Type 4C Hair: What It Is and How to Care for It

Lupita Nyong'o on the red carpet with her natural curls in a voluminous updo hairstyle

Getty Images

Building the right routine for your hair can be challenging, as while there are endless options out there that help with health, nourishment, and an overall beautiful result, not every product and method is going to work for your unique strands. Because of this, the modern hair typing system changed the game when celebrity stylist Andre Walker introduced it in the 1990s, allowing haircare enthusiasts everywhere to breathe a sigh of relief. Ever since, learning about the ins and outs of our hair has never been easier.

Knowing your hair type, porosity, and texture is key for achieving a strong and healthy mane. What may work for one hair type might not work for others, so being aware of what exactly you're working with will help you elevate your natural hair journey. While all type 4 hair is tightly coiled, it has three unique subtypes, with type 4C having the most shrinkage and less defined natural curls.

We asked hairstylists Charlotte Mensah and Michelle Sultan, as well as trichologist Dr. Kari Williams, to help us break down everything there is to know about type 4C hair, including how to identify it, how to care for it, and what to use on it. Keep reading to find out what they had to share.

Meet the Expert

  • Kari Williams, PhD, is a board-certified trichologist and a member of DevaCurl's Expert Curl Council.
  • Charlotte Mensah is an award-winning hairstylist and author with more than 30 years of industry experience. She is the founder of Manketti Oil and the author of Good Hair.
  • Michelle Sultan is an award-winning celebrity hairdresser whose clients include Jennifer Hudson and Jordyn Woods. She is also an Imbue ambassador and creative director.

What Is 4C Hair?

Unlike other coily hair types, the key to identifying 4C hair is the lack of definition in its curl pattern. "4C hair is tightly coiled in its raw state and as it has no defined curl pattern—coils must be defined by styles such as twisting and braiding," Mensah tells Byrdie. "Type 4 hair is the most coily out of all the hair types," Sultan adds. What separates 4C hair from its fellow subtypes is its distinctive zig-zag pattern and spring factor, which is between eight to 16 inches.

Characteristics of 4C Hair

One of the most common attributes of 4C hair is shrinkage, which is when hair appears shorter than it actually is. "Many 4C naturals have 70% shrinkage or more. When the hair is maybe ten inches long, it gives the appearance of only about three inches unstretched," Mensah says.

When 4C hair shrinks, it's quite fragile and prone to breakage, which can lead to coils getting tangled. But although shrinkage can put 4C curls in a vulnerable position, it isn’t anything to be concerned about: It’s actually a sign that your curls are healthy and full of elasticity. "Regular moisture and protection is all you need to keep your coils in check," Sultan says.

4C Hair vs. Other Hair Types

4C hair has less curl definition compared to other hair types. "The strands are more fine and closely packed, which creates a dense afro look," Williams explains. Studying up on the typing system may be beneficial when differentiating between 4C hair and other hair types. "The letters in the hair typing system describe the size of the hair strand or the width of your curl pattern, so 4C hair has the smallest distance between the curls, making it the tightest curl pattern within the 4 category," Williams says.

While 4C hair has less curl definition, 3A hair has defined curls. "It is also thick in texture with a lot of shine and can be frizzy," Mensah says. Something to keep in mind about hair types is that it's possible to have more than one hair type or curl pattern. 3B hair may have a combination of textures in addition to tighter curls, and 3C hair is sometimes confused with 4A hair, even though the curls are slightly "more coiled and hold a tighter S-shaped curl," Mensah says. To distinguish the difference between 3C and 4A curls, Mensah recommends looking at how the hair grows and falls: "4A hair has an even voluminosity across the head and grows up and out. It also retains moisture well, but like most curly hair types, it can still be prone to dryness."

4B and 4C hair are quite similar in shape. "The only thing that changes between these two hair types is the density and coarseness," Mensah says. Like 4C hair, 4B hair has a less definitive curl pattern, but it looks more like a Z-shape because the hair bends at a sharp angle.

