How to Care for Curly Hair Naturally

How to care for Curly Hair naturally without chemicals

Note from Katie: I’ve shared many of my favorite hair care products, from mud shampoo to detangling spray and even ways to help hair grow naturally. On all of these posts, there were eventually reader questions I couldn’t answer and they all started with “I have naturally thick and curly hair…”  When my friend Julia offered to share her experience of caring for her gorgeous curly hair naturally, I jumped at the chance. (And for the record, she isn’t the only one with hair envy- the first time I met her, I was amazed by her curls!) Enter Julia…

I think I have always had hair envy for Katie. She has the perfect hair. It’s straight. And fine. *And* blonde. What about me? My mom has thick hair. My dad has ringlets. So naturally I have thick ringlets. Dark, coarse, tight ringlets. Don’t get me wrong, I have come to peace with my hair. I fought it for a while… tried to straighten it, but the pain and the time investment (hours and hours) broke me of that. I also learned how to care for my hair. So while I still occasionally have a pang of hair envy for straight hair, I love my own hair now because happy hair is pretty hair.

Caring for Curls

Due to the shape of curly hair strands, the hair tends to be under-moisturized. The curly-haired scalp, on the other hand, can get very oily. Curly hair care comes down to managing these two competing demands.

See, your scalp produces natural oil, sebum, to keep your hair soft and to protect it. Straight hair wicks the sebum down the shaft easily, so that the whole length of the shaft is moisturized. Brushing aids this process by distributing the oils thoroughly (thanks, Scarlett O’Hara, with your hundred-brush-strokes-a-day routine). Curly hair, on the other hand, is shaped irregularly and the oil has a hard time wicking throughout the length of hair because of the bumps and ridges. It’s also impossible (and often painful) to brush when dry, so brushing can’t help, either. In fact brushing curly hair often damages it. Your poor curly, dry hair is exposed to the environment without anything to buffer it from the wind or the sun, and so gets damaged easily. Further, the unused sebum ends up sitting on the scalp collecting dust… Literally. Grossed out? I promise I’ll teach you coping mechanisms in a minute.

Once you understand the relationship between your scalp and hair, there are certain rules that make sense:

Curly hair has one Great Commandment: Thou shall not brush thy hair when it is dry!

This wrecks your curl pattern by breaking up the hair strands that are forming curls. These groups of hairs are called “clumps”. Breaking up your clumps will make look like that triangle-headed girl from the Dilbert comic: frizzy. Not attractive.

Further, because your curls resist the brush (understatement of the year), brushing can yank your hair out at the root or break it into split ends or probably both. Remember, you are more likely to damage the hair shaft because it is not protected at all!

Always (always always) detangle your hair wet, preferably with conditioner in it so it has something protective coating it.

How often should you wash your hair? It is different for everyone. I know curlies who wash everyday and people with straight hair who have to go several days in between washings or their hair will dry out. Experiment!

If you notice your hair is always dry, try waiting a day to wash it… You might just solve your problem that way! I wash my hair every 2 days. More frequently makes my hair dry, less frequently and my scalp gets itchy and oily. When it was very long I would go 3 days.

A Word About No-poo and Co-Washing.

If you have been trying to learn more about how to care for curly hair, you have probably heard of these methods. What are they? Well, they are essentially the same thing.

The idea is that traditional shampoo is far too harsh for curly hair. Curly hair is not sufficiently oiled, so it takes a beating. It’s already fragile enough without marinating it in chemicals. Instead, you should use a combination of conditioner and gentle friction to cleanse your scalp. Sounds logical so far, right?

For me it breaks down in the practical application. My hair is really thick. Most conditioners are so creamy that I can’t actually get them to sink through all the layers of hair to reach my scalp. It’s really frustrating. Because what ends up happening is that the hair on top of my head gets moisturized but my scalp doesn’t actually get clean, so I get dandruff-style flaky buildup that is really embarrassing (and obvious since it is front and center).

I find that a combination of the no-poo philosophy of gentle cleansing together with a natural cleanser works best for me. I look for products that are a thin consistency but are detergent free. This modification to no-poo that I use is known as “low-pooing” or low detergent shampooing.

A lesser known (and less popular) variation is water washing: you use only water and friction to clean the hair. You can certainly try it, but I haven’t heard of many people with curly hair who found this a good routine. We use too many stylers for water to really cleanse our hair, and the friction without a protective oil or cream can be damaging. It works better (so I hear) for folks with straight hair.

