Is the Curly Girl Method the Key to Perfect Hair? (Yes. Honestly, Yes)

Chloe Metzger
·16 mins read
Photo credit: Courtesy of r/skylasthename
Photo credit: Courtesy of r/skylasthename

From Cosmopolitan

If you’ve got curly hair, you’re well aware that it doesn’t come with a handbook—at least, not officially. And, thus, the wonderful curly-haired humans of the world devised one, distilling decades of information, frustrations, tutorials, products, and DIYs into a cohesive, all-encompassing way of life called the Curly Girl Method, or CGM for short. And as someone who has been following the Curly Girl Method since she was in junior high (!), I can tell you that CGM really, truly, 100 percent can transform your hair…if you actually know what you’re doing.

And that, my friends, is easier said than done. Between the jargon-filled articles and the expert-level videos, it can be hard for a beginner to figure out the absolute basics of starting the Curly Girl Method. But that’s where I come in. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know to start CGM—including the step-by-step routine—without (fully) losing your sanity.

What is the Curly Girl Method?

The Curly Girl Method—officially created by hairstylist and curl expert Lorraine Massey, who wrote Curly Girl: The Handbook—is quite literally a guide to getting really excellent hair using (and avoiding!) specific products and styling techniques. By figuring out the best cocktail of ingredients and application methods for your exact hair type (FYI, you can find out your hair type here), you’ll be able to amp up your natural wave, curl, or coil pattern while reducing frizz, dryness, and breakage.

Does the Curly Girl Method work for everyone?

Sadly, no. Since the whole goal of CGM is to get healthier, fuller, more defined hair—basically, seeing the max potential of what your hair can really do—you’ve gotta have a pretty distinct wave pattern to start with (like at least 2a/2b waves). For what it’s worth, 2c-4a textures tend to benefit most from CGM (again, make sure you know your hair type; it’ll make the jargon you read so much easier), but it doesn’t mean you can’t experiment if you have straighter or coilier hair.

How to do the Curly Girl Method

Since there’s a literal book devoted to answering this question—along with Facebook groups and, my favorite, Reddit communities—I'm gonna show you the basics of the step-by-step routine (we'll walk through the specifics later, so don't worry), along with a few basic—yet very important—don’ts.

Photo credit: Khadija Horton
Photo credit: Khadija Horton

Seems pretty easy, right? Welp, the Curly Girl Method is a bit more...intricate...than just a few steps, which brings us to the "don't" list. In reality, CGM is mainly about cutting out the stuff that messes with your curls (i.e., anything drying or harsh), and then adding in things that heal, hydrate, and enhance (i.e., moisturizers, proteins, and gentle cleansers).

❌ AVOID

  • Shampoo (WHAT! Don’t freak—you can’t use traditional shampoos, the kind that strip the hell out of your hair. More on this below)

  • Heat tools (like flat-irons, curling irons, etc., though the occasional diffuser on low heat is okay)

  • Sulfates (i.e., harsh detergents usually found in shampoo that strip your hair of moisture and lead to damaged, dry, straw-like hair)

  • Silicones (i.e., polymers found in 90 percent of conditioning and styling products that coat your hair to give it a smooth, shiny look. Most silicones don’t dissolve in water and can only be removed with sulfates…which aren’t allowed in the Curly Girl Method. Without sulfates, silicones will build up on your curls, leaving them lank, dry, flat, and greasy. Consider them the #1 enemy of CGM; you can read more about silicones here, if you want)

  • Waxes and mineral oils (just like silicones, most waxes and mineral oils require sulfates to remove, which means they’ll build up on your hair)

  • Towel-drying your hair (towels rough up your hair cuticle and lead to frizz and tangles. Most curly peeps like to plop their hair, but more on how you can dry your hair below)

  • Alcohols (though not all alcohols are bad, most can degrade your hair cuticle, and are almost always found in aerosol sprays, like canned hairspray and dry shampoo. Thus, welcome to the world of alcohol-free dry shampoo and alcohol-free hairspray)

Photo credit: Courtesy of r/zakiyyahpetersen
Photo credit: Courtesy of r/zakiyyahpetersen

OMG—this all seems freakin’ impossible?!