How to Care for 4C Hair

4C hair's unique characteristics, like the aforementioned shrinkage, tight curl pattern, and dryness-prone shaft, are all clues pointing towards the best way to care for it. With a routine that caters to your hair type's unique needs, your strands are sure to thrive.

  • Keep hair moisturized: 4C hair needs moisture in order to thrive. A good moisturizing product can revitalize your curls and make them look better than ever. Additionally, the LOC method is a great way to give your hair the moisture it needs. L stands for liquid (or leave-in). Be sure to use a product that allows your hair cuticles to open (so nothing too heavy), so your hair can retain the other products. The next step is an oil to seal in the moisture, which you then finally lock in further with a cream—curl creams or moisturizing creams are ideal for this. "4C curls tend to be more dry, so always incorporate hydrating products into your routine," Williams says. 
  • Cleanse regularly: Williams recommends shampooing 4C hair twice a month. "Depending on the lifestyle of the individual and the health of their scalp, the hair can be cleansed more frequently—just use hydrating shampoos and conditioners," she says. Washing 4C hair too often can actually strip the hair of its natural oils, which can lead to damage. As 4C curls are quite fragile, many naturals wash their hair in sections to minimize breakage. "Sectioning can be helpful for those with dense hair, as it ensures that hair is being cleansed thoroughly and enough attention is being given to the scalp," Williams says. 
  • Detangle on a regular basis: 4C hair tangles easily, and detangling it can be challenging as the goal is to do it naturally without damaging your curls. "The tight, zig-zag curl pattern of 4C hair causes it to tangle easier than other hair types," Williams says. Detangling your hair regularly can prevent excessive tangling and matting. According to Williams, the key to successfully detangling 4C hair is to use a conditioning detangler, as they help "soften and protect the hair from breakage during the process."
  • Deep condition: As 4C hair is prone to breakage, applying a deep conditioner on a regular basis is recommended to reduce split ends and promote better hair health. Williams recommends deep conditioning the hair every wash day to "infuse moisture back into the hair strands." It’s also important for 4C hair types in particular to know the difference between conditioning and deep conditioning. "Deep conditioning is a 15-30 minute process that incorporates heat or steam with a conditioning product," Williams says. 
  • Don’t over-style: Low-manipulation hairstyles are better for 4C hair types, as they help protect the hair. Over-manipulating 4C hair can increase its fragility, which may lead to breakage. If you manipulate your 4C hair from time to time, try to embrace heat-free styles, which Williams recommends for all hair types. "Reducing use of heat for curly hair is always the best choice because it’s more fragile than other hair types and can be more susceptible to heat damage and breakage if the right products are not used," she says. 
  • Protect hair overnight: It's just as important to look after your 4C curls at night as it is to care for them during the day. Invest in a silk or satin scarf or pillowcase to give your hair the protection and maintenance it needs, as this will "ensure moisture is retained so you’re less likely to resort to heated appliances and extra products—your hair will already be beautifully hydrated," Mensah says. For added protection, Williams recommends braiding the hair in large plaits, as this stops 4C coils from tangling or matting.

The Best Haircuts and Styles for 4C Hair

Both short and longer cuts can work for 4C hair. When searching for the best cut, consider your lifestyle as well as your individual hair needs. "I always ask clients what their goals are in terms of maintenance—this is key. Short cuts are perfect for those who want to ‘wash and go,’ while longer, more fashionable styles might require more time to maintain," Mensah says. If you want to fully embrace your curls and coils, Sultan recommends afros. "They’ve made a huge comeback on the catwalks and in editorial shoots—all you need to do is grab an afro pick and pat it into your desired shape," she says. She also recommends blunt bobs for this hair type. 

4C hair is versatile, so it can hold a variety of protective styles for long periods of time. "Braids, twists, and bantu knots are great for 4C hair—they can also become a dual style when undone, creating beautiful curly sets," Williams says. She also recommends halo and rounded shapes as well as tapered and clipper cuts. Mensah seconds the recommendation for twist-outs and braids, as they can make 4C hair more manageable. "These protective styles can also promote growth and protect the hair from external factors like pollution or heat," she says. "They also look really stylish!"

