Some people pride themselves on owning a massive shoe collection. But curly girls? We have shelves upon shelves full of hair products. Curls are temperamental and ever-changing (my hair has never dried the same way twice in my entire life), so the curly-haired among us are constantly trying new combos of leave-in conditioner, styling cream, mousse, gel, defining sprays, and hydrating masks to tame the wild mane.
The fact of the matter is that people with curly hair do need a stockpile of products on hand. "Our curls are governed by the weather," explains Lorraine Massey, creator of The Curly Girl Method, founder of CurlyWorld, and owner of Spiral (x,y,z), a salon in NYC. "Water molecules that are ever-present in the atmosphere affect our hair like a mood ring," which means your curls change by the hour, with the weather.
"Everyone’s hair is going to need a little something different when it comes to products, so mixing a few things helps you really hone in on what your hair requires to look its best," explains Bryce Scarlett, Moroccanoil hairstylist. It's important to find the right product combo for your curls, meaning you need to consider your hair's texture, porosity, thickness, and curl pattern when shopping for (and applying) products.
While identifying your curl type is useful for styling, to find the right products for your hair, you'll want to focus more closely on your hair density. "Products aren't necessarily specific to [curl] type," says Tippi Shorter Rank, celebrity hairstylist and Global Artistic Director for L'Oréal's Mizani. "It’s really about the consistency of the hair."
For fine hair, keep your routine simple and light: Don't layer on a bunch of products or use too much of any single one. If you do over-layer products, "they will start to weigh down the hair and make it lethargic and appear thinner," Massey says. As for your hero product? "Fine curly hair tends to respond well gel or mousse as they are lightweight and help really hold the curl together," says Scarlett. Steer clear of rich, thick products that will flatten fine curls.
Medium to thick hair "tends to do well with oils and creams as it helps add weight and decrease frizz," says Scarlett. Layering products will help compact, define, and weigh curls down (in a good way). "Look for products that are truly water-soluble [so] they can commune and pair up together," says Massey.
Coarse or super thick hair "responds really well to hair masques followed by creams and pomades, things that really intensely moisturize," says Scarlett. Shorter says, "no matter if it's a wave, curl, or coil, or even straight," coarse hair demands thicker products that can match its density to work effectively. Look for rich-textured creams, thick, hydrating gels, and viscous oils.
No matter your hair thickness, all curly girls should sleep on a silk pillowcase to prevent frizz and gently tie up hair with a silk scrunchie to keep your style in tact between washes. You can also try swapping your traditional towel with a t-shirt or microfiber towel to scrunch wet hair dry: The texture is smoother than terrycloth towels, which can rough up hair and create frizz.
Now, here's your breakdown of the products you should buy for curly hair, as well as how to use them:
Cleansers & Shampoos
Every hair regimen starts in the shower. But curly hair is different from other hair types in that it needs more moisture, and conversely, less cleansing. No matter which type of hair cleanser you choose, you probably won't have to wash your hair every day. Here are your options:
Traditional shampoos are made with sulfates, the cleansing agent that creates that familiar foamy lather when you shampoo and the super clean feeling that follows. Sulfates often get a bad rap for being harsh on the hair and scalp, but that's not necessarily the case, according to Trefor Evans, Ph.D., Director of Research and Institute Fellow at TRI-Princeton. While Evans says sulfates could be harsh on the scalp, he says any effect they may have on hair is “minimal compared to all the other things we do to our hair such as chemical treatments and high heat.” TLDR: Despite claims otherwise, there's currently no technical evidence that sulfate-free formulas are gentler, healthier, or better for hair — but many curly-haired folks still tend to prefer them.
Cleansing conditioners or "co-washes" are two-in-one formulas that claim to wash and condition hair without sulfates for hair that's cleansed, but not squeaky-clean (a.k.a. stripped of natural oils), explains Danusia Wnek, chemist in the GH Beauty Lab. Unlike the 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner hybrids of the past, Shorter says co-washes are the opposite: All conditioner with a little bit of shampoo. "Using a co-wash gets you that clean that you would have gotten from a shampoo, but it leaves it feeling you just rinsed conditioner out of your hair." This makes it ideal for curly hair.
For clean hair that doesn't feel dry, Shorter suggests combining the two shampoo formulas: Use a scalp-specific traditional shampoo at roots, and a co-wash for the rest of your hair. That way, you get the best of both worlds.
Experts say these are the best products for the job:
CURLYWORLD Sham-Free Hair & Scalp Cleanser
If you're looking for a sulfate-free cleansing option, this co-wash is an all-in-one scalp-and-hair fix that cleans, conditions, and detangles. It's a "hydrating product that you can use for the tightest coils to the loosest waves," Massey says.
Joico Co+Wash Whipped Cleansing Conditioner
In our Beauty Lab tests, consumers found this co-wash left hair feeling cleaner than any other. It didn't weigh hair down or make it feel greasy, and was easiest to rinse from curly hair. "It removed oil from my roots, moisturized my scalp and hydrated the ends of my hair,” said one tester. Testers rated it tops for scent, making hair look smoother and stronger, as well as defining curls.
