If you are a curly haired sheep in a family of waves or pins, you’ll remember how your mother dragged a brush through your curls as you sat in front of her squirming. Mom would tear through your hair like it was an unruly brier patch that needed taming, creating a frizzy mess before throwing up her hands in frustration and quarantining it in a ponytail.
Curly and natural hair needs wildly different care than straight hair. If you’ve been treating your hair to a daily shampoo and conditioner, then your hair is likely frizzy, brittle, and unhealthy. In order to bring it back to its gloriously bouncy self, you’ll need to take several steps.
It’s going to get greasy before it gets better
Curly hair and shampoo do not get along. Every time you lather up, you’re stripping needed moisture and oils from your curls, leaving them stretched and dull. So what should you do?
1) Stop shampooing so often. If you have fine hair, shampoo every other day. If you have thick hair, you can go three to four days without shampooing. But your hair is used to being attacked daily with a stripping shampoo, then it’s gotten used to protecting itself by producing massive amounts of oils. So it’s going to take it a while to get the memo that it doesn’t have to produce enough grease to supply a restaurant chain. Unfortunately, that memo is going to take two weeks to be delivered. Which is why the quarantine is the perfect time to take the leap of being an grease monkey without people judging you.
2) And switch your shampoo. The best way to wash curly hair is with a 100 percent sulfate-free shampoo. Sodium lauryl sulfate, the stuff that makes shampoo sudsy, is a salt and a detergent. And exhaustively enough, it seems to be in every shampoo bottle you pick up at the store. But if you search sulfate free shampoo, you’ll find several high quality and affordable shampoos for your needs. I use Aveeno Pure Renewal Shampoo or Pantene Pro-V Gold Series Sulfate-Free Shampoo because I have naturally oily hair, but you might want to try SheaMoisture Raw Shea Butter Moisture Retention Shampoo if you have very dry hair. Some hair types find that no shampoo at all, ever is best. Transitioning to sulfate-free before going to no shampoo after a month or two is also an option for people who don’t want to take a sudden plunge.
Section your hair
Think about all the shampoo and conditioner commercials you’ve seen that involve a beautiful model. She steps into the water, pours a generous portion of the product into her hand or directly onto her hair, and then in a parody of ecstasy, rubs, scrubs, swirls, and repeatedly piles her hair on her head.
This is terrible and you should not torture your hair like this. Hair is more delicate when it is wet, and needs you to be more gentle with it. Divide your hair into at least four sections (the thicker it is, the more sections you need) and clip them all out of the way except one. Apply a small amount of shampoo to the scalp above this piece only and rub with your finger tips to remove dirt, oils, and debris. Then, gently squeeze down the length. Move that section to the side, select another, and repeat until all sections are finished. Then, starting at the first one, rinse in the same sequence. Start at the scalp and gently squeeze out the suds from top to bottom. This sounds like a lot of time, but hey, that conference call doesn’t start for another two hours, so do this instead of rewatching Gilmore Girls on Netflix again.
Conditioner is your god now
The curlier the hair, the longer it takes for natural oils to travel from the scalp to the ends, which causes the lower half to appear dry and frazzled if not kept moist. This is why conditioner is essential. After shampooing, apply a conditioner. Choose a formula that answers the needs of your hair. If it’s dry, pick a moisturizing formula that contains humectants like glycol, glycerin or good quality oils. If it’s weak and fragile, you’ll need a conditioner that adds proteins like silk amino acids, or keratin to restore strength.
Apply your conditioner the exact same way you did the shampoo, in sections. Use your fingers as combs to distribute the conditioner evenly. Conditioner needs time to work its magic so place your hair under a plastic cap for 10 minutes, or cover it with a towel for 20 minutes and let your body heat do the work.
If you’re using a moisturizing conditioner, and your hair is the type to have absorbed most of it, you may not need to rinse. But if you’re using a protein conditioner, rinsing is absolutely essential. Leaving in a protein conditioner causes your hair to become brittle and leads to breakage.
Don’t you dare touch that brush
Brushes and straight hair are reluctant allies. Brushes and curly hair are arch enemies. Close set bristles tear through curls, disturb their natural formations, and end up creating a cloud of damaged frizz.
