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Tips for styling naturally curly hair

Frieda was always my favorite Peanuts character because she had naturally curly hair like me, and talked about it being a “big responsibility.”

I’m not sure hair qualifies as any kind of “responsibility”, but naturally curly hair sure does require more care-taking and know-how than most hair types.

Different types of curly hair

The first important thing to realize is: there’s more than one type of curly hair. What works for one kind may be exactly wrong for another.

I used to ask friends with gorgeous curls what they did, and then drive myself crazy when doing the same thing didn’t work for me. Curly hair can be coarse and wavy, curly and fine, coarse and super-curly, etc.

Naturally Curly has a great page to help you identify your curly hair type. For extra complication: many of us have more than one type of hair on our heads (I’m a 3A and 3B), so don’t stop reading at the first one that sounds like you.

Closeup of long brown curly hair

The cut

Finding a stylist who knows curly hair is easier said than done. Most stylists are taught only how to cut straight hair. Cosmetology schools assure them they can cut curly hair the same way.

This works for a few curlies, but not most. Cutting curly hair is just different. The important thing is to ask for a stylist who deals with your type of hair, and then ask that person some questions.

If she had curly hair, how does it look? Can she show you pictures of other clients? When you tell her what your challenges are, does she have answers that make sense?

The right cut for you depends on your texture, on which spots are thicker than others, and on what look you want. Layers will give you a more rounded profile, whether you have loose, long waves or an afro, while a blunt cut may give you the “pyramid effect”, with the bottom of your hair being wider than the top.

Be prepared for whatever cut you get to take some getting used to!

Keeping it healthy

Believe it or not, the main reasons curly hair sometimes looks “bad” (dull, frizzy, etc.) is because we’re too rough with it. Most shampoos – even the expensive ones – are too drying for curly hair, which reacts differently than straight hair.

You should also avoid heated styling products – even blow dryers. In other words, most of the advice we hear is meant for someone else’s hair. The good news is, keeping curly hair healthy doesn’t have to cost more or be difficult.

The basics

  • Never brush it when it’s dry. Some people only ever use their fingers to detangle.
  • Use sulfate-free shampoos. And don’t shampoo daily. You may want to consider the “no-poo” method (this did horrible things to my scalp, but some people love it – try it at your own risk).
  • After rinsing out conditioner, run cold water over your hair to seal in the moisture.
  • Dry it with a t-shirt, not a towel.

However you wash your hair:

  • Consider a satin pillowcase. Sleeping on a pillowcase that lets your hair side easily instead of gripping at it the way cotton does makes a big difference.
  • Wash it gently. No vigorous scrubbing with fingertips. Rub shampoo gently into the hair and scalp, like a massage.
  • Condition it just as carefully so every hair gets the full benefit of the conditioner.
  • Towel it gently. No rubbing: just squeeze chunks of it gently in a towel. A microfiber towel or old t-shirt is best. Microfiber turbans are my preference.
  • Many curlies should comb only with a wide tooth comb or  their fingers, and never brush. Kinky curls generally shouldn’t be combed at all. On the other hand, I find my finer curly hair responds well to being combed by a wide-tooth comb followed by a fine-tooth comb in the shower while conditioner’s on it, and other fine curlies have reported good results from that method.
  • Air dry it or use a diffuser. Once you’ve done any scrunching or styling you do to it wet, leave it alone to dry so you’re not separating strands and creating unnecessary frizz.
  • Use moisturizing products.
  • If it’s damaged, be patient. It takes time for hair to improve. It is not true that all the damaged hairs much be cut off – many of them will smooth out and look better. Of course, the new hair growing in will look even better if you keep being gentle with it.

The style

Once you’ve got healthy looking hair with a cut that looks good, you can try new styles. HairFinder has a FAQ full of recommendations for getting certain looks (taming poof, making curls looser, etc.).

Try out their suggestions, or run them past your stylist for additional information or clarification. A good stylist should be happy to give you advice and tips about styling.