If healthy 4C curls are your main goal, be sure to get regular trims to keep your hair strong and healthy. "Most of my clients with 4C hair need trims four times a year—some need trims more than others; it depends on the condition of the hair," Williams says. Regular trims also help with retaining length in the long run. It’s best to trim your strands when they’re dry instead of wet in order to avoid losing more length than desired, so ask your stylist to trim with caution.

The Best Products for 4C Hair

Dr. K Comb Out Creme
Dr. K Comb Out Creme $25.00
Shop

If you prefer to detangle your hair prior to shampooing, you might want to give this creme a try. It minimizes shedding and makes hair more manageable, particularly after you've removed protective styles. In addition to detangling, it also works as a leave-in conditioner and pre-wash hair softener. For soft, nourished, and shiny hair, apply a generous amount of product from root to tip before combing out and styling.

Imbue Coil Awakening Sulphate Free Cream Cleanser
Imbue Coil Awakening Sulphate Free Cream Cleanser $12.00
Shop

This sulfate-free cleanser removes buildup, dirt, and grime without stripping natural oils. Ideal for those with the tightest of curls, its lightweight, silky texture makes it scalp-friendly. Imbue prides itself on sustainability, offering a range of products with exotic butters and natural oils. Key ingredients in this cleanser include moisture-enhancing castor oil and damage-rescuing cupuaçu seed butter. For best results, massage into wet hair and scalp, lather up, and rinse well.

Imbue Coil Rejoicing Leave In Conditioner
Imbue Coil Rejoicing Leave In Conditioner $10.00
Shop

This multi-purpose leave-in conditioner detangles, smoothes, and strengthens curls, facilitating the most challenging of wash days. The brand claims that the conditioner detangles hair in 10 minutes, as tested by over 100 curly-haired participants. The moisturizing formula also makes this conditioner ideal for fragile hair. For best results, apply to damp hair, then work the conditioner through in small sections from root to tip. This product also works to restore and hydrate dry curls.

Imbue Curl Restoring Intensive Mask
Imbue Curl Restoring Intensive Mask $18.00
Shop

This protein-rich conditioning mask repairs all types of damage to reveal healthier, happier hair. Its blend of shea butter and coconut oil makes it ideal for 4C hair types that want to strengthen their strands from roots to ends. Say goodbye to split ends and hello to nourished, hydrated curls. To use, smooth the product onto damp lengths and detangle. Leave it in for at least 10 minutes, then rinse and style hair as desired.

Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil Shampoo
Charlotte Mensah Manketti Oil Shampoo $31.00
Shop

This rich, creamy shampoo is perfect for anyone with 4C hair who wants to nourish their strands to make them hydrated, softer, and more manageable. The accompanying conditioner ($28) works to replenish lost moisture while repairing and protecting hair. Apply a generous amount between palms and distribute the product through wet hair. Work into a rich lather, rinse, and repeat if needed.

Charlotte Mensah Manketti Hair Oil
Charlotte Mensah Manketti Hair Oil $63.00
Shop

This hair oil is perfect for anyone who wants to smooth frizz and flyaways. It also repairs damage while protecting strands, leaving hair stronger, shinier, and easier to manage. Packed with naturally sourced manketti nuts, it gives hair the moisture it needs without weighing it down. To apply, distribute a small amount of oil through wet or dry hair, then massage into your scalp, comb through, and style.

Charlotte Mensah Paddle Brush
Charlotte Mensah Paddle Brush $29.00
Shop

This paddle brush is perfect for anyone who wants to eliminate knots and tangles to achieve smooth, sleek hair. With an air-cushioned head that protects the scalp from damage, your haircare routine will be simpler than ever. The brush is also ideal for those who want to blow-dry and shape their hair. Wash it in warm, soapy water as needed.

Related Stories