I KNOW, I know, but it’s truly not, because some very nice people have made it easier for you by creating a website called Is It CG? that’ll tell you if your hair products are Curly Girl Method approved. Just copy and paste the ingredients of a product (I copy the ingredients straight from the product’s website) and the website will tell you if it’s safe or not. Once you’ve got a list of approved products (recommendations later on), the rest is just playing around with application techniques!

Photo credit: Courtesy of @tori_tambellini
Photo credit: Courtesy of @tori_tambellini

Can I use shampoo in the Curly Girl Method?

The very first shower you take to begin your CGM journey will, in fact, require a “reset shampoo,” i.e., a sulfate-filled clarifying shampoo (I used Suave’s Ocean Breeze Shampoo, FYI). Why? Because you need a totally clean foundation stripped of all silicone and wax buildup before starting CGM, or you’ll never (ever) get this method to work for you. Seriously. After that? No more traditional, sulfate-filled shampoos. (Unless you accidentally use a product filled with unapproved silicones or waxes; then you’ll need to “reset” again with your clarifying shampoo, which isn’t great for your hair).

Once you’ve done your initial reset wash, you’ve got two CGM-approved options to keep your hair clean on the regular: sulfate-free shampoos or cleansing conditioners.

✔️ Sulfate-free shampoos

  • What: Also called “low-poo,” as in low-shampoo; contain gentle detergents to break down scalp oils and buildup, without stripping hair.

  • Best for: Thin waves and flat curls that get greasy and oily super fast.

  • Note: Some sulfate-free cleansers are still a bit drying, which you can tell by the way your hair feels right after you rinse it out. If your hair feels squeaky instead of slippery, the cleanser is too harsh. If you don’t wanna waste money, try mixing a few squirts of conditioner in with the shampoo to soften it.

✔️ Cleansing conditioners

  • What: Also called “co-washes” or “no-poo” and are essentially lightweight conditioners used as shampoo. Most curl types (and all coil types) don’t benefit from a ton of detergent—they only need water, moisture, and a thorough scalp massage (like, you should be massaging your co-wash into your roots for at least 60 seconds straight) to get clean.

  • Best for: All coil types and most curl types.

  • Note: Most CGM guides will tell you to start with a cleansing conditioner—instead of a sulfate-free shampoo—regardless of your hair type, since people are often surprised by how well their hair (and scalp) adjusts to them after a month.

Photo credit: Courtesy of @asosrorio
Photo credit: Courtesy of @asosrorio

How often can I shampoo my hair on the Curly Girl Method?

Though many guides will tell you that you should only “shampoo” or cleanse once a week, period, I fully disagree—every scalp and hair texture is different, and how frequently you “shampoo” or cleanse is up to you. Plus, the whole idea that you can train your scalp to be less greasy isn’t actually accurate (I should know; I tried it), and can often exacerbate issues like dandruff or scalp inflammation.

As long as you’re using gentle, moisturizing products, how often you cleanse shouldn’t matter. Still, a good rule of thumb: If you have coilier hair, try co-washing once a week; if you have thicker, coarser curls or waves, try cleansing 1-3 times a week; and if you have fine, oil-prone waves or curls, try cleansing every other day.

What products do I need for the Curly Girl Method?

There’s no single answer here, because everyone’s hair type is different, and what works for someone’s 4a coils isn’t going to work for your 2a waves. Still, the most basic, basic of CGM products to start with are a gentle cleanser, a conditioner, and a gel (yes, gel). Because all of these products can be found in super-rich or lightweight formulas, depending on what you buy, this combo works for the vast majority of beginners starting the Curly Girl Method.

