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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

Let’s start here: Your hair is beautiful.

It may soak up your time and money. It may morph the moment you step out into actual weather. It may dramatically defy what other people say “good hair” should do. Never mind all that.

Whether fine, thick, long, short, matte, glossy, curly, coily, or straight, your hair deserves respect. Get to know your hair’s curl patterns, its porosity, density, and styling needs because healthy self-care includes your hair.

Your hair type is primarily based on your hair’s curl pattern. The amount of curl in your hair is determined by your hair follicle. The shape of your follicle determines whether your hair is:

  • straight
  • wavy
  • curly
  • coily

The more oval or asymmetrical your follicle is, the curlier your hair will be.

Your hair type is determined by genetics.

You can alter your curl pattern with heat or chemicals, and your curl pattern can changed somewhat by hormones or medications you’re taking, but your basic curl pattern is in your DNA.

Every time your hair goes through its growth cycle, those genetic characteristics are reasserted.

Andre Walker, known for decades as Oprah Winfrey’s stylist, is credited with devising a system that classifies hair according to one of four curl patterns:

Type 1Straight hair
Type 2Wavy hair
Type 3Curly hair
Type 4Coily hair

These types are further divided into subcategories based on the tightness or looseness of the curls and coils. It may sound simple, but like most attempts to define human characteristics, it isn’t.

You could have type 4C at your crown and 4A at your temples. Your hair could be straight at the root and wavy at the ends. The key is to understand what each type needs so you can style it well and keep it healthy.

Type 1: Straight

Type 1 hair has no natural curl. The individual strands may be fine or coarse, thick or thin, but they fall without waving from root to tip.

Type 1 hair has a tendency to become oily, so many stylists recommend that you check the label to be sure the product you’re buying isn’t going to add extra oil to your hair.

Stylist Kristi Lovelace also suggests avoiding heavy serums or butters. “With straight or fine hair, I’d recommend texture sprays instead. Dry shampoos are also a good idea,” she said.

Washing your hair too often can cause your scalp to overproduce oils, so dry shampoo is a boon for people with straight, oily hair.

Lovelace says most women come into salons with Instagram or Pinterest photos of the style they want.

“I usually recommend styles based more on face shape than on hair type,” she said. “One style that’s really popular right now is a chin-length blunt cut, which works really well with straight hair.”

Type 2: Wavy hair

Type 2A

The natural state of type 2 hair is a gentle, tousled texture. From the roots to around eye level, your hair is fairly straight. And from eye level to the ends, you have a loose, undefined wave.

To keep from flattening out that wave, steer clear of oil-based or creamy products. Instead, stylists recommend that you boost the base with a light mousse or use a gel to define those waves.

Type 2B

As with 2A, type 2B hair curls from the midpoint to the ends. The curls have a more defined S shape. It may require a little more effort to straighten, but it’s easy to create that beachy look with a spritz of salt spray.

Type 2B is ideal for the balayage trend, where stylists hand-paint color on the outer layer of hair.

“When people come in with pictures of balayage,” Lovelace said, “the photo is always going to show wavy hair because when that hair curls around, it’s getting dimension from the back side. People with wavy hair don’t have to go out of their way to style this look.”

Type 2C

The most well-defined S-shaped waves are type 2C. The wave pattern may begin close to the crown and tumble downward. Type 2C hair is often thick and can be prone to frizz in damp weather.

Lovelace recommends using a diffuser, a toothy devise that snaps onto the end of your blow dryer and helps eliminate the frizz.

“I am a huge advocate for products, especially where you’ve got environmental factors like hard water and salt water,” Lovelace said. “Anti-humidity products are huge.”

People with 2C hair may be frustrated with alternating between daily straightening, which can damage hair, and trying to find ways to enhance and control their waves. The good news is that many lightweight mousses now contain anti-humidity ingredients along with moisture.

Type 3: Curly

Type 3A

With type 3A hair, S-shaped curls form loose loops. The curls have a circumference a little wider than the large end of a taper candle. One important styling note: Brushing this type of hair can wreck curl definition and lead to a frizzy mane.

Silvana Castillo, master stylist and founder of The Curl Whisperer, a Miami salon specializing in hair types 3 and 4, recommends styles and products that define natural curl. Her best advice? Lose the ponytail.

“It’s OK if you’re on the way to the gym,” Castillo said, “or if it’s required for work. But pulling your hair back into a ponytail causes curls to lose their formation. And if you keep pulling your hair back into a bun or ponytail, you will also start to see thinning and hair loss at your hairline.”

That hair loss happens because the weight of the ponytail pulls against the front of the hair for prolonged periods.

Type 3B

Type 3B curls have a circumference about as wide as the barrel of a Sharpie marker. Curls spring from the roots and have ample volume. To maintain their characteristic spiral shape, these ringlets generally need moisture.

Avoid silicone and sulfates in your curl products, though. They may temporarily tame frizz, but they can dry hair over time and lead to breakage.