Only combs should touch curly hair, and even then, fingers should be your first choice to detangle knots and you should comb no more often than you shampoo/cowash. For people with very tight curls like type 4, you should never use a brush or comb, use your fingers instead. Some people may disagree because this method takes so long with 4C hair, but natural hair expert Tabitha Tongoi of naturallycurly.com recommends it. Once a month, she binges Netflix during the five hours it takes to finger comb her hair.
Combing and finger brushing should only take place in the shower when your hair is so drenched in conditioner that your soul is getting moisturized. Your hair should still be sectioned, so take one section, and starting at the bottom, use your fingers or comb to gently detangle two to three inches at a time. Slowly work your way up, and if you encounter a particularly hard knot, don’t force it, add more conditioner and continue to slowly work on it. You hair should feel slimy, if not, add more conditioner.
Use style products before you towel
Applying styling products while your hair is still wet prevents stiff, sticky feeling hair. For gels, mousse, and creams, apply to your fingers and then run them through your hair from roots to tips, then scrunch and squeeze upward toward the scalp. Spray products are not recommended because it can contain ethanol which drys out your hair, or build up between washings causing dandruff like particles to flake off.
Avoid ethanol in any products as it gives a crunchy feel to hair and causes it to dry out and become brittle.
Silicone should generally be avoided, though there are exceptions. Silicones generally end in -cone, -conol, -col, or -xane. Silicones that are not soluble in water, will consistently build up on the hair and will require a surfactant-based shampoo to remove, which is bad news bears for curly hair. Silicones that are soluble in water and can generally be considered safe to use will have “PEG” or “PPG” in front of them. Silicones that are water soluble but don’t have PEG or PPG are Dimethicone Copolyol, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein Hydroxypropyl Polysiloxane, and Lauryl Methicone Copolyol.
No more regular towels
Most towels, even if they are 100% Egyptian cotton, will rough up the cuticle, which leads to frizz and split ends. The secret is to avoid friction. Gently blot your hair with a microfiber cloth or a very soft cotton t-shirt. Better yet, learn about plopping.
Most of us learned to dry hair by twisting it in a towel and creating a little hat on our head. But by doing this, you’re stretching your curls, making them limp, and damaging the cuticle, making it frizzy. So only plop.
And even though you’re not leaving the house right now, when you do, you should avoid hair contact with coarse winter scarves, sweaters, and coats. Look for silk or satin lined hats and hoods. Speaking of silk and satin . . .
Ditch the cotton for silk or satin
Cotton pillowcases, even those expensive cotton pillowcases you got gifted for your wedding, soak up moisture from your hair, causing frizz. Cotton fibers also tug on hair as you toss and turn, which can lead to breakage, says award-winning cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. A silk or high quality satin pillowcase cuts down on friction and keeps things smooth. Bonus points: Switching to silk or satin is also more gentle on your skin, causing less wrinkles.
Don’t use heat
Heat alters proteins, and protein is what gives your curls their shape. Ideally, you should never use a blow dryer, but if you absolutely must, use a diffuser. A regular nozzle disrupts the curl pattern and focuses hot air on one small section at a time, while a diffuser dries curls evenly for a full, uniform look. After applying a heat-protecting product, flip your head upside down and diffuse right from the roots to midlength. When your hair is just about dry, hit the cool button on your dryer so your hair isn’t left baking. Do the ends last, and leave them semi-wet because the ends tend to be more damaged, and adding more heat will only cause further damage. But honestly, why are you drying your hair at this time? It’s not like you have to run to yoga class.
Flat irons are another big no-no, but again, if you must, invest in high quality tools. Look for ones containing ionic properties, made with tourmaline or ceramic. Always apply a heat protection product prior to styling and never go higher than 400 degrees.
Always get a dry cut
And finally, never take up your stylist when she offers to wet and clean your hair before your cut. Curly dry hair and curly wet hair are two absolutely different things. Curls retract significantly when dry; some pieces may coil tightly, while others hang a bit looser. A dry cut won’t spring any surprises—you’ll know exactly how every strand will fall. Plus, you have no idea the ingredients of the salon’s shampoo. It’s best to get a hair stylist who is an expert in curly hair. Ask around, look at reviews, and call the stylist before you go. Some stylists have no idea what to do with curly and natural hair, so they make suggestions that are harmful or damaging from ignorance.
So now that you know the secrets to keeping your hair healthy and happy, go forth and make the world drip with envy at the sight of your bouncing tresses.
Have questions? Leave a comment and we’ll try to answer all your curly hair questions!