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First things first: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to caring for curly hair.
That’s because, in case you hadn’t noticed, there are many types of curls: loose waves, bouncy ringlets, and zigzag or fractal curls, just to name a few.
Knowing your curl type can help you figure out the best way to care for your curls, so here’s a quick rundown of the nine main types:
- Type 2A: fine, very loose waves
- Type 2B: large S-shaped waves
- Type 2C: mix of waves and curls, coarser and more prone to frizz
- Type 3A: large, loose, and defined curls
- Type 3B: medium-sized barrel curls
- Type 3C: pencil-sized spiral curls
- Type 4A: ultra-tight corkscrew curls
- Type 4B: tiny curls that bend in a zig-zag shaped pattern
- Type 4C: kinkiest, densely packed curls in a tight zig-zag shape
Keep in mind that the higher you climb on the scale, the more vulnerable your curls are to breakage and frizz. In other words, 4B and 4C curls may need more TLC than 2A and 2B curls.
Whatever your curl type, simply having curly locks means that sebum, the oil naturally produced on your scalp, has more difficulty traveling down the hair shaft.
Here’s what to know about washing and caring for your curly hair, including how often to shampoo, products best suited for curly hair, and what to do in between washes.
As you might have noticed, this timeframe is pretty broad — that’s because washing frequency depends on the texture and health of your hair, along with other factors, like exposure to the elements and how much you tend to sweat.
Little advises shampooing every other day at most, as a general rule.
If you have coarser hair, for example, you can probably get away with washing once per week — coarse hair tends to be “thirsty,” so to speak, so it’s less likely to get weighed down by oil.
Fine hair, on the other hand, can get weighed down by oil pretty quickly. That means you may want to wash fine curls a few times each week — unless, of course, your finer curls also tend toward the drier side. If you have drier hair, two or three washes per week might still be too many.
Again, we want to emphasize that all curls are different. That’s why experimenting with your washing schedule and paying careful attention to how your hair responds is pretty much essential.
When washing your hair, Little recommends focusing the shampoo lather on your scalp, where oil can build up. Avoid scrubbing the ends, where the oils from your scalp don’t reach.
“The natural oils from your scalp are actually the best conditioner for your hair, especially dry and curly textures,” Little says. “On the days that you don’t wash, you should still massage your scalp to stimulate those oils.”
Not sure whether you should scale back on your weekly washes or wash your hair more often? Your hair itself can offer some clues to help you determine your best washing schedule.
- Washing curly hair too often results in a tight-feeling scalp and ultra-dry and frizzy strands.
- Not washing curly hair often enough makes your curls look greasy and limp.
What about a combination? Maybe your hair seems greasy at the scalp, but parched and brittle on the ends.
According to Ferrera, that’s another sign you might be overwashing. Excess washing strips your hair’s natural oils, so your scalp responds by producing more oil to compensate.
The wash doesn’t end when you turn off the water, either — post-washing hair care can also make a difference.
- blotting your hair after washing to get the excess water out
- avoiding rubbing your hair, since that creates friction that leads to frizz
- using a wide-toothed comb or wet brush to get the tangles out
- applying any product you plan to use while your hair is still wet
Tip: Always use a microfiber towel for curly hair. Microfiber towels and wraps can leave you with more defined curls and cut back on frizz. Win-win, right?
Whichever shampoo you choose, make sure it’s sulfate-free and paraben-free, according to Little.
- Sulfates are chemicals that can cause
dryness, inflammation, and irritationon your scalp while also over-stripping hair of its natural oils. Common sulfates in shampoo include sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate.
- Parabens are preservatives that can
cause contact dermatitis, or skin irritation, on your scalp. Research from 2018also linked scalp concerns, like dermatitis and dandruff, to hair loss and reduced shine. Common parabens you’ll find in shampoo include butylparaben, propylparaben, and methylparaben.
What about alcohols?
Certain types of short-chain alcohols — like ethanol, SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, propanol, propyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol — can be super harsh and drying, Ferrara says.
Avoid hair care products with these alcohols whenever possible.
But you don’t need to avoid long-chain fatty alcohols, like cetearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol. These alcohols can smooth down the hair cuticle and seal the shaft, so hair stays hydrated and frizz-free.
Instead, opt for shampoos with moisturizing coconut, argan, and avocado oils — especially if your hair is coarse and dry, or damaged from bleaching and heat styling. These ingredients can help promote smoother, shinier curls.
Glycerin, another curl-friendly ingredient, can help promote hair health and hydration by pulling in moisture from the air.
Here are some shampoos for curly hair that are recommended by experts:
- KEVIN.MURPHY Smooth.Again.Wash. According to Little, this shampoo helps any type of curls stay soft, glossy, and manageable, thanks to a blend of nourishing butters and oils, like sunflower seed extract, murumuru seed butter, and olive fruit oil.
- Innersense Organic Beauty Pure Harmony Hairbath. Yates likes this formula for fine to medium curls, because it gently washes away dirt, grime, and styling residue while re-hydrating hair with a modest dose of coconut and avocado oil.
- Oribe Shampoo for Moisture & Control. Ferrara recommends this shampoo for medium to thick or damaged curls, because it contains amino acids, like arginine, that strengthen, moisturize, and repair your hair.
- Virtue Labs Curl Shampoo. Yates picks this rich, non-drying formula for brittle, damaged hair, because it features keratin protein that helps repair damage while preventing future breakage. It also contains jojoba oil to promote shine and carob gum to lock in moisture.
Maybe you want to wash your hair less often, but you find yourself reaching for the shampoo bottle to address limp or lifeless strands.
If that’s the case for you, Ferrara suggests just rinsing and conditioning every other day, or between washes.
Wetting your hair allows the curl pattern to reset, while conditioning rehydrates your curls.
Little advises staying away from dry shampoos as much as possible. Since these products soak up oil, they’ll often end up dehydrating curls. On non-wash days, she recommends:
- a light conditioning spray to reactivate any other curl-enhancing styling products
- a shine spray to give dull curls a glossy finish
No matter your curl type, Little says everyone can benefit from a deep conditioning mask.
Aim to apply a hair mask:
- once per week if your hair is especially dry or damaged
- once or twice per month if your hair is healthier or on the oily side
When styling with a hairdryer, curling iron, or straightening iron, always use a heat protectant product to shield fragile curls from damage. Of course, cutting back on heat styling as much as possible can go a long way toward keeping curls healthy and damage-free.
Since ultraviolet (UV) rays can also dry out your curls, Little recommends wearing a hat or scarf when out in the sun, or using a styling spray that contains UV filters.
Keep in mind, too, that chlorine strips away the natural oils in your curls, which can leave them feeling dry and rough. That’s why the American Academy of Dermatology advises protecting your hair by either wearing a swimming cap or wetting and conditioning your hair before you swim in a pool.
After swimming, a clarifying shampoo and deep conditioning mask can help get rid of excess chlorine in your hair, Little notes.
Curly hair requires some special considerations, since it’s so prone to dryness.
Experts recommend washing your hair no more than every other day if you can, and as little as once per week if your hair is particularly parched.
Avoid products with harsh ingredients that strip away moisture, like sulfates, and seek out nourishing ingredients, like glycerin and plant oils.
Curls still seem a little blah between washes? Don’t underestimate the power of a water rinse and a spritz of shine spray to freshen your style.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.