Curly hair is beautiful, but it's not always simple to care for. There are so many options—conditioners, gels, creams, and spritzes—and it's common to feel confused when trying to create an effective hair cocktail for your specific curls. Curly hair can be fickle, but once you learn how to care for it, you'll be so glad you did. Think: happy, hydrated, healthy curls.
We've gathered some experts to give you tips and tricks to help. Hairstylist and Pureology Artistic Director Jamie Wiley, and Leticia "Tee" McKay-Everett, hairstylist and Joico Artistic Team Stylist, as well as curly hair expert Felicia Leatherwood are here to help you live your best natural curly haired life.
Meet the Expert
- Jamie Wiley is a celebrity hairstylist and the artistic director for Pureology. She is based in Elizabethtown, KY at Salon HP.
- Leticia "Tee" McKay-Everett is a hairstylist, color specialist, and Joico Master Artist, based in Dayton, Ohio.
- Felicia Leatherwood is a celebrity hairstylist and natural hair expert. Her clients include Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, and Teyonah Parris.
Keep scrolling for the best, expert-approved tips and tricks for styling curly hair.
Embrace Your Natural Curl
"Every head of curly hair is different and you have to treat them with what they need. Curly hair can be the most demanding of textures, requiring moisture, oils, and conditioning regularly," Everett shares. If you're in a hot, humid climate, you might as well put away your flat iron. You might spend hours straightening your hair, only to step outside and have your hard work ruined.
Unless you're willing to undergo expensive, permanent straightening treatments, if you live in a humid climate, you have to embrace the curls. If you go natural—abstain from chemical treatments—your hair will be healthier and you'll save time not drying or straightening your hair. A wash-and-go will become the curly-haired person's best friend because it's exactly as it sounds: Wash your hair, add a few products, and head out the door.
Know Your Curl Pattern
"Curly hair is identified by the distinctive S-shaped curves with uniform wave patterns. The curlier your hair is, that S shape pattern will coil and can spring up all the way to a zig-zag pattern," Wiley explained. Curly hair is a rose by many different names: Curly, textured, coily, kinky, the list goes on and on.
Invest in a Ceramic Flat Iron
If you want to go straight on occasion, invest in a great ceramic/ionic flat iron, like Dyson's Corrale Straightener ($500) and blow dryer—it's much less time-consuming with great lasting results, giving your hair better heat quality, which helps sustain your curls in between styles. But Everett notes that it's not just the type of tool you're using, but also how it’s used. "Be mindful to take small sections and use a lower temperature when flat ironing so that you can get the hair smoother without doing multiple passes on the hair. That’s how you avoid heat damage," Everett shares.
As you likely know by now, humidity can wreak havoc on curly hair. Curly hair tends to be dry and therefore vulnerable to humid air—it simply wants to soak up moisture. This causes cuticles to expand, which causes frizz.
The secret to keeping frizz at bay involves moisture, moisture, moisture. "Curly hair lacks moisture, so finding your perfect hydration factor is key to those curls looking and feeling their best," Wiley shares, recommending weekly application of a deep conditioning mask for dry hair, such as the Hydrate Superfood Deep Treatment Mask from Pureology ($40).
Really want to get the full mileage out of your deep conditioner? Sitting under a steamer or a hooded dryer while the mask is on your scalp can help the mask dig even deeper.
Consider Natural Oils
If your hair is susceptible to dryness, frizz, or dandruff, keep away from products with alcohol and treat hair to a deep conditioning hair mask at least once a week. Consider natural oils as well: Taking a few drops of natural oils like neem oil, amla oil, coconut oil, argan oil, olive oil, and jojoba oil are all also great when used together or by themselves. Place the oil in your palm and massage with your fingers into your scalp and hair. Brush the oil through the hair with a natural bristle hairbrush—Crown Affair's The Brush no. 001 ($62) uses both boar and nylon bristles to both distribute your hair's natural oils as well as keep your follicles healthy—then put a shower cap on and sleep in it. Finally, wash the oil out in the morning.
Know How to Use a Blowdryer
The blow dryer can be a curly girl's nightmare if used improperly. To avoid poof, let hair air dry as long as possible, then blow dry hair with a diffuser. "You can use a diffuser to help keep your curls defined without making your hair look frizzy, and help you get more volume in your hair without disturbing your curls," Leatherwood says.
