How to Care for Curly Hair


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Curly hair has a well-earned reputation for being one of the hardest hair types to manage and style. It's drier, affected more by humidity (or lack thereof), more prone to split ends and breakage, and trying to brush it can lead to an explosion of frizz resembling a lion's mane. That's why many with curly hair use flatirons—straight hair is just easier to deal with!

But what if you want to love your curls and put the flatiron away? It is possible! We share how to make the most of your gorgeous curls, including the best products for curly hair. Let our info help you achieve the bouncing, flowing, frizz-free curls you want—it can be done!
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Shampoos and Conditioners for Curly Hair

If you have curly hair, you've no doubt tried endless numbers of products, expensive and inexpensive. You've likely bought products labeled as being perfect for curly hair, only to end up disappointed. Will your next purchase finally be the right choice? Reality check: It won't be. How do we know this? Because there aren't any special cleansing or conditioning ingredients unique for curly hair. No one has ever washed their hair with any shampoo or conditioner labeled for curly hair and had it look any better or different than using similar hair-care products sold without the "for curly hair" designation.

As mentioned, curly hair tends to be drier and more prone to damage than other hair types (especially if it's dyed), so what you should do is use a shampoo and conditioner designed for dry or damaged hair—and stop worrying about whether or not the product is labeled for curly hair. In fact, more often than not, the "for damaged hair" and "for curly hair" products have incredibly similar formulas! The right product for your curly hair may not state that it's for curly hair!

Here's a tip you're sure to love and that perhaps will surprise you: Expensive shampoos and conditioners are a waste of money. The similarity of the formulas from all price ranges is shocking, and we're including salon and department store brands, too. We have never seen an expensive shampoo or conditioner whose formula warranted the extra cost. There are good and bad (mostly good) hair-care products in all price ranges—spending more does not guarantee you'll be any happier with your hair, be it curly or straight, dyed or not.

How Often Should Curly Hair Be Washed?

For all hair types, shampooing too frequently is hard on hair, no matter which shampoo you use. Shampooing too often just makes dry hair more dry, and the manipulation from towel-drying, brushing, and then using a blow dryer or flatiron causes more damage. Extensive research on hair shows that, without question, the less you manipulate it, the better.

To prevent dryness, concentrate your shampooing effort mostly on the scalp. After your scalp is good and clean then gently shampoo the ends of your hair. Also, lather up only once; unless you're using heavy styling products, once should be plenty to get your hair clean. Shampooing twice isn't necessary, so just ignore the common directive you see on the packaging to "lather, rinse, repeat."

Insider Tip: Why doesn't hair get sudsy with lather until the second shampooing? When hair has styling products, shine serums, or oils on it, they prevent the foaming ingredients in shampoos from becoming sudsy. The first shampooing removes this buildup, leaving the hair clean enough so that the shampoo lathers up if you go back for round two. But the fact that it lathers up just means that your hair is already clean, because the lather is not what is cleaning your hair. Give it a try; for most hair types, shampooing once is truly enough.

How to Condition Curly Hair

Apply conditioner only to the length of your hair; apply it minimally, if at all, to the new growth near the scalp. That will keep the conditioner from "greasing" up the scalp and weighing down the hair closest to it, which will result in flat hair at the scalp and puffy hair everywhere else!

Always try to keep conditioner on for as long as possible; the longer it is left on, the more moisturizing it will be. Consider using your regular rinse-out conditioner as a leave-in conditioner, too. A small amount applied from mid-length to the ends of curly hair will add an extra measure of smoothness and softness, plus help keep the frizz down—and you won't need to buy a separate leave-in conditioner.

Another conditioner tip is to sleep with your conditioner on the ends of your hair. This overnight treatment can go a long way toward ensuring the morning after is the start of a good hair day! For overnight use, you don't need a special treatment, such as a hair mask or hot oil or some type of plant oil. The ingredients in these "treatment" conditioners are merely conditioning ingredients in a more emollient base, and oils are just oils. What counts most is keeping the conditioner on as long as possible.

Styling Curly Hair

Styling curly hair is tricky, as most people with curly hair will attest! It takes experimenting to find which combination of the following suggestions works best for you, but here's what you can start doing now:

  1. After getting out of the shower, gently towel dry your hair and blot (don't rub) your hair with the towel. Rubbing wet hair with a towel causes damage that leads to frizzy hair.
  2. Avoid brushing curly hair because it will cause hair to frizz and separate due to a breaking up of the curl. Instead, use a wide-tooth plastic comb to gently detangle the hair.
  3. If your curly hair is thick and coarse, apply a silicone serum to the length of your hair before you start styling or add other styling products. Avoid the hair closest to the scalp. We like Organix Renewing Moroccan Argan Oil Extra Penetrating Oil for Dry, Coarse Hair or Nexxus Pro-Mend Smoothing Shine Serum.
  4. If your curly hair is fine and thin, then use a silicone spray and apply as little as possible to the length of your hair, again avoiding the scalp. We like John Frieda Frizz-Ease 100% Shine Glossing Mist or Smooth 'N Shine Instant Repair Spray-On Hair Polisher.
  5. If you want only minimal hold, then use lightweight styling lotions or gels. Try Paul Mitchell Hair Sculpting Lotion Styling Liquid (a classic) or DevaCurl Light Defining Gel.
  6. If you want more hold, then consider the following great styling options: Aveda Confixor Liquid Gel, Garnier Fructis Style Curl Sculpting Cream-Gel Extra Strong, or Paul Mitchell ExtraBody Thicken Up Styling Liquid.
  7. Letting your hair dry naturally is definitely less damaging, but not always practical. Use your blow dryer on a low setting with a diffuser attachment. This reduces the impact of the air blowing over your hair, and helps your curls better maintain their shape. Be sure to scrunch (lightly squeeze) the curls, gently lifting your hair at the root as you go. It helps to apply a styling cream first; we like Pantene Beautiful Lengths Smoothing Balm or Sexy Hair Concepts Curly Sexy Hair Curling Creme.
  8. When applying styling products don't use too much, and take the time to apply them evenly. Apply a little extra where you need it, but even then, be careful not to overdo. You don't want a big glob in one area and not enough in another!
  9. Out of shine serum? Consider using a silicone-based facial serum in to tame frizzies and split ends! These skin-care products contain the same core ingredients found in shine serums, and can work just as well!

