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Curly Hair: Let’s Talk About It

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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…

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41 Comments

  1. your hair is bomb.com. mine is this weird wavy straight hybrid mess. perhaps i should try some of your techniques to see if they make any difference.

    • Yea, same as me! And super frizzy! But these techniques could work on our hair too!

    • Give it a go! I have no experience with wavy hair, but I loooove it.

  2. Chris Chris

    I have Katie hair when it grows out. Honored. I’ve always thought your hair is awesome. Big fan up in here.

    • Oh my god grow yours back out. We’ll match.

  3. Ashley Ashley

    My mind is blown. While I love my curly hair as well… I feel like I can do maybe two different styles with it… EVER. Usually limited by frizz and the “kinky” curls (read: Annie, curly fries, carrot top).. I’m totally gonna try this! Have always loved your hair!!

    • Girl, you have the best curly hair on the planet. THE BEST.

  4. Jess Watson Jess Watson

    I also have curly hair.. Also wondering what I have to do to meet you! 😛

    • Ha! Are you in Charlotte? If so, it’s very easy.

      • Jess Watson Jess Watson

        Technically no… Only on some weekends

  5. Let it be known, I have always (ever since I started following you on social media a few yrs ago) thought you had amazing hair. It makes me happy to see people just embrace the hair they were born with. Mine is stick straight and even if Id love to have curly hair, it’s just not in the cards for me. 🙂

  6. I could have written this myself (down to the childhood bangs. shudder), except for one thing: product makes ALL the difference in the world for me. I have never found anything that makes my hair look as amazing as it does when I’m using Deva gel (and conditioner, but that shit is expensive and I can only justify the cost of one product). I just went to my wedding hair and makeup trial last week, and the hairstylist took one look at me and said: “Those curls are your identity, aren’t they?” DAMN STRAIGHT.

    • Damn straight, indeed. And YES, those Deva products are so outrageously expensive. But if it works it works. I just happen to have lucked out with the realization that cheap or nothing is almost the same for me. I’ve used Deva though and they have good stuff.

  7. Kate Kate

    Thanks for the tips! As a fellow curly haired gal, I have found that wrapping my hair in a t-shirt, rather than a towel, helps combat the frizz.

    • Yes! I’ve heard this. I’m just stuck in my ways…

  8. I LOLed my way through this entire tutorial. As a fellow curly girl, I can relate to all of it, namely, brushing it for so many regretful years. It took me about twenty years to embrace my hair. I still straighten it fairly often (because I also hate people seeing my hair wet and sometimes it’s just quicker and easier to blow dry, straighten, and go) but every time I let it go natural someone says “You’re sooo lucky to have curly hair!” For most of my life, I thought they were all bonkers but now that I’m 25 and wise (or something), I have to agree with them 🙂

  9. Betsy Betsy

    Thank you, thank you! My hair isn’t as curly as yours- it’s between being wavy and curly, but I spent a good 10 years of my life flat ironing it every. single. day. Horrible. In the past 4 years I’ve embraced the au natural look and I love it. A dollop of curl cream and I let it air dry and hope for the best. Some days I have sexy beach hair, others I look like a dirty hippie but it’s all good. The comments, though. I straightened my hair for an event a few weeks ago and the next day at work someone told me, “you should straighten your hair everyday. It looks much better.” So yeah, I feel ya girl!

    • I have the same wavy/curly kind of hair and do basically the same as you- condition, air dry and hope for the best! This technique is best in a humid climate (not where I live, sadly). Bet it’s gorgeous!

  10. Mary Mary

    I have also committed every sin on your list. But at the ripe “old” age of 26 I have come to many of the same conclusions as you. Literally the only difference, I wrap the towel for 3-5 mins tops and let it air dry from there. Mine at least comes out a bit less frizzy. Save for some incredible life affirming days though my hair usually has to be up and out of my face by mid afternoon.

  11. I love your hair! Mine is half wavy, half curly, depending on how humid it is outside, and it’s very coarse, so it basically has a mind of its own. Even my stylist has issues with it sometimes. I used to try to straighten it everyday, but I don’t eve touch my straightener anymore. I give in to the messy bun way too often, though, I need to work on wearing it down more often!

  12. It’s so nice to find fellow curly girls out there! I have hair that’s very similar to yours but longer. I’ve always wanted to rock the shoulder length curls but everytime I cut my hair it puts up this frizz infused battle and the curls get confused. I’m proud to say that I rarely even straighten my hair anymore because it ends up looking like every other straight haired girl and looses it’s unique awesomeness…and also because my friends can never find me in a bar without my curly mane.
    Question-What do you do with your hair after yoga? I go to hot yoga every morning before work and leave with the most unmanagble, frizzy mess that won’t even look good in a bun! Curly haired problems.