"When diffusing, use a medium heat and tip the head forward, placing the diffuser bowl upwards towards the scalp," says Wiley. "Hold it until that section is around 90% dry, continuing doing this in sections, moving the head around until dry. Then give your head a shake and scrunch to enhance the volume."
Leatherwood adds, "Be sure to diffuse your hair from side to side and back to front, and use an afro pick at the root base to lift hair to get volume and height."
Don't Throw Out Your Brush
It's actually a myth that you can't brush curly hair. While some women swear off even a comb (in favor of finger-combing) stylist Eva Scrivo writes in her book, Eva Scrivo on Beauty, that "brushing your hair can be a miracle-maker." Brushing hair for two minutes a night helps distribute natural oils from scalp to hair, making it "smoother, more manageable, less frizzy, softer, and shinier."
Yes, your hair will likely pouf up into a mass of curls after brushing, but Scrivo says this is okay. Simply wait until just before bed to brush and refresh your hair in the morning.
Everett suggests using a Denman brush ($20): "It's the best for detangling, product distribution, and blow-drying if needed," she says. "It’s an amazing multi-purpose brush when it comes to curly hair."
Know How to Distribute Product Through Hair
Most people apply product to the top of their heads, which can weigh hair down, but for those with curly hair, your hands are going to be your BFF. Everett always recommends putting products in your hands and applying them to the hair instead of putting them directly on the hair. "You can control how much product you use, and normally a little bit goes a long way."
You can comb or brush the product through, or massage it into the hair with your fingers by applying a finger-comb method.
Grab a Headband
For curly-haired women short on time, a headband can be a lifesaver. If you pull hair back in a band while it's damp, it's a great way to "flatten" hair at the crown, leaving the curls at your hair's ends. Later you can pull off the hairband and you'll have gorgeous body. We love this festive leopard headband by Slip ($70).
Get the Right Haircut
There are so many secrets to getting the right haircut for your naturally curly hair. For instance, you should avoid bangs, as longer hair works better than shorter hair, and it's a myth that you need a specialist in curly hair to cut yours. Everett recommends long layered cuts as "they make the curls fall more beautifully while keeping body in the hair," as well as bob cuts. "A bob creates weight where it’s needed and gives curly hair a shape," she says.
Embrace the Product Cocktail
Product cocktailing was essentially designed for the curly-haired community. "Product cocktailing is when you blend two products together to create the perfect blend for your hair texture. When you cocktail a product, you are creating a new version of each of those products vs. when you layer them on your hair. It’s necessary for curly hair to find the perfect blend for your curl type," Everett explains. Whether it be a gel and a cream like Amika's Curl Corps Defining Cream ($25) and Curl Corps Enhancing Gel ($25), or a cream plus a leave-in conditioner, any combination of cocktail conditioners and styling products will have your hair winning every single time.
Heat-Free Is Your Friend
One benefit of having curly hair is that you have a naturally built-in hairstyle. With a few tweaks and a little love, a beautiful style can be achieved without having to pull out a whole tool kit. Braiding or twisting the hair when it's wet can allow it to set into a wavy look, while pin curls, sock curls, or Bantu knots can also create magic the following morning.
Your Towel Matters
There are a number of ways curly hair can be dried: Air drying, diffusing, plopping—but don't just grab a towel from the linen closet. Wiley recommends investing in a microfiber towel, which will cut your drying time down, absorbs excess water, and is softer on the hair. A traditional terry towel's abrasiveness is far too rough, which is basically just asking your hair to frizz and dry out.
Stay Away from the Big 3
Say goodbye to sulfates, silicones, and parabens, as those are are a big no-go for the curly-haired. These three types of ingredients do more harm than good for your hair in the long run, despite how nice it might feel on instant use. Silicones create that lovely shiny, conditioned hair feel, but also blocks moisture from coming into the hair and can make it feel weighed down, lifeless, and an all-around bummer. Sulfates create that sudsy foam that makes us all feel like we're in a haircare commercial but also can remove some of your hair's good oils, making it feel stripped. As for parabens, which usually show up in ingredient lists with the prefixes methyl, propyl, butyl, or ethyl, they are a type of preservative intended to increase the product's shelf life—and conversations are being had about the impact parabens can have on your health.