Well, it’s the New Year and one of my resolutions is to write more. I will be kicking things off with something super self-indulgent: curl care. I get enough questions about how I get my curls to do their thing that I figured I’d put it all down in a blog. Curls can be confounding, infuriating and downright expensive high maintenance. But once she finds the secret, every curly girl loves the personality and pizazz her curls bring.
I’ll begin with the disclaimers. All the tips we’ll get to are the ones that work for my curls. There’s a lot that won’t be applicable to you. However, as I share what works for me, I try to also share general principles that any curly girl can use. If there’s anything us curly-haired folk know it’s that the name of the game is trial and error, because there isn’t a single one of us who have had the same curls two days in a row. To have curls is to embrace unpredictability. Sorry, Type A’s.
Embrace Your Curl
First thing every curly girl needs to know is her curly hair type. I like the graphic below, but you can Google “curly hair type” and come up a zillion images.
Whatever your curl type is going to be is determined by two things: genetics and hormones. You either have curly hair or you don’t. If you’re a 2A, you’re not going to be a 3A or vice versa without a lot of chemicals, products and a team at the salon. Embrace your curl type, never fight it! It’s part of who you are and it’s beautiful.
I looked like Shirley Temple when I was a little girl, and as I grew up, I grew my hair out and the ringlets stayed but got softer. When I got to high school, I started to straighten my hair meticulously every single day. Blame the early 00s and peer pressure. This didn’t change until after I graduated college when I came across a quote by Diane von Furstenberg. I don’t really follow fashion, and wasn’t super familiar with her work. But when her I stumbled across a picture of her in a magazine and what she said about her hair, things changed for me.
“All the other girls had long, blond, straight hair, and mine was unmanageable, especially with the constant Brussels rain,” she writes. “I spent long hours ironing it and avoiding humidity.
“My hair was long and straight, and I felt beautiful,” she recalls. “After we finished [a photo shoot with photographer Ara Gallant], he took a water sprayer and started wetting my hair. “What are you doing?” I screamed. I was horrified. Ara was smiling, reassuring me that we already had the cover but insisting he wanted to try something else.
“I surrendered and posed for another twenty minutes while my wet hair was drying, naturally revealing its curls. A few days later he proudly proposed to the magazine two cover trials: one with straight hair and another one much wilder with my wet, curly hair. The wild one won with enthusiasm, and since that day I have worn my hair the way nature intended. I realized curly hair was who I was. Whether I liked it or not, I had to own it. Like a rite of passage, this acceptance of myself changed my life!” – Diane von Furstenberg, Interview with Phaidon
What resonated with me strongly was how wild and imperfect her curls were, and how she said embracing them was a part of embracing who she was. She inspired me. I figured if she, a world-renowned fashion designer, could embrace her unruly locks and herself, it was high time I did as well. Once I did, my curls became my signature, and I slowly grew to love that they made me unique.
After I had my second child, I actually lost my curls for a while. I joked it was my hair’s vengeance for all those years of straightening the daylights out of them. I was truly sad, but I adjusted. I invested in a hair wand and at least kept my hair wavy. Turns out, losing my curls was partially caused by hormonal changes from low functioning thyroid. After diagnosing and treating with some prescribed supplements, my curls ended up coming back better than ever.
“I realized curly hair was who I was. Whether I liked it or not, I had to own it. Like a rite of passage, this acceptance of myself changed my life!”Diane von Furstenberg
My Curl Routine
Most of my tips and tricks with curls came from my salon stylist, with a very few from other curly girls. Your stylist is going to know your hair best, so I recommend tapping into their professional wisdom whenever you’re in their chair. You’re probably sitting in it for like an hour and half, let’s be honest, so there’s lots of time to ask questions.
The cardinal rule for all curl types is this: curls need moisture! This means that the products, washing routine and styling techniques you use keep your curls moisturized above all. Let’s dig into my routine. FYI, my curly hair type is 3A, it’s very thick and heavy though fine, and doesn’t get oily or greasy easily. This means I need highly moisturizing products used as infrequently as possible that have a strong hold to keep my curls in place.
My stylist’s advice was to shampoo my hair no more than once a week. Seriously. When he first said it, I did an internal “ew gross”, but turns out he was right. Shampoo strips the hair of its natural oils, which are the best moisturizer. This has to balanced of course if your hair is naturally more oily or dry.