Herbal Essences BioRenew Hydrating Coconut Milk Shampoo
When we tested shampoo for dry hair, this formula was a standout. Though it contains sulfates, the creamy texture removed buildup and cleansed hair while leaving it feeling moisturized and soft, even before conditioner.
John Frieda Frizz Ease Daily Nourishment Shampoo
A shampoo designed specifically to to fight frizz, in GH Beauty Lab tests, this John Frieda pick moisturized so effectively that testers said they were tempted to skip conditioner. One tester said they "could already tell a significant change in my hair texture for the better" after one use. FYI: This formula contains sulfates.
Pattern Heavy Conditioner
Made specifically "for coilies," this thick-textured conditioner is formulated with shea butter, making it perfect for coarse hair. The lightly-fragranced product melts through knots and is loaded with hydrating oils like avocado and safflower to detangle and hydrate high porosity hair. Curly girls will love that the conditioner bottle is significantly larger than its matching shampoo to reflect actual usage.
Leave-Ins, Masks & Deep Conditioners
Deep conditioners and hair masks, like regular conditioners, are used in-shower after shampooing. Though they are rinsed out, they are left on for a longer period of time and tend to offer deeper hydration than traditional conditioners — perfect for coarse or curly hair. Typically, you can use these one to two times a week for a hydration boost, but Shorter says, "If your hair is incredibly, excessively dry, you can run a conditioner through every time you cleanse."
Meanwhile, leave-in conditioner is an absolute must for every curly hair pattern. "Textured hair in general has multiple challenges, the main one being it's just dry," says Shorter. The moisturizing formulas are "priming your hair, getting it ready to accept [more] product," and to help fight frizz. For most curl types, Massey suggests a silicone-free leave-in conditioner as a first step for styling: "Squeeze and scrunch a little bit out before adding more styler(s)." Use them on soaking wet hair after every wash or rinse, or on styled hair to refresh dry-looking spirals.
Here are our top picks for ultimate hydration:
Head & Shoulders Deep Moisture Masque Conditioner Treatment
Since curly hair tends to be drier than other hair types, that can translate to an itchy, uncomfortable scalp and dandruff. This hydrating mask treats your hair and scalp with flake-fighting pyrithione zinc. When tested on textured hair in our Lab, it scored high for reducing scalp and hair dryness, with testers swearing that "flakes disappeared!”
It's a 10 Miracle Deep Conditioner Plus Keratin
The winner of GH's deep conditioning hair mask test, this pick was super hydrating without being greasy and earned a perfect score for its ability to condition hair and prevent damage in the Lab's wet-combing test. A tester said it made bleached hair feel "softer and more manageable." The cream formula is best for medium to thick hair.
L'Oreal Paris Elvive Total Repair 5 Protein Recharge Leave-In Conditioner
A past GH Beauty Awards winner, this budget-friendly conditioning treatment prevents breakage by strengthening hair with almond and protein. The brand also claims it can protect against heat up to 450º which further prevents breakage. You can use this hydrating cream on medium to coarse strands.
Garnier Whole Blends Gentle Detangling Hair Milk Oat Delicacy
This lightweight conditioning spray is best for fine curls. In one Beauty Lab test, 90% of consumer testers agreed that it left hair feeling soft and hydrated without weighing it down. It's backed by the Good Housekeeping Seal, so if it doesn't live up to its claims, we will refund you in full.
Tea Tree Lavender Mint Conditioning Leave-in Spray
Most leave-in conditioning sprays are lightweight, but this formula is thicker which makes it ideal to rehydrate and soften medium, thick, and even coarse textures. The spray form factor makes for a quick, easy application: Spray it onto wet hair for noticeable softness and shine, or spritz onto dry hair to rehydrate second- or third-day curls. Bonus: It smells like an aromatherapy treatment.
Curl creams come in all forms and can do anything from hydrate to style, but traditionally, these products are "for frizz control and for hydration," says Shorter. Pick your product based on thickness: "A thicker texture for thicker strands of hair," says Shorter.
As for usage, Shorter says, "I use creams wet and dry. So if I'm using it to really help emulsify my curls, I use it while my hair is wet." After a day or two post-wash, when hair is dry, you "could use something that's a little richer," to revitalize curls, she says.
Here, the curl creams that will hydrate, define, and otherwise zhuzh your curls:
SheaMoisture Curl Enhancing Hair Smoothie Cream
People with coarse, curly hair love this product (we're talking nearly 4,000 Amazon reviews). A little goes a long way to hydrate hair and smooth frizz, though the thick-textured product doesn't do much in the way defining curls — the flip-side means no crunchiness or stiff-feeling spirals.