Photo credit: Courtesy of @serrendeezy
Photo credit: Courtesy of @serrendeezy

Give yourself 4-6 weeks of using this simplified routine before making adjustments—like, if your coils are feeling dry even after a month of doing strict CGM, try adding in a leave-in conditioner before your gel, and/or a smoothing on a layer of oil after your gel to seal in moisture. Gel still not working out for your waves or curls? Try switching to a mousse layered on top of a lightweight curl cream.

But see how overwhelming all of that just got? Exactly. Which is why starting with an easy lineup of products will help you ease your way in to the Curly Girl Method. Here’s a simple product combo (including a reset shampoo, which you’ll need to use at the start of your CGM journey and any time you accidentally use a product with silicones or waxes—which, ideally, is never again).

What are the steps of the Curly Girl Method?

No, I’m not going to leave you stranded there with an armload of products and a whimper. Here’s how to put all of your newfound knowledge to use:

  • STEP 0: Final “reset” wash
    Wash your hair with a sulfate-filled clarifying shampoo to remove all silicone buildup. Repeat this step any time you accidentally use a product with silicone or wax.

  • STEP 1: Co-wash/cleanse
    Wash your hair with a CGM-approved cleansing conditioner or sulfate-free shampoo, massaging your scalp for at least 60 seconds (this matters! Count!) with your fingertips or a shampoo brush. Rinse out.

  • STEP 2: Condition
    Squish a large handful of CGM-approved conditioner through the bottom half of your hair until it feels “slimy”—i.e., fully saturated and coated—then detangle with your fingers or a large-tooth comb. Rinse out most (but not all) of the conditioner.

  • STEP 3: Style
    You can apply your styling products a dozen different ways (more on that below), but most methods involve layering and squishing them into your wet hair. For beginners, start with a CGM-approved gel; scrunch a palmful (more than feels normal) into your sopping wet hair from roots to tips.

  • STEP 4: Dry
    Either plop your hair for 5-15 minutes, or gently cup and scrunch the excess water from your hair with a cotton T-shirt or microfiber towel. Air-dry (don’t touch!) or diffuse your hair on low. Once your hair is 100 percent dry, gently scrunch your hair with your hands to get rid of the crunchy gel coating.

That’s it. That’s the very basic Curly Girl Method. Not as intimidating as it seems, right? Once you’ve got the basics down and played around with the different application methods, you can try switching up your products for different results.

Photo credit: Courtesy of @brittcurls
Photo credit: Courtesy of @brittcurls

How do I apply my products?

Okay, so this is arguably the most difficult part of the Curly Girl Method: applying products. There are so many methods, and you’ll need to experiment to find which works best with your curls. To keep yourself from going crazy, though, try testing one method at least five times before moving on to a new method. Vary up how much product you use, how wet your hair is, etc., to really see if a method does or doesn’t work for you.

Check out just a few (!) of the most popular application and styling methods:

…Okay, so the panic you just felt looking at all those options? Yeah, no. It’s okay. You’re going to explore those options on your own after a few months when everything is less overwhelming. But for now, let’s talk about the easiest, most universally beloved method:

The simplest application method: scrunching + upside down

Scrunching allows you to squish products and moisture into your hair at every step of the process, encouraging clumps (aka defined curls) and healthy hydration. And, if you do it upside down, you get the added benefit of volume.

Here’s how: After shampooing, flip your head over (bending at the waist), rake all your hair forward, then squish conditioner into the ends. Rinse your hair by squishing in palmfuls of water, then squish in palmfuls of gel. The water in your hair will help dilute and distribute the gel, while all the cupping and scrunching will encourage major curl or wave formation.

Here’s my favorite video showing the squishing mechanism in action:

Don’t get overwhelmed by what she’s saying—she’s basically on level 20, and you’re on level 1. Just focus on the squishing and scrunching method, and you’ll be fine.

How do I dry my hair?

Once you’ve applied your products, you can plop your hair (my preferred method), scrunch out the water with a cotton T-shirt or cotton towel, or diffuse it on low heat.

