I love having curly hair, but it wasn’t always this way. Growing up I didn’t know I had curly hair and if I did wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Surrounded by friends and family members with straight hair, I just did to mine what they did to theirs: brushed it, blow dried it, over shampooed it… gave it bangs. Today I know these are all terrible atrocities against naturally curly hair, but it took a brave hairdresser suggesting that we let my hair air dry “to see what happens” when I was 13 and about 10 more years of trial and error to get this on lock.
The result of my living in hair denial for so long is a 13-year photographic record of pure horror. If I can save one girl the anguish of these permanent images from which there is no escape, my time here will have been well spent.
Short of filming an in-shower tutorial (which will never happen), here is everything I know about working with curly hair.
Before we dive in, a disclaimer: When it comes to my hair, I believe in bigger is better. If your goal is to tame your curly hair you have most certainly come to the wrong place.
Don’t Brush It
The key to getting fat, round, tight curls is to leave your hair the fuck alone. (I’m sorry mom, I need people to pay attention to this part.) Do not touch it. Don’t run your fingers through it. Don’t use a stylist-approved wide-tooth comb. Do. not. brush. it. I don’t even own a brush. Any brushing you need to do will take place in the shower with your fingers when your hair is soaking wet. (We’ll go over this.)
Master the Art of The Fluff
This is my equivalent of brushing my hair. If you ever catch me in front of a mirror or immediately before a photo is taken, I am likely doing The Fluff. I flip my head upside down, vigorously rub my fingers all over my scalp, and then dramatically flip my head back over. Note that your fingers should never run down the length of your hair because that’s what makes it frizzy–just slide in at the scalp and slide out. I don’t care how weird that sounds. This is how it works.
Easy on the Shampoo, Tiger
Curly hair is already naturally very dry. If you shampoo it every day you are just drying it out even more. I shampoo maybe 2-3 times a week, but I condition almost every day. You can use an aerosol dry shampoo sprayed at the root on the off days. I’m a huge fan of this. (My dry shampoo of choice is Suave Professionals Dry Shampoo because it’s cheap and not sticky.) But if I’m extra sweaty and gross and in need of more frequent shampooing for general scalp health (and, you know, hygiene) I shampoo the top of my head only trying to steer clear of the ends.
Heavy on the Conditioner
Conditioner is curly hair’s very best friend. It’s thirsty for it, quite literally. I condition almost every time I get in the shower and I use a lot. If I’m not shampooing, conditioner is my very first step in the shower (after standing there for like 5 minutes with my head against the wall trying to rally for work). I put it in and leave it in while I do everything else, waiting to rinse until the very end. I like to think it gives it time to soak in but I have no idea if this is actually happening according to science and stuff. Leave-in conditioners are not my friend; I think they’re way too heavy.
Water is Your Styling Tool
The second a stylist takes a curling iron to my naturally curly hair, she has lost what little faith I already had in her ability to work with what I’ve got. Assuming you have the kind of hair that naturally forms tight botticelli curls, you need to let it do that and the way is with water. The same way girls with straight hair will use a blow dryer or straightener to style, I will re-wet my entire head to reset the curls.
Air Drying is Everything
Blow dryers are a terrible idea for curly hair. Don’t do it. The only time you should be taking a blow dryer to your hair is if you’re running super late and it has a diffuser on it. Even then, just let it air dry. Once it’s dry, flip your head over and do The Fluff and you’re set. I did very recently buy a dryer with a diffuser to use in a pinch when I don’t have time to fully air dry. I’m never super happy with the end result.
Curls are About Technique Not Product
This is the very most important thing I have to say, and I’m going to walk through it in painstaking detail below. The way in which you work with your hair is infinitely more important than the products you’re putting on it. Trust me. Less is more. Curly hair is like this weird living, breathing force. Let it be.
Exactly How I Do My Hair
- Shampoo – I used to do my entire hair washing routine with my head upside down but it’s exhausting. I learned that this technique is really only clutch for rinsing out the conditioner so for shampooing you can stand up straight. You’re welcome. Remember, you shouldn’t be doing this every single day. If it’s time for a shampoo… wet hair, massage shampoo in at the root. Do not lather shampoo all the way down to the ends of your hair. It’ll run through as you rinse it out, which is impossible to avoid, but just focus your shampooing efforts at the root. Rinse.
- Condition – Apply a generous amount of conditioner from root to ends. Roll hair into a a twisted bun and let it sit while you go through the rest of your shower routine.
- Water Style – After you’ve shaved, washed your face, and whatever else you do in the shower, it’s time to make your hair look awesome. This is the most critical part of the process (perhaps tied with not touching it afterwards). Flip your head upside down and rinse conditioner, running your fingers through your hair and scrunching as you go. (This is the only time you get to brush your hair so live it up.) The point of running your hands through your hair while water is running through it is you’re trying to get it to land in its natural shape. You want thick, fat curls at this point. So if the curls are looking stringy, run your hands through again and try to get them to stick together. This takes several tries but when I feel like I’ve got some solid curls forming, I pull my head away from the water and move to the next step.
- Add Product – Your head is still flipped upside down right now, yes, and the hair is soaking wet. Don’t ruin this. I bet you had no idea this is what I’m doing when I’m in the shower… Anyway, sometimes I skip this step and go au natural, but right now I’m a fan of Miss Jessie’s Pillow-Soft Curl Pudding. I take about a nickel-sized dollop and scrunch it into my hair at the ends. (Product near the root just looks crunchy and weird.)
- Dramatic Flip – Once your curls are set and the product is in, dramatically flip your head back over, let curls fall where they lie, and exit the shower. This should be the very last thing you do because if you carry on trying to shave and wash your face and stuff you’re going to ruin all this hard work.
- Towel Dry – DO NOT SCRUB YOUR HEAD WITH A TOWEL. I will smack you. We’ve come so far. Flip your head back over (again, yes), wrap a towel around your head and hair, squeeze to remove excess water, twist it up, and leave it alone. I keep the towel on my head while I do makeup and get dressed, and then take it off to air dry.
- Air Dry – My hair’s air dry time is a solid hour and a half. There is nothing I hate more in this world than people seeing me with my hair wet so I schedule a lot of my life around how long it’s going to take my hair to dry.
- Maintenance – Throughout the day I’ll flip my head over and do The Fluff to perk my hair up. After I work out I might spray the roots with dry shampoo. I recently bought some seawater spray that I like for bringing back a little life when I don’t want to do a full re-wash.
- Emergencies – If my hair is looking like absolute shit and I have somewhere to be in the evening and no time to shower and go through this whole process, I will seriously wet my head in a sink, form curls as prescribed, and let it re-dry. Good as new. If that’s not an option I will put it in a giant bun on top of my head. Can’t win ’em all.
That’s it, y’all. That is exactly what I do with my hair. I hope it’s helpful to those of you with curly hair (or kids with curly hair).
If I can teach you anything I hope it’s to love and embrace your hair as it is. For some reason people seem to think it’s ok to voice their every opinion about curly hair. I have had grown-ass adults call me Sideshow Bob, ask me if I know what conditioner is, refer to my hair as a rat’s nest and tell me “you know you really should straighten it.” I can only imagine it’s a harsher world for kids.
I would never say to someone, “Man, your hair is looking greasy and flat today” so I struggle to understand how “Yikes, you’re hair is out of control frizzy today” is ever appropriate.
But you know what? I don’t really care. Because I’m one of few people who actually loves having curly hair. Curly hair is awesome. It’s dramatic and different and unexpected and unruly, oftentimes just like its owner. I hope you love yours too.
You can catch me on Twitter and Instagram @katie_levans. Let me know how it goes…