I stick with shampooing and conditioning my hair about every 4 days. If my curls get unruly, frizzy and ratty before then, I’ll rinse and condition-only to get a refresh. In order to give the conditioner time to set, I usually wash and condition first thing, and then wash everything else, rinsing it out at the very end of a shower.
The shampoo and conditioner I currently use, pictured above, is available on Amazon and I recently found it at Walmart as well. I like the scent (it’s not overpowering or chemical-smelling), and it is probably one of the best I’ve used for really keeping my hair moisturized.
STYLING PRODUCTS |
There are literally an infinite number of styling products available for curls, a fact of which every curly girl is painfully aware. It can feel impossible to find the one that will work without forking over a small fortune. Again, this is where your stylist is your friend! Mine recommended a product called Unite Curl Cream, and it is miraculous. It smells amazing, and gives a good strong hold that leaves my curls soft instead of crunchy (IYKYK).
When I first embraced my curls, I used the Treseme curl mousse and shampooed my hair every other day. I liked that it gave good strong hold and prevented frizz. After I lost my curls and was desperately trying to get them back, mouse was out and curl creams were in, much to my chagrin. I went through several creams, shampoos and even a hair mask that all bombed (see the graveyard below). These products either didn’t hold the curl or smelled absolutely overpowering.
STYLING TECHNIQUE |
Because of the level of moisture and the nature of the texture, curls can take a really really really long time to dry. The temptation can be to towel scrunch it until slightly damp or even use a diffuser so you can get out the door without looking like a drowned sewer rat.
If the first cardinal rule of curls is moisturize, the second is touch them as little as possible. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way time and time again – let your curls be!
DRYING | After I shower, I scrunch my hair to squeeze as much water out as possible, sometimes using my bath towel a little bit. I’ll choose a part in my hair, and then scrunch in a half-palm sized amount of the Unite curl cream. I use my bath towel to scrunch a bit more of the water out, and then let it air dry the rest of the way. If I have plans, I make sure to wash and style my hair about an hour before leaving the house so it’s mostly dry before leaving. There are days where I wash and immediately have to go, but I remember the drowned sewer rat look is very short lived, and the less I fool with my curls the better. Pro tip: Use a cotton T shirt to scrunch hair instead of a towel to prevent frizz. I’ll occasionally steal one of my husband’s old undershirts for this.
A note on diffusers: I don’t use a diffuser because even though it dries my hair quickly, it ruins my curls. Talk to your stylist about whether it’s a good idea or not for you to diffuse. Likely, you’ll need to use low heat and low intensity to take some of the wet out and keeping your curls intact.
IN-BETWEEN WASHES | My curls can usually last 2-3 days and still look decent. I use a loose shower cap to keep them dry in the shower, and use hair clips instead of hair ties if I need to get them out of my face for a bit. This keeps them fresher longer. I will on occasion comb my hair with a wide-tooth comb before I wash it to prevent breakage and get the loose hairs out. If my hair looks horrible and I don’t have time for a wash, a quick french or dutch braid tied back into a side bun gives me an easy, elegant look for Church or other event.
REFRESHING CURLS | Some women can get away with using a tiny curling iron to touch up a few pieces and make their curls look fresher longer. For my hair, heat actually makes my hair go wavy or straight, so this doesn’t work in my case. Rinsing, conditioning and reapplying my curl cream is the only thing that brings my curls back. I’ve never tried dry shampoo with curls, but knowing how it works with straight hair, it just seems like it would be a bad idea.
SLEEPING | At this point, I’m pretty sure I sound like the makeover montage scenes in Memoirs of a Geisha. But sleeping on curls can be the easiest way to wake up with a ball of frizz on top your head. A simple remedy to extend the life of your curls is to use a satin pillow case, or even lightly wrap your hair in a satin sleep cap if your curls are super tight.
Love – Hate
I think “love-hate” describes most women’s relationship with their curls pretty accurately. They constantly change depending on the season, humidity level, whether you straightened your hair yesterday, if you slept weird, or you have hormone changes. One of the most frustrating parts of having curls is that you will never get the same set of curls after a wash. But that’s also an invitation, if you choose to see it this way, to learn from the variety, to embrace and love the unpredictability and celebrate it as what makes you uniquely you.
My Visual Hair Diary
A quick visual showing how my hair changed from when I first embraced my curls, lost them, and got them back. Pictures are in chronological order, left to right, top to bottom.