.

As curly hair is dry and delicate by nature, once the hair’s natural curl pattern is disrupted, it is likely to appear frizzy. Both internal factors, such as hormone levels, and external factors, such as humidity, hair brushing, and sleeping or pressing your head against something, can disrupt the way waves, curls, and ringlets behave.

In curly hair, frizziness means that the hair needs moisture—not that it is damaged or unkempt. Type 4 curly hair will feel rough because of the back-and-forth spiralling, even when well moisturized. Ironically, humidity makes frizziness worse because hair absorbs moisture from the air causing the overlapping cuticle scales of curly hair to swell and rise instead of lying flat and also because the temporary hydrogen bonds, which attract curls to each other and which we destroy when we straighten hair, are more abundant in humid conditions.

For much of American history, natural Afro-textured hair was seen as unkempt or even dirty. Criticism of kinky hair was used to promote discrimination at work, in school, and elsewhere. This inherently racist practice is now being fought with laws that prohibit discrimination against employees based on cultural characteristics linked to race or ethnicity.

Natural black hair emerged as a civil rights issue in the 1960s and it is only now that “natural hair” is gaining mainstream acceptance. Black women and men have felt a great deal of social pressure to conform to white conceptions of beauty, which often meant using curl relaxers or straightening irons on their hair to make it look more European. The greater American black community is now embracing natural hair that is worn free or in a traditional style, such as cornrow braids.


Most important dos and don’ts

Each person’s hair is unique, and curly hair can sometimes seem like it has a mind of its own, but there are some universal truths that apply to curly hair in general and that should be taken into account when creating your personal hair care routine.

Don’t brush your hair when it is dry. This goes against common wisdom for hair care as hair is at its most vulnerable when wet. However, if your hair is curly, it is also drier and more brittle than straight hair. Moisture makes the hair more flexible and easier to detangle/section. Use a moisturizing conditioner or a detangling product in your hair to make it easier to brush.

Do use curly-hair-friendly combs and brushes—wide-toothed combs, detangling brushes, the “Denman brush” and others. Use your fingers to ease your brushing routine or finger brush entirely to avoid unnecessary breakage.

Do start brushing from the ends. Detangle the last few centimetres first and then slowly move up in small sections, detangling as you go.

Do detangle your hair as you are applying haircare products. If you wash your curls as they are with all the tangles and knots, the products you use simply won’t be able to reach all parts of your hair evenly and won’t work as intended.

Do moisturize every time you wash. Use either a moisturizing conditioner or a hair mask.

Don’t wash your hair every day. Let the hair rest for a few days so it retains the natural oils for longer.

Don’t worry about following instructions. Most conditioners and masks suggest a time limit, for example, “leave in for 3–5 minutes”. That is simply not enough for curly hair. Unless you are using a very specific and toxic product there is no need to worry. Leave the conditioning agent in your hair for at least 10 minutes, even up to 40 minutes or an hour.

Don’t use products with silicones and sulfates unless you know for sure they work well for your hair. Products created specifically for curly hair tend not to contain these ingredients, but you can also just read through the ingredient list of other products.

Occlusive silicones create a barrier around the hair strand that keeps moisture out and builds up over time. Sulfates strip hair of its natural oils, leaving it drier and more vulnerable to outside factors.

Don’t use excessive heat on your hair. Whenever possible, let your hair air dry after washing. If that is too time consuming, blow dry on low heat using a diffuser attachment for multi-directional air flow to separate the curls.

Don’t use a regular towel to dry your hair. A microfiber towel or a good old cotton T-shirt are great options for curly hair.

Do choose a hair salon that specializes in curly/natural hair for cutting and colouring if there is one in your area.

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The Curly Girl Method

The “curly girl method” is a famous hair care routine developed for curly hair. It requires specific steps and dedication. Extensive guidelines can be found online but most people will use the CGM for inspiration and tweak the process for their own hair type and shape. The most important ideas include:

  • Wash your hair with a shampoo containing sulfates one last time to remove as much product build-up as possible.
  • Going forward, stop using hair products that contain sulfates, silicones, waxes, mineral oils, or alcohol.
  • Focus on conditioning your hair. Try ‘co-washing’ or not using shampoo at all sometimes (or generally).
  • Practice scrunching and plopping, and finger style your curls.

Scrunching

Scrunching is an easy, yet essential, haircare technique for curly hair

Starting anywhere, choose a section of hair, cup the ends in your hand, lift towards the head, and squeeze gently. Repeat throughout your hair. You can scrunch bending forwards or to the side to achieve all-round volume. You can also scrunch using a towel or T-shirt to dry your hair more quickly.

Scrunch wet hair when shampooing and applying conditioner. Scrunch when applying styling products as your hair dries. Scrunching enhances natural texture and gives more definition and bounce to the hair.

Plopping

Plopping is a method of drying the hair in a microfiber towel or T-shirt without rubbing and wringing, which can do damage. Plopping is similar to scrunching in that the hair is pushed gently up towards the scalp. Lay the towel flat, bend down placing your wet hair into the cloth. Then bring the cloth up, wrap it around your head, and secure it like you would any other towel when drying your hair.

Styling

There are many products for protecting and styling curly hair, including mousses, oils, gels, and other innovative substances.

DIY options are also available: for example, natural flax seed gel is something you can easily make at home. Another inexpensive haircare go-to is keeping a spray bottle of water to use when styling or in the mornings to refresh your curls.

Use styling products in wet or moist hair. If your hair feels stiff after applying the product, you can try scrunching it once it’s dry—cup the ends of your hair in your hand, lift, and squeeze gently.

Some people recommend finger styling (or finger coiling) curly hair—whenever washing or drying, separate and wrap the curl gently around your fingers before releasing. Your curls can also be "trained" this way if rolled onto the handle of a brush or comb when wet and then gently released. This can be very effective way of creating the shape you want, but it is also time consuming, as are most aspects of caring for curly hair.

Sleeping

There are several practices you can adopt to protect your curls at nighttime.

  • Do “the pineapple”—make a loose bun or ponytail at the very top of your head using a scrunchy. This way fewer curls will be crushed between you and your pillow while you sleep.
  • Braid your hair in loose braids before bed.
  • Use silk or satin pillowcases that are gentle on your hair as you sleep.
  • Try a sleeping bonnet or cap to protect your hair at night. It may seem outdated but if it works, it works.


Be patient. It can take weeks or even months for your hair to adapt to new methods.

Regardless of the techniques you try, caring for curly hair is an ongoing journey. And when it finally looks good, it probably won’t last forever. Hair changes, adapts to new products, life gets in the way, and you have to begin again. And that’s OK. What matters is being gentle to your hair and keeping it moisturized.

And doing the same to yourself.

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