Washing Your Hair

Shampoo/cleanser is for your scalp. Conditioner is for your hair. Don’t get it twisted.

In the shower:

Wet your hair. Apply a sufficiency of cleanser to your palm and massage it into your scalp ONLY. Do not rub it throughout your length. The detergents in shampoos can be very drying, and if you don’t have oil in your hair to protect it you will abrade and possibly even burn the shaft.

Even if you are using a gentle cleanser like a no-poo/co-wash, the agitation still does just that: agitate or irritate the hair. Try to avoid doing that. Angry curls are no fun to be around; they don’t tip at restaurants and generally embarrass you in public. As you rinse the shampoo from your hair, continue to massage the scalp to help remove any buildup.

Now load up your hair with the conditioner. Even if you plan to rinse it out, you still want use the moisture in the conditioner to help release the knots in your curls and relax them gently so that you can comb your hair.

Note that you should concentrate the conditioner on the length of your hair, NOT your scalp. Remember, your scalp makes all the moisture it and your hair needs; It just never distributes down the length of your hair. Therefore you need conditioner on your hair to replace the sebum that your hair needs but isn’t getting.

Distribute the conditioner as you can. If your hair is very tangled, squeeze the conditioner into the knots and (gently) worry at them with the comb to unravel. Otherwise cover your palms with conditioner and use your fingers to rake through your hair to distribute. This will start the detangling process. Then follow with a wide-toothed comb to make sure you get all the small snarls out.

Choose Your Own Adventure Haircare

Now from this point it gets tricky, and routines start to differ. There are a couple of schools of thought on leaving in conditioner, and how to do so. You will likely need to experiment (Can you tell I like to experiment?).

Here are your options:

  • leave in
  • rinse out
  • both

Leave In

If you leave in, do just that. Finish detangling, turn off the shower, and move on. You may want to do this if your hair is hard to style without the slippery conditioner to help smooth it out, or if you hair is very dry. This is what I do currently. Even with very short hair, the difference is tangible if I don’t leave in some conditioner. I simply cannot get my stylers to distribute throughout my hair.

Rinse Out

Rinsing out is also simple. Just rinse the conditioner out of your hair. Some people like to use cool water to do this. It can improve the shininess of your hair, but I find this uncomfortable. You are a good candidate for cool rinsing if you find that your hair gets really frizzy really quickly once you get out of the shower.

Combination

Then there’s the combo. I did this back when my hair was long enough to brush my bum a couple of years ago. Basically the idea is that if you leave the conditioner in straight from the shower, you may remove some of it when toweling your hair dry. Not a problem in itself, but if your hair is finicky and really needs that conditioner (like mine did), then if you remove it unevenly it can cause problems. Rinsing and then reapplying conditioner allows for greater control. This is a good solution for people with really thick hair, or with OCD 😉

What to Use

Products are really personal. I can give suggestions, but I promise they won’t work for everyone.You can make your own or you can research and purchase from a retailer that you like and trust. I generally take the latter route. I am a big diy fan, but I find that most diy hair stuff fails to live up to my expectations.

Some basic rules:

Avoid Sulfates, Silicones, and Parabens.

Sulfates/sulfites are the harshest of detergents and surfactants. They are extremely drying to the hair, and should be avoided.

Silicones are plastics. Their job is the coat the hair to make it look shiny. Sounds good until you realize that because they are synthetic they can only be removed by sulfates: natural cleansers just can’t get the plastic off. So the choice is between nasty persistent buildup (eeew) or sulfates (which are to be avoided because they barbecue your hair). Plus, while they make your hair look shiny, the coating actually blocks healthy oils and moisture from getting to your hair shaft.

Some silicones are water soluble and are identified by the suffix PEG. Those do not require sulfates to be removed. I still avoid PEG-type silicones because I don’t like to put plastic in my hair and even water soluble silicones block that ever-important moisture.

Avoid parabens (synthetic preservatives) because cancer. ‘Nuff said.

I suggest trying new products out for at least a week (or several applications if you wash your hair less frequently) before trying something different. Sometimes your hair will need to detox or get used to a certain product. It may not immediately recognize that it loves something.

Here’s What I Look for in my Products

Cleanser/Shampoo:

For a cleanser, I start off looking for something without sulfates in it. And beware, silicones do end up on shampoo too! You are less likely to find them, but check anyway.