✔️ How to plop:

✔️ How to scrunch:

✔️ How to diffuse:

How quickly does CGM work?

Not gonna lie: The “transition phase” isn’t always fun. The Curly Girl Method is going to take a lot of trial-and-error and experimenting; it’s going to make you feel completely inept at the beginning; it’s probably going to make you want to quit CGM a few times (hi! I did!); and you’ll probably have a ton of bad hair days before you finally crack the code—which, for me, took about three months (though, honestly, I’m still learning new tricks years later).

This isn’t to freak you out—it’s just…life. You’re suddenly manipulating your waves and curls in a new way with new products and new drying methods, so it’s inevitable that your hair will rebel a bit in the beginning. But, as you can see by all these before-and-after photos, it works for the vast majority of people who stick with it.

What I wish someone had told me at the beginning:

❌ CGM won’t necessarily change your hair

If your natural hair is wavy, it’s going to stay wavy after the Curly Girl Method—just a healthier, fuller, more defined version of it. CGM can help you enhance your hair texture, but it won’t change it. The reason CGM gives some people such drastic results is because it forces you to cut out damaging habits (heat tools, chemical treatments, coloring, brushing, etc.) and focus on making your hair healthy. For a lot of people who have been ~abusing~ their hair for decades, CGM can bring back the natural texture they haven’t seen since their pre-teen years. Which means…

Healthy hair will see the smallest transformation

I thought my flat hair would turn into corkscrew curls after a few weeks of doing CGM. Nope. Before CGM, my hair was already healthy—I never dyed it, I never heat-styled it, and I already used sulfate-free products. But CGM did teach me that my application technique of 10 years was all wrong for my curl type. I was raking products (some of which contained both wax and silicone) through semi-damp hair while standing upright. Perfectly fine styling methods for some curlies, but for me and my fine, flat curls? Not ideal.

Now, I squish my products through my sopping-wet hair, upside down in the shower, then immediately plop my hair for 10 minutes, shake it out, then let air-dry. So for me, my biggest change wasn’t in the health of my hair, but learning the right techniques to help encourage and create those tighter curls when I really want them—which was never possible before CGM.

You don’t always need products

After a few months of obsessively following the Curly Girl Method, I felt tired. I didn’t want to do the whole song-and-dance every single shower—I didn’t want to constantly worry about the state of my hair while I slept, while it dried, while I worked out, etc. And I wish someone had told me that it was fine to just, like, not do your hair sometimes? That it was fine to have bad-looking hair some days?

It sounds obvious, but when you're in the throes of a good-versus-bad hair mentality, breaking the "rules" can feel...hard. But I'm here to tell you that it's FINE. Since quarantine, I rarely use more than a lightweight curl cream (<3 Seen Curly Cream) unless I’m going somewhere. As long as you're still using gentle, moisturizing, CGM-approved products, you can do whatever works best for you and your lifestyle without undoing all of the work you’ve put in.

I need more info! Where can I learn more about the Curly Girl Method?

I, personally, learned everything I currently know about CGM from both Naturally Curly and Reddit’s r/CurlyHair community, and I highly recommend reading their ultimate curly hair guide (though, you’ve been warned, it’s a bit overwhelming at first). Curlsbot.com also has a phenomenal quiz on your hair porosity (very, VERY important to your overall curly hair journey) with product recommendations, too.

If you wanna spend eternity on IG (and who doesn't?), I learned a ton from these curl accounts (though, FYI, not everyone follows strict CGM, so double-check product recommendations):

As you can see, the curl community is a literal community—it kinda takes a village to figure out hair textures, and these are just a few of the zillion resources available out there.

Photo credit: Courtesy of r/tazzkirk
Photo credit: Courtesy of r/tazzkirk

Wow, I feel great and not at all overwhelmed!

Omg, so glad to hear your completely unbiased, totally real response. Glad to be of service, and please DM me your magical hair results in three months (or, realistically, your frantic questions in approximately 24 hours). I shall be waiting.

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