MOROCCANOIL Curl Defining Cream
A cult favorite, this rich cream is great for taming thick hair. You can smooth it onto hair with your palms or gently rake through soaking wet hair with your fingers, but don't comb it through: "It’s important that curls are never brushed," says Massey, especially when it's being styled. Brushing curls can lead to frizz (at best) and damaged hair (at worst). Use it for finger styling, twist-outs, or braids.
Mixed Chicks Coil Kink Style Cream
A favorite for thick, full, or coarse textures, this styling cream is rich in hydrating oils like sweet almond, olive, and safflower to replenish moisture and make easy work of styling. Apply it to wet hair for wash-and-go styling or to tame unruly coils and spirals.
Briogeo Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Avocado Leave-In Defining Creme
Good for waves, curls, and coils, this cream (made with avocado, soybean, and orange peel oils) gives flexible hold while hydrating and defining curls. Apply it to wet hair to seal in moisture and block out humidity and frizz. Thicker textures may be able handle more product, but stick to a quarter-size amount on thinner strands for starters.
Gels & Mousse
"Mousse is really great for finer texture hair," says Shorter. By and large, mousses are bodifying formulas that plump up strands and add volume to waves and curls. Scrunch into wet hair and let dry; "It’s ok if they dry a bit crispy at first," says Scarlett. "Wait until the hair is completely bone dry then scrunch with your hands to break up the crispy bits and fluff out the hair for volume."
Gels can be great for all types of curls, from waves to coils, depending on the product's texture. "Gels that are water-like ... are great for everybody: Great for waves, curls, and coils, thin, fine, all the way to coarse," says Shorter. A good rule of thumb: "The thicker the gel, the coarser and the thicker the hair," so if you'll want to reach for a more viscous formula if your hair is on the thicker side. Only use gels on wet hair, Shorter advises, and know that applying thicker product when curls are sopping wet (as in, before you even touch 'em with a towel) ensures the best definition and the smallest amount of frizz.
These gels and mousses are our favorites for taming and amplifying spirals:
Dove Amplified Textures Shine & Moisture Finishing Gel
Perfect for fine hair, Dove's patented Fiber Actives plump up strands while adding hydration to curls and waves with softening jojoba and coconut oils, glycerin, and shea butter. Apply to damp hair in sections or scrunch all over. The alcohol-free formula won't flake or crunch as it dries.
Biolage Styling Whipped Volume Mousse
Among the top performers from the GH Beauty Lab's hair mousse test, this pick scored highly for adding volume that lasted for hours and withstood various humidity levels. Curly girls loved the whipped cream consistency and pleasant scent, saying, "my curls lasted longer after styling with this mousse, I didn't have to use as much for volume all over." Perfect for fine and medium textures, it hydrates and defines without crunchiness or stiffness.
Tea Tree Lavender Mint Defining Gel
This lightweight formula helps to add definition, shine, and control. A thin-textured and watery gel like this one can be useful for nearly all hair types: Use it to define curls on thin hair, and tame frizz or flyaways on to medium-thick strands. It's hydrating and won't feel stiff or crunchy as it dries.
Oils, Serums & Frizz Fighters
With textured hair, "natural oils just don't make it from the scalp to the hair, so oils or oil-based products are always going to be key," says Shorter. Whether that's a serum, oil, or cream-based frizz fighter will depend on your hair's thickness. "Lighter oils — the ones that are like dry oil — those are great for all hair types or all hair textures ... You don't want to use a really heavy type of oil on fine hair because it will weigh it down." And remember: "The thicker the oil, the thicker the hair," says Shorter.
You can smooth these products onto wet hair or dry hair to combat frizz at any time. These frizz-fighters are our favorite:
Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Anti-Frizz Serum
In Beauty Lab tests, this serum scored high for fighting frizz in humid conditions, and our testers were impressed with its performance — even in Florida humidity. It was our testers' outright favorite for softening and smoothing hair without weighing it down, despite a texture that has "the feel of olive oil." Smooth it on thick hair from the midshaft to the ends of dry hair at the end of styling for shine that "almost [makes] hair sparkle," said one tester.
Garden of Life Extra Virgin Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is particularly great to use on dry curly hair since "it's similar to hair's natural lipid structure and able to penetrate the hair more than other oils," says Leo Izquierdo, co-founder of IGK Hair Care. Stylist Andrita Renee recommends mixing the hydrating oil with styling gel for a firm hold and hydration that won't leave hair feeling crunchy.
Joico K-PAK Protect & Shine Serum
In Beauty Lab tests, this serum was the only product earn a perfect score in Lab humidity resistance tests where it actually prevented strands of hair from thickening and expanding in high humidity. Testers loved using it too, saying it made hair soft, shiny, and smooth, smelled great, and had an easy-to-apply texture.
This hydrating oil is an all-time favorite for medium to coarse hair types. Apply the rich argan and linseed formula onto wet hair to encourage smoothness and detangle strands, or smooth onto dry hair from mid-shaft to ends to boost shine and stop frizz. It also comes in a light formula for fine hair.
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