  13. Your hair is awesome! So many people don’t understand the curl, I constantly have people wanting to straighten my hair, but I always tell them to leave it alone, I love my curl (and I have nowhere near as much as you do)!

  14. I use to hate my curly hair. Straightened it for years and years with a big round brush and hair dryer. It’s gotten thinner over the years (use to be super thick) and I don’t straighten very often. I have a similar routine for styling mine. Not a lot of product, only washing a couple of times a week, etc. Instead of using a regular bath towel I use one of those “turban” style towel things because it’s not as heavy. I looooove that thing!

    P.S. Your hair is awesome!

    • I need one of those turban towels…

      • My mother bought mine for me years ago. Bed, Bath and Beyond I think. Best thing ever!

  15. Becca Becca

    Thank you sooooo much for posting this! I’ve tried to fight my natural, frizzy, curly mess for years, but now I’ve come to embrace it. Trying to style it has been a pain so it’s nice to read about other women who’ve dealt with it. Can’t wait to try some of these tips!

    • Let me know how it goes!

  16. […] my hair go wavy. Inspired by Katie, though my hair is nowhere near as curly or cool as hers […]

  17. autumnraintimes autumnraintimes

    This has seriously changed my life. I have been doing it all wrong. I just gave up last year and have been straightening my hair every day but I tried your technique this morning and I LOVE IT. Thank you so much!

    • This makes me so happy!

  18. Susan Susan

    I went Curly Girl last fall after a trip to Devachan salon in NY, and I will never go back to the hair dryer/straightening thing. It is so freeing to let my wavy/curly hair just BE.
    I use the Deva products and altho they are pricey, they last a long time.

    I love your hair and wish mine were even curlier. Thanks for the tips!

  19. Bahareh Bahareh

    My hair is wavy. But I have been doing the tricks you mentioned above and I can tell how different the curls are. Thank you for this useful information.

  20. Jessica Jessica

    Your tips are amazing! I have curly hair that has always been sort of flat at the roots, which I HATE. I’ve been using your tips and it’s like new life breathed into my locks! One question I do have though is how do you handle the part? Mine is really inconsistent – some days I get lucky and it falls into place perfectly without touching it, but most days I end up with weird matted sections at the roots that don’t fall in a manner even close to resembling a part. Which leads me to try and “fix” it with my fingers, which as you know totally ruins my curls. Tips??

  21. JennyV JennyV

    Huge fan of curly hair but I often straighten my own for some reason?? Perhaps my technique has been lacking? Anyway, I’m giving it the old college try this week.
    Btw, had it my been for the 2014 review I would have somehow missed this post!

    • Katie Katie

      Hooray! Hope it is helpful for you!

  22. JennyV JennyV

    Followed instructions on a beautiful blizzardy day in the Midwest (you know, in case it didn’t turn out due to personal error, I didn’t have to see anyone!) Shocked that allowing my hair to be wrapped after putting product in it and not diffusing created soft and non-frizzy curls. Tweeted this post

    • Katie Katie

      So awesome! Glad to hear it! Thanks for sharing

  23. Aja Aja

    Your hair is beautiful! I love the curls. Mine look exactly like yours but yours is healthier *sobs*

    The thing is I’m on the ‘no poo’ method. I wash my hair once a week or twice if my hair gets greasy-crazy or my scalp awfully itching. I don’t know if its just me or it goes the same to all curly hair.. My hair texture is like a paint brush. Dry and stiff? I’m not sure what the actual word for that but I really hope you understand what I’m trying to say. It curls but it feels very..not silky smooth..? I’m tired of it. Sometimes I feel like giving up on this no poo method and go to saloon, chop my hair and let them wash&style like usual. It is frustrating. Also… The ‘no poo’ method gave me itchy scalp (sometimes) and dandruff.

    Please help me.

  24. Janet Janet

    I have thick red curly hair…. i fought for years and years with it, always blowing it dry and then using the flat iron .. bla!!! I even cut it really short to make it easier. For the past year, I pretty much wash and go .. so much easier! I wash it 2x a week tops .. it seems to look better the less I wash it. After washing & when it is still sopping wet I add my product, a pretty good amount and then I let it dry. It’s confusing though … sometimes it comes out amazing and sometimes not so much. On those not so much days I rewet it and hope for the best. I think the weather has a lot to do with it, the humidity helps the curls stay curly.

  25. Thanks for sharing the info! Now I know how to take care of my natural thick curly hair properly. Great posts!

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