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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 and tried to straighten it, but the pain and the time investment (hours and hours) broke me of that.
Finally, I 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.
So there we have 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.
The Rules of Curly Hair Care
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.
Shampoo and Conditioner for Curlies
How often should you wash your hair? It is different for everyone. I know curlies who wash every day. I know 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 two days. More frequently makes my hair dry, less frequently and my scalp gets itchy and oily. When it was very long I would go three 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. What ends up happening is that the hair on top of my head gets moisturized but my scalp doesn’t actually get clean. Instead, I get dandruff-style flaky buildup that is really embarrassing (and obvious since it is front and center).
Modified No-Poo Method
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.
Just Water Method (Not Recommended)
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.
How to Wash Your Curly Hair
Shampoo/cleanser is for your scalp. Conditioner is for your hair. Don’t get it twisted.
In the shower:
- Wet your hair. Apply sufficient 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 leave-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 it in
- rinse it out
Let me explain…
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.
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.
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 hair OCD 😉
How to Choose the Best Natural Products for Curly Hair
Products are really personal. 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 curly hair usually needs the real, lab-formulated, deal.
Some basic rules:
Avoid Sulfates and Silicones
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, silicones actually block healthy oils and moisture from getting to your hair shaft.
Some silicones are water-soluble and 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.
Important Note: Sometimes your hair will need to detox or get used to a certain product. It may not immediately recognize that it loves something.
Natural Shampoo and Conditioner for Curly Hair (That Work!)
There really are great options out there, with a little trial, error, and patience to find them. My favorites are:
The Best Curly Hair 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:
- Wellnesse Smoothing Shampoo for Wavy or Curly Hair – Thank you Katie for answering the plea of curly-haired ladies everywhere! These products are silicone, sulfate, and paraben free and use natural vitamins and moisturizers like shea butter and keratin to protect and lock in shine. Also available is the Curly Hair Kit if you want both shampoo and conditioner.
- I’ve also liked Shea Moisture products, specifically their Moisture Retention Shampoo and Curl and Shine Shampoo.
The Best Curly Hair 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 (very rich, good to leave in), and (extremely slippery, will literally melt your knots). If your hair is happier with a lighter conditioner, you might even try
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.
Options to Try:
- Wellnesse Enriching Conditioner for Wavy or Curly Hair – Finally, Katie’s very own hair care recipes can be yours, no mixing required! She uses shea butter, argan oil, and safflower combine to deeply moisturize curly hair (without the problematic ingredients we covered above). Or get the Curly Hair Care Kit to get shampoo and conditioner for less.
- SheaMoisture – Moisture Retention Conditioner
- SheaMoisture – Curl and Shine Conditioner
- SheaMoisture – Restorative Conditioner
- Beautiful Curls Leave-in Detangler
- Kinky Curly’s Knot Today Detangler (a favorite)
- If you DIY – Katie’s homemade detangler
Best Styling Products for Curly Hair
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.
The half of DIY stylers that are not creams are usually gels (flax seed variety). Some are natural, some are not, and most tend to be translucent and slimy/gummy. 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. The safest bet may be trying plain organic aloe vera gel as a gentle gel.
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). I haven’t found any with a clean enough ingredient line-up to recommend (hint hint Katie!).
I find that mousse is good for folks with fine or limp hair, but I personally find it too drying.
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 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.
Until better natural products (that actually work) become available, you can either make a combo of liquid oils in a tincture bottle (like this nourishing hair oil recipe) or you can make a solid bar of it (like these DIY lotion bars).
Power to the Curls!
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?