You may need to test out several cleansers to find one that works. In practice, I look for a cleanser that distributes to my scalp easily. Also, after you rinse, compare how your hair feels to how it felt before you cleansed it. You should not be able to feel a coating of any kind, but it should also not feel dry.

If it feels dry, the cleanser is probably too harsh and you need to find something gentler or more moisturizing. Still give it a week! Your hair can change its attitude. Your hair should feel like your body does after you wash with good soap, not like it feels after you wash the dishes, if that makes sense.

Options to Try:

Conditioner:

Conditioners come in all kinds of textures and consistencies. I look for a few things. First, does it distribute well throughout my hair? If it is made of angel tears and unicorn oil but it won’t go where I put it, it’s useless.

Second, I pay attention to “slip” i.e. how slippery my hair feels. We are using it to detangle, after all. This slippery feeling is what makes it release those snags and snarls. It shouldn’t feel too slimy, but you want a silky, soft feeling. Think wet seaweed, not pond scum. And I want it to play nice with other products. This is only really important if you want to leave it in.

I once found a lovely conditioner that I really liked, but it would produce icky white flakes if I left it in and used anything else to style my hair. I had to toss it in the trash and start over. It may not be a concern for you, though.

I love SheaMoisture’s Restorative conditioner (very rich, good to leave in), and Kinky Curly’s Knot Today detangler (extremely slippery, will literally melt your knots). If your hair is happier with a lighter conditioner, you might even try Katie’s homemade detangler

It’s sort of the melding of both: a rich conditioner and marshmallow root, the active ingredient from the Knot Today. It’s a solid DIY that really works.

Stylers:

Ok, there are soooooo many styling products out there! Here is a basic rundown of what each type does and how it may help you.

Creams: labeled as creams or smoothies, these tend to be a combination of butters, oils, and waxes. The majority of your DIY Stylers will be creams, as they can be easily made with readily available ingredients (Katie’s whipped body butter is excellent example, although that is not the use she probably had in mind.

Heck, I bet her magnesium body butter would give great curl definition!). Cream stylers are ideal for people with dry hair that is thick and naturally voluminous. If you have fine hair you will likely want to avoid creams because they can be heavy and weigh your hair down. They can also make fine hair appear oily and limp. A little tends to go a long way. I use a little cream for my hair. I have an 8 oz tub that lasts about a year (this should give you an idea of how little I use).

Gels:

Some are natural, some are not. Most tend to be translucent and slimy/gummy. The half of DIY stylers that are not creams are usually gels (flax seed variety). They come in lots of different hold levels and tend to make hair shinier than creams, but can be drying (especially the chemical-laden ones).

Many contain silicones to make hair shiny so beware if buying from a store. I don’t use gel much as even natural versions are too drying for me, but I understand from People Who Know Of Such Things that EcoStyler is a great silicone-free and inexpensive brand.

Also, consider using plain organic aloe vera gel as a gentle gel.

Mousse: 

Long touted as the ideal styler form for curly hair, mouse is a light foamy concoction that works with the natural buoyancy of curls. Sounds good until you start reading labels and see that most a filled with alcohol (drying) and silicone (plastic). There are a couple good ones out there.

My sister swears by Herbal Essences “naturals” line of mousses. Mousse is good for folks with fine or limp hair, but I find it too drying for my hair. Also, it is virtually impossible to make mousse yourself. I’ve never even seen a recipe for it. If you find one, let me know!

Pomade:

Pomade is a styler that adds shine and hold to your hair. There are a few different kinds. Basically they are either waxy and stiff, or oily and smooth. Waxy tends to give more hold than shine, and vice versa with the oils. They are good for putting your hair in an updo or if you have short hair like mine (hello, Mohawk!). You can make either at home, although oil-based pomade is simpler. You can either make a combo of liquid oils in a tincture bottle (like this) or you can make a solid bar of it (like these).

Folks, keep in mind that these tips are not just for curlies… if you hair is dry, you might try something you see here. You might just discover the cure for your hair woes! Learning to care for your hair properly can be a path to finally loving your hair.

Do YOU have curly hair? How do you care for your hair?

Julia profile Wellness MamaAbout Julia: Julia is the owner of the gorgeous curly hair in this picture and the mom of that adorable little girl.

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