The Ultimate Curly-Hair Routine by a Beauty Editor Who Has Tried Everything

woman with curly hair

SHANNON PETER / Design by Camden Dechert

Minus a month here and a week there, I spent the first 24 years of my life hating my curly hair. I’m the daughter of a biracial couple, and my Caucasian mother just didn’t know what to do with the hair I had earned from my father’s Antiguan roots. I spent my entire childhood in fear of the hairbrush, considering it merely a weapon that led to not only a sore scalp but weird tufts of brown fluff perching on top of my shoulders.

I was helpless; I had no idea how to style my curly hair. And this desperation led me to do some questionable things like stealing handfuls of my brother’s hair gel to slick my frizzy hair into the tightest bun my arms could manage. Yep, year 8 was a dark, dark time. I would also spend most Sunday nights singeing my hair to death with pre–Ghd era hair straighteners and praying that the effect (a barely straight mane of frazzled hair the texture of crinkle-cut chips, in case you were wondering) would last the entire week.

You’d think that when I got my first job in the beauty industry, my hair fate would have changed. But no—traumatized by a childhood of desperately trying to hide the fact I had curly hair, I would physically cringe at the thought of sitting in my hairstylist’s chair, and when I did, I would profusely apologize for my curls, as though they were badly behaved children.

Tired of putting up a fight in what seemed like a losing battle, I decided that it was about time I embraced my curls. The trouble was, I was completely clueless. Yes, I’d gone cold turkey on the Ghds, but I’d also given up the only hair routine I had ever known. But then I met Larry King, and everything changed. He’s the hands behind Pixie Lott's curly transformation, and frankly, no one knows curls quite like him.

Not only did his haircut wizardry give me the confidence to wear my hair curly for the first time in, like, forever, but he also taught exactly how to dry my hair when I’m in my own bathroom rather than in his salon chair.

Spurred on by this newfound love for my curls, I have now made it my mission to ask (read: interrogate) every beauty expert I come across for their advice, from the best shampoo for curly hair to how to refresh curls the morning after. After plenty of trial and error, I have nailed down the ultimate routine. And in the interest of helping fellow curly-haired girls out, I’m willing to share it all with you. Read on for every last tip I have to share.

Step 1: The Wash

Co-washing, reverse washing—I’ve tried the lot. But nothing seems to treat my curls better than a good-old-fashioned shampoo-and-conditioner combo.

But don’t be led down the wrong path. “One of the most common misconceptions is that curly hair needs a smoothing shampoo, but it’s just not the case,” Justine Marjan, celebrity hairstylist and Tresemmé global ambassador, once told me backstage at New York Fashion Week. Curly hair needs a bit of grip, not only to keep the curls in place but also to stop them from falling flat throughout the day.

As for conditioner, rake it through the lengths (but avoid the roots, as that’ll only weigh curls down) before using a comb and rinsing out. I shampoo once a week to stop my hair from drying out, but I use conditioner every single day.

Shop my favorite shampoos:

Step 2: The Prep

Ever since the first time I met King, I’ve kept my hair styling products in the shower. Why? “You want hair to be dripping wet when you apply product because frizz will start to appear as soon as the hair starts to dry,” he explains.

Start with a curl cream. John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease Extra Strength 6 Effects Serum ($10) is one the most lightweight and non-greasy serums out there, but Redken Curvaceous Ringlet Shape Perfecting Lotion ($21) is slightly heavier, making it perfect for curls that need a little more persuasion like mine. Apply a dime-sized blob, and use fingertips to twist sections of the hair from the top to help the curls form.

Then scrunch clementine-sized blob (or a bit more if your hair is longer than shoulder length) of Kérastase Discipline Mousse for Curly Hair ($30) or Pureology Clean Volume Mousse ($29) through the lengths. Forget the thought of crispy ringlets—this lighter-than-air mousse soon disappears, leaving only springy, defined curls in its wake.

Post shower, do not wrap a towel around your hair. This is vital. The rough texture of the towel will disturb the cuticle and separate curls, leading to frizz.

Step 3: The Drying

I used to loathe even the best hair dryers. But as it turns out, I was just using them all wrong.

how to style curly hair: Ghd Air Diffuser
Ghd Air Diffuser $24

Now I don’t even attempt to dry my hair without the Ghd Air Diffuser. It has a particularly wide diameter of 15 centimeters, meaning it gives curls room to form without being blasted with hot (and damaging) air.

Gravity is your best friend here. “Tip your head upside down and guide sections of hair into the diffuser head, holding in place for 15 seconds before moving on to the next section,” says King. He recommends starting with the highest temperature and turning it down as hair starts to dry out.

Take it from me: Avoid touching the hair with your fingers while drying at all costs; otherwise, you risk upsetting the curl pattern. “Put your spare hand in your pocket, otherwise you'll find yourself subconsciously playing with your hair,” King promises.

Step 4: The Refresh

I tend to restyle my hair every single day, but when time is tight, I simply refresh my curls from the day before.

“Sleeping on your curls can cause them to drop,” explains session stylist and founder of Session Kit, Anna Chapman. “But using a water spray to spritz hair until it's damp and then scrunching hair will revive day-old curls and bring back all that natural movement.”

I have tried every curl spray going, but I rarely get to the bottom of a bottle before becoming disappointed by its lackluster results. My go-to is Bumble and Bumble’s curl primer, which adds gloss to curls that have started to go a little fuzzy. But I also love Pureology's mist.

And to finish? “Try a blast of the diffuser to breathe air into the roots and give curls a little lift,” recommends King. Then, I get dressed, do my makeup, and just before I leave the house, I always spritz my hair with Wella Professional's hairspray—it's the lightest I've ever tried.

Check out my favorite curl mists:

I know that sounds like a lot, but I swear, it becomes second nature. Give it a go, and I reckon you'll nail your own curly hair routine too.

Can't get enough curly girl products? Check out these favorites from girls with naturally curly hair.

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