Type 3C

These curls are tight and springy — they would coil perfectly around a drinking straw. To preserve the definition in these corkscrew curls, take a hands-on approach.

Instead of combing, which can lead to frizz and breakage, use a leave-in conditioner and rake through wet hair with your fingertips. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you air-dry instead of using a blow dryer.

Type 4: Coils

Type 4A

The curl pattern for 4A hair is an S-shaped coil you could wrap around a chopstick.

“Type 4 hair is the most delicate hair type,” Castillo said. “You have to be very gentle with it, and it needs a lot of moisture.” But getting moisture doesn’t necessarily mean using oils. Deep conditioning masques, butters, and creams are good options for preserving hair health.

“We recommend that people wear it loose in wash-and-go styles,” she said.

One thing The Curl Whisperer salon doesn’t advocate for is protective styles like weaves and braids.

Though some stylists swear by styles that allow you to tuck away fragile ends to protect them while they grow out, Castillo says these styles often do more harm than good. While the hair is out of sight, it’s also out of reach for conditioning treatments.

“When you have had your hair in a protective style for weeks, the curl formation is completely gone. The cuticle is so dry and open that it becomes like little fish hooks that catch on each other and break when you take out the braids,” Castillo said.

Better to wear it in a style that lets you keep moisturizing.

Type 4B

The curls in 4B hair zig-zag. One popular technique for defining and accentuating your curls is shingling.

Shingling begins with wet hair. Gently detangle with your fingertips, using liberal amounts of leave-in conditioner to moisturize and condition. Then separate your hair into four sections.

Work curling cream or gel down the length of each curl, twisting the strands around your index finger as you go.

Type 4C

Type 4C coils are the tightest and most fragile. It’s really easy to break them if you comb roughly or too often, and it’s vital to frequently nourish the hair with rich conditioners.

Coconut oils are still popular, as are shea butter creams. More people are ditching shampoo for co-washing, or rinsing the hair with conditioners instead.

In terms of style, 4C hair is having a moment.

“What we’re seeing is the younger generation wants their hair to be bold,” Castillo said. “They want the hair to be big and round, almost like a sun. And they want to experiment with fun colors — always keeping in mind the health of the hair.”

The hair care-health connection

The growing popularity of natural hairstyles for people with 4C hair doesn’t just reflect a changing aesthetic — it has promising implications for women’s health.

A 2013 study found that the desire to maintain a hairstyle prevents around 40 percent of African American women from exercising regularly.

More than 60 percent of the women who participated in the study wore their hair in a chemically relaxed style.

There are some steps to take to protect natural hair during a workout, but more and more type 4 naturalistas are discovering that healthy bodies and healthy hair really can coexist.

Healthline

Porosity

When hair professionals talk about porosity, they mean your hair’s ability to soak up moisture. If your hair is highly porous, it has a lot of holes in its surface layer, called the cuticle.

You may have naturally porous hair, or chemical and heat processing may have made your hair more porous than it normally would be.

Those holes in the cuticle allow your hair to absorb more moisture. If the climate where you live is humid, your hair may tend to frizz. That’s because the cuticle is drawing moisture from the air.

The good news is that porous hair also absorbs moisturizing products well. A wide range of products, from leave-in conditioners to rich butters, can seal the holes and make your hair easier to manage.

Hair that’s less porous is tightly locked and tends to resist moisture, whether that’s environmental humidity or chemical processing.

To avoid product buildup that could weigh down and dull your hair, wash with a clarifying shampoo weekly and choose lighter products, like hair milks and mousses, to create volume.

You may find that products work better if you use a blow dryer. The heat can open up the tight cuticle and allow moisture to seep in.

Hair porosity test

  • Lay a few strands of your hair in a bowl of water.
  • After a few minutes, take a look.
  • Hair that floats has low porosity. Hair that sinks has high porosity.
Healthline

Density

Hair density refers to the number of hairs on your head. If you can’t see your scalp clearly, you probably have dense hair. If you can see your scalp even without parting your hair, you probably have low hair density.

Your hair’s density can be affected by a number of factors, including stress, hormones during pregnancy or menopause, and nutrition.

It’s a good idea to take stock of the products you’re using if your hair density has changed.

Heavy products can flatten low density hair. Look for texture sprays and light mousses to add volume and lift. High density hair can benefit from thicker creams and butters to add shine and control.

Wherever you are on your hair journey, others have probably been there before, too.

One of the most helpful things you can do is use social media to find and follow someone whose hair type is similar to yours. Try products they recommend. Use techniques that worked for them. You’ll save time and money and find a supportive community.

Hair type is all about your hair’s curl pattern. Type 1 hair is straight. Type 2 is best described as wavy. Type 3 hair is curly, and type 4 is coily. You may have different curl patterns on different parts of your head.

To keep curls healthy, bouncy, and defined, you’ll need to experiment with products to find the ones that work best for your hair. The curlier and more porous your hair is, the more likely you are to need intense, regular moisturizing to keep it healthy.

If you’re not sure where to start, consult a professional who specializes in your type of hair, or follow someone with your hair type on social media.