Oh the blessing and curse of having curly hair. I didn't learn how to deal with my naturally curly hair properly until my early 20's, and made a lot of mistakes along the way. As a child I brushed my hair like I thought I was supposed to, which resulted in a constant halo of fluff. As an adolescent, I tried to tame my curl fluff with every gel and pomade I could find. The result = slicked down yet still fluffy ugly mess. By college I was drying my hair in pigtails (works OK, turns into flat waves), or on occasion I would straighten it into a straw-like triangle. Finally a curly haired coworker set me straight, and my first visit to a curly haired salon changed everything. I haven't touched a curling iron or dried my hair in pigtails since.
It makes me sad when I see someone with naturally curly hair straightening every day - everyone can have an awesome hair day with a little care and know-how! Luckily with books like Curly Girl and curly salons popping up everywhere, there is far more information out there for us curly haired folks. This instructable toplines some basic routines of caring for curly hair (many of which are helpful for straight hair too!), and I hope it will save some of you out there from making the same mistakes that I did!
Step 1: Choosing the Best Products for Curly Hair
OK, get ready for a little chemistry. Learning about curly hair care products can send you down a rabbit hole of information, so I'm just going to highlight the major points here with links to further reading if you'd like to learn more. The basics are that most common hair care products are damaging to curly hair.
The majority of shampoos contain detergents which strip hair of moisture, and the majority of conditioners coat the hair rather than infuse it which leads to build up, thus creating a harsh cycle which leaves hair dry and unhealthy. This is especially true for curly hair as it is already prone to dryness! The good news is that there are also lots of great products that will leave it hydrated and healthy. My personal favorite is the DevaCurl line, but try what's out there and find what works best for you.
Most shampoos use harsh sulfates/surfactants (i.e. foaming detergents) to 'clean' the hair (detergent actually has little to do with cleaning, it is mostly added because people think it is what does the cleaning). These are the same detergents used in dish soap, and strip your hair of its natural oils and moisture. While it might feel good to have all that foaming action in your hair, it's a recipe for frizz. There are many products on the market with either mild to no sulfates in them. If you swim in chlorine often or have a tendency towards greasy hair, using a mild sulfate shampoo may work for you. For those with normal to drier hair, using a sulfate free shampoo, or even no shampoo at all (see step 4) will do wonders. Here is a list of harsh and gentle sulfates to look for on product labels, and a list of sulfate free shampoos (thank you to the original creator of this list, the url has since been put up for sale so I turned it into a google doc). Finding a sulfate free shampoo is a little difficult in normal drugstores, so you may need to go to a health food or beauty supply store.
Most conditioners are silicone based (look for -cone, -conol, or -xane on the ingredients list). Silicone coats the hair, and is used to condition, add shine and detangle. It feels great, but the problem that it coats the hair rather than infuses it, and it is in most cases not water soluble. Hence the harsh detergents found in shampoo, as they are needed to dissolve the buildup of silicone left on the hair shaft. For those on a low to no sulfate shampoo regimen, it is essential to choose a conditioner with no silicone based ingredients. This will leave your hair truly hydrated rather than coated with an inorganic, non-water soluble compound, which over time will seal out moisture rather than provide it. The good news is that unlike sulfate free shampoos, it is actually quite easy to find silicone free conditioners in drugstores. Scroll down for the list of silicone-free conditioners.
Similar to conditioners, many supposed frizz taming serums, gels, cremes and mousses also contain silicone or wax, both of which will cause build up over time, and won't hydrate your hair. I find that leaving in most of my normal conditioner is all I need, however those wanting more defined and lasting curls may want to use more product. Scroll even further down for the list of silicone-free stylers.
Hair is comprised of around 90% protein. As such proteins are often found in hair care treatments, claiming to strengthen and moisturize brittle hair. For those with badly damaged, dry and chemically treated hair, this can be true. However some people have a bad reaction to proteins, and it can have the opposite of the intended effect, especially those who's hair is already in pretty good condition. As a result, protein often gets a bad name in the curly hair community, but for those whose hair is not protein averse, it can be a very important additive in your hair care regime. I would recommend testing out a protein treatment on your hair (with a generous amount of silicone free conditioner afterwards), and see how it affects your hair. Integrate or avoid accordingly. Here is a little more reading on why it works for some and not for others, plus more chemistry!
Step 2: Prepping, Washing and Drying Curly Hair
Here I will top line the basics of the "curly girl" method. If you are already familiar with this method, then you can tell from my photos that I do not pay attention to all of the guidelines (gasp, I'm using a towel to dry my hair!). While things vary across hair types, the basic principles of keeping the hair hydrated, allowing it to form curls naturally, and being gentle when drying I think benefit all curly hair types.
The basics of the curly girl method, mixed with what I actually do:
1) Prep your hair: To start your curly girl hair care regime, if you are abandoning your silicone including conditioners for the first time, you will want to shampoo with a sulfate containing shampoo to thoroughly remove any residue on the hair, followed by a silicone free conditioner.
2) Standard wash: Wash your hair with either a very mild sulfate free shampoo (I use no-poo), or no shampoo at all (see the next step!). Massage your scalp well, as this is what does the majority of the cleaning, and releases natural oils that keep your hair healthy. Follow with a silicone free conditioner, starting a couple inches from your roots and focusing on the lower half of your hair, as it is the driest. At this point I finger comb my hair to untangle and distribute the conditioner. I leave my conditioner in, and at the end of my shower I rinse my roots only, as I like soft curls so the conditioner acts as my primary styling product. If you prefer more firm hold, you may want to wash out more of your conditioner in favor of stronger styling products, this is all personal preference. A blast of cold water at the end of your shower reduces frizz and makes it shiny, but I generally skip this step because I like warm water too much ;P
3) Post shower: DON'T COMB YOUR HAIR. With your hair still sopping wet, flip your head upside down and start scrunching your curls to help them define themselves, squeezing out water gently with your hands as you go. While your hair is still pretty wet, scrunch in silicone free product of your choice. On an average day I just use a little more conditioner on my ends and leave it at that. If I want my curls to last longer, I will add a small amount of gel. But again, choice of products is very subject to desire for softer curls vs defined curls, and hair type.