The Most Important Advice for Curly Hair

Rather than splurging on needlessly expensive hair-care products, which you can easily replace with drugstore products that cost a fraction of the price (especially considering the size difference), splurge on finding the best stylist to cut and care for your hair! A great stylist will not only give you the best style for your curly hair, but also can teach you how to style it at home—and this know-how is priceless. Granted, the hairstylist may rave about the salon products she uses but the truth is a talented hairstylist can make hair look great with just about any hair-care product.

Bad Advice for Curly Hair

As you can imagine, and likely have experienced yourself, there's no shortage of bad advice for those with curly hair. Perhaps you've heard of or tried one of the supposed "tips for curly hair" we list below. If you haven't, we can assure you that you're not missing out on a great tip, and likely have saved your curly hair from becoming an unmanageable mess.

We've seen recommendations to use sea salt spray as a great way to redefine curls and texture and revitalize styling products. Utter nonsense! Saltwater is never good for any hair type. Salt is drying and coarse on hair, causing curly hair to separate and feel even drier than usual. Anyone with curly hair who has taken a dip in the ocean knows this is true.

What about washing curly hair with cold water to make it shinier, lock in moisture, and reduce frizz? It makes not an ounce of difference, other than making you feel uncomfortably cold. Hair is dead and it can't tell the difference between shower water that is warm or cold (although the nerve endings in your scalp will definitely know!). Wet hair doesn't change its structure until it starts drying—that's what makes the difference, not the temperature of the water you use to rinse your hair.

You cannot detoxify your hair. Nothing lives on your hair, not germs or toxins of any kind. Again, hair is dead, and there is nothing for germs or bacteria to live on. Hair also can't absorb smog or pollution. Regarding the smell from cigarette smoke, shampooing easily takes care of that. None of these things ever get trapped inside your hair so there is no need for it to be "de-toxed." Even if the bad stuff did get trapped, it's physiologically impossible to detoxify hair.

Some myths just won't go away, and avoiding shampoos that contain sulfates is one of them. The truth is that non-sulfate shampoos aren't any better for hair than shampoos that contain sulfates, and the cleansing agents they contain are no more gentle than those in other shampoos. It is all about the amount of the cleansing agents, not whether the formula contains sulfates or not. You can avoid shampoos with sulfates if you choose to, but that won't help your hair. To close this topic, consider that many major hair-care brands that make much ado about "no sulfates" continue to sell shampoos that do contain—you guessed it—sulfates! Clearly, those companies don't believe sulfates are a problem; if they did, why would they continue to sell the products that contain the allegedly bad ingredients? And even more important, why support a brand that does that?

We're sure someone along the way has warned you about alcohol in styling products. While we are the first ones to say alcohol is an absolute no-go for the skin, especially on the face, it is far less of an issue for the hair. Hair is dead, and so alcohol does not have the impact on hair that it has on skin. The drying aspect of alcohol, however, is a consideration for hair, but because of how alcohol is used in hairstyling products it evaporates from hair before it can have any significant impact on the hair's moisture content. If you've used a good conditioner and other healthy styling products like silicone serums, leave-in conditioners, or styling lotions, the alcohol in styling products like hairsprays will have minimal to no impact. If your hair feels dry after using styling products with alcohol, it's likely not from the alcohol, but rather from a high concentration of film-forming agents. These ingredients form a coating on hair that can build up and feel stiff, while also making hair feel unnaturally dry.

If you've been told that brushing your hair for two minutes is a good thing because it distributes the oils from your scalp through your hair, consider that some of the worst hair-care advice around! Whoever is disseminating this baloney has never seen a shred of the large amount of research showing that the less you touch your hair, brush it, wash it, style it, or do anything to it, the better. Trying to get the oil from your scalp to your ends is a waste of time, especially for curly hair. Styling products do a much better job, and the kinds of ingredients they contain add dimensional shine and protection to curly hair without the need to over-manipulate it. So, your hair will look much better if you use well-formulated styling products than if you use your own oils.

The Best Skin (and Hair) of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare and Hair Care products. You’ll find products for a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, sun damage, and even dry, damaged hair. See Paula's Choice Hair Care.

Sources: International Journal of Toxicology, July 2010, pages 151S–161S; Journal of Cosmetic Science, March-April 2009, pages 143–151 and 261–271, and May-June 2006, pages 233–243; Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, June 2007, pages 321–330; and Cosmetics & Toiletries, May 2003, pages 28–32, and May 2004, pages 64–68.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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