4) Drying: Once your hair has product and the curls are defined, GENTLY press water out with a microfiber towel or cloth as you scrunch the curls. The curly girl method strongly discourages using regular towels, as the rough fibers can catch on your freshly formed curls and make hair frizzy. However you can see in my photos that I don't usually pay attention this step. For me I find that the most important thing is to apply as little friction as possible when patting it dry. Doing anything akin to rubbing your hair with any kind of cloth will ruin all the curls you just formed and end in a frizzy disaster! I generally air dry my hair, but to dry your hair faster you can plop your hair (see step 4), or dry on low heat with a diffuser.
5) Maintenance: I only wash my hair twice a week, and can generally refresh my curls in the morning for up to two or three days by using water on any sections of my hair that have gotten frizzy, and following with a tiny bit of product to get them spruced up. The amount of washing and styling maintenance will vary greatly by hair type.
Also important is to get a great stylist who understands curly hair, and trim your hair at least twice a year for optimal health.
Step 3: The No-poo Method and Co-washing Curly Hair
I mentioned this in the last step in passing, but wanted to go into more detail here. As described in the last step, massaging the scalp encourages the release of natural oils and does the majority of the cleaning, so many curly haired folks prefer to take shampoo out of the equation altogether.
No-poo Method: Not to be confused with no-poo the product, the no-poo method actually refers to not using shampoo at all. If left to its own devices, hair will balance out the level of oil it secretes. However with the advent of harsher shampoos, our scalp secretes more oil to compensate, creating a cycle of dependency. The theory behind taking shampoo out of the equation altogether is to return to that healthy balance. This takes a little time and dedication, as for the first month or two your hair will still secrete more oil than it needs, however over time it will normalize to a healthy state.
Lo-poo Method: This is the use of a very gentle shampoo with little to no detergent. This is the route I've gone.
Co-washing: This refers to using a little bit of conditioner instead of shampoo to massage and clean the hair. Basically the same idea as the no-poo method, except instead of massaging without product at the beginning of your shower, you massage with some conditioner. For super dry hair, this is the most moisturizing of the methods.
If you are used to using normal shampoos, cutting it out entirely might seem like a crazy idea. But I must say that of the people I know who have cut out shampoo have nothing but good things to say, and their hair looks and feels great!
Step 4: Plopping or Plunking to Dry Curly Hair
This is basically a glorified way of wrapping your hair in a towel, except without the frizz causing towel, and taking care to create a nice "plop" of curls before wrapping it up to give them good shape. It is a great way to speed the drying time of your hair, and when I've tried it my curls were a little tighter and springier, although not all that differently from air drying. Wikihow has a nice tutorial on it, if the above photos aren't clear enough :)
Step 5: Giving Curly Hair Extra Volume
My standard method of drying my hair is to air dry, and for a little lift I will flip my head upside down periodically during the drying process and use my hands to gently shake the curls from the roots. This gives it a little volume, but when I really want my hair to look awesome, I will give it more attention.
One way to achieve this is through using clips, as shown above (this is at the salon). A second method I've used is to flip my hair upside down, and dry my roots only on low heat, making sure to use a diffuser. Both work well, just be mindful that drying with a hair dryer can create a little more frizz if you aren't careful, but it is considerably faster.
Step 6: Curly Haircuts: Wet or Dry?
The first "curly girl" cut I ever had was at Devachan in New York. Life-changing. From my understanding, deva salons are responsible for introducing the dry cut as a new way of cutting curly hair. It has gotten incredibly popular over the past ten years to the point where most major cities have salons that will offer "deva cuts". The theory behind a dry cut is that curl patterns are disrupted when wet, and the hair grows quite a bit longer from the weight of the water, so it can be easy to get surprises once it dries after a wet cut. By cutting hair dry it can better take into account natural curl patterns, and therefore allows for a more accurate cut.
Most dry cuts will follow this protocol: Cut the hair dry (it will turn into a bit of a halo, but that's OK), then wash with curl friendly products, and dry using the curly girl method (clips, then dried with diffused heat). Once fully dry again the finishing touches are given to the layers, now that they are fully styled. Generally speaking, layers are essential to a great curly hair cut as they create fullness and a nice shape.
The first time I had a deva cut was the first time I knew the potential of my hair. If you've never had one, I highly recommend trying it. It is not to say that you cannot achieve an excellent cut on wet hair, however the deeper understanding of how to style curly hair really shows - guaranteed you will leave the salon looking amazing!
Step 7: Additional Reading for Curly Hair
There is far more information out there on curly hair care, so if you want to learn more, check out some of these resources.
Curly Girl (book)
This book is a game changer in the curly hair world, and following it's advice is often referred to as the Curly Girl method. It's been talked about in all the major beauty magazines, and was written by the founder of one of the most popular curly haired salons and product lines. This is a must read for anyone interested in what you have read so far.
I find this blog very useful. It's one of the most thorough information sources out there and has an active forum.
More of a personal blog that also has forums, hair product recipes, and other interesting stuff.
Product Guide (sulfate/silicone/protein free)
Linked to in step 2, but here it is again for reference.