On a lifelong quest to find the perfect hair products for curly hair? Pretty much every curly is. Just ask the next couple curly-heads you walk by in the grocery store. You may get some funny looks, but chances are excellent that they will immediately relate to your predicament and you’ll both be speaking the same language! If you’ve had curly hair your whole life, that means you’ve probably been on that quest for a little while. Not to worry, though; the best curly hair products are no longer elusive. Thanks to the naturally curly movement and increasing acceptance of natural curls, products and knowledge have improved greatly in recent years. So, where to start? How do you know what to look for in curly hair products?
We’ll start first with shampoos and conditioners. While you may be thinking, “What does it matter which shampoo and conditioner I use? As long as it smells good, I don’t care. The styling products are what’s important, so let’s get on to the good stuff!” We're sorry to say, that’s decidedly false. While the styling products are important, the shampoo and conditioner you use is the foundation to styling your curls. That’s not to say you can’t pick a shampoo and conditioner for curly hair that you like the smell of; by all means, you don’t want to toss your awesome curls around all day sniffing a scent that turns your stomach. Surely we’ve all done that and gone home to throw the entire bottle in the trash, only to return to the store on the quest! But there are some factors for choosing a shampoo and conditioner that will help you narrow down your choices (and hopefully save you money and heartache).
When it comes to shampoo, first and foremost, you want to avoid sulfates. Now, we know you may be thinking that everyone is jumping on the sulfate-free bandwagon lately and that it may be unnecessary. But honestly, sulfates are to be avoided—really for any hair, but especially for curls. Sulfates (i.e., sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate) are harsh salt-based detergents whose only purpose is to make the bubbles in your favorite shampoo. They do not clean the hair, although many people feel like their hair isn’t getting clean without them. Rather, they strip any and all oils out of your hair, resulting in that overly clean feeling (and often resulting in frizz, which nobody wants!); it can also result in your scalp overproducing oils so that your hair becomes oily unless you wash it daily. Not to mention, sulfates have been known to be irritating to skin, hair, eyes, and the respiratory system, as well as being linked to cancer. Need any more reasons to avoid them?
The fact is, curls thrive on moisture; when you strip all your naturally produced oils from your curls, that is when they misbehave, sending you back on the quest for the best curly hair shampoo. Give a sulfate-free shampoo a try for a good two to three weeks, and we're betting you will see a pretty big difference in manageability. The more coarse and/or curly your hair is, the more moisturizing you will want your shampoo to be; try a highly moisturizing sulfate-free shampoo. If you have finer hair, opt for a low-lather sulfate-free shampoo that is clear or translucent. This will still moisturize your curls without stripping them or weighing them down. Choosing a shampoo with as many natural, botanical ingredients as possible will also benefit your hair, scalp, and overall health.
Now that you’re making progress on your quest, let’s move on to conditioner for curly hair. Conditioners are a bit less restrictive than shampoos, but there are still some things you want to look out for when searching for the best conditioner for curly hair. Unfortunately, some conditioners contain ingredients such as silicones or polyquats that build up on the hair and can’t be removed with a sulfate-free shampoo—only those harsh sulfates will remove them. (See how they get you there? It’s a vicious cycle.) However, if you look for a natural conditioner with botanical ingredients (i.e., chamomile, lavender, rosemary, tea tree, olive oil, jojoba) and without silicones (although some are completely fine—like amodimethicone—some of the the main ones you want to avoid are dimethicone, behenoxy dimethicone, cetearyl methicone, cyclopentasiloxane/cyclomethicone, dimethiconol—just so you know what to look for) then you won’t have to worry about them building up in the first place.
Some people don’t want to stand in the store reading a long list of ingredients, and that’s fine! If you use a conditioner with silicones, you can always do a baking soda treatment at least once a month to remove buildup rather than reverting to those harsh sulfate shampoos. (For the baking soda treatment, mix 1–2 teaspoons of baking soda with warm water in a bottle and spray or pour it over your hair before washing. Leave on for a minute or two, rinse, and proceed with your sulfate-free shampoo! Your curls will be bouncy, shiny, and buildup-free.)
If your curls are looking greasy, weighed-down and rope-like, chances are you have buildup on there and it’s time for a baking soda treatment. Either way, the same principles apply as shampoo: natural, moisturizing ingredients are best for curly hair, and choose more moisture for thick/coarse/super curly hair and a lightweight, daily-type conditioner for finer or wavy hair. You will know if a conditioner is right for your curls, as they will start behaving, not doing naughty things like tangling or frizzing.
Now that you’ve got a good foundation for your curls, you can focus on styling products. Every hairstylist or person with curly hair you talk to will probably give you different recommendations or guidelines for hair products for curly hair, and ultimately you have to find a product that works for your individual curls. Sometimes that comes through trial and error, but let’s go through some of the basics for styling products to give you a place to start!
First of all, continuing with the theme, you want to choose curly hair styling products with moisturizing ingredients. Moisture is what will help your curls build from their cleansed and conditioned foundation to style beautifully and not misbehave. Continue to look for products with as natural ingredients as possible, and preferably not too many added chemicals or fragrances. Ingredients such as glycerin and aloe vera are good for curls, as they attract moisture from the air to help tame your hair.
Mousses add volume and bounce with light to medium hold without weighing curls down, so they’re great for finer hair. Some mousses are moisturizing, but in order to choose the best hair mousse for curls, avoid the ones with drying alcohols (such as SD alcohol/SD alcohol 40, alcohol denat, propanol, propyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol). Alcohols such as cetearyl, cetyl, isocetyl, isostearyl, lauryl, myristyl and stearyl are beneficial and will help moisturize and control your curls.
Gels generally provide more hold and control and less body. Many gels are moisturizing as well, and the same ingredient rules apply as for mousse. Gels are basically good for most hair types, especially thicker/coarser and looser curls. Spray gels are also good for curls, as they encourage curls to spring up. Be careful when using gels as they can look wet or crunchy—no one likes ramen noodle hair.
Creams provide moisture and light hold, smoothing and controlling any curl type. Creams can help add volume and bounce, but avoid applying at the root area so the curls aren’t weighed down. Choose creams with little to no silicones, or at least without those bad ones we mentioned above!
Leave-in conditioners generally add light conditioning and help add moisture and control curls, but these are not to be used in place of a good curly hair conditioner. They are a great supplemental conditioner and styling aid, though! Choose one with those natural, botanical ingredients for your best bet. You knew we were going to say that, right?
So, while this is in no way an extensive list of products for naturally curly hair, at least this will give you some guidelines and a place to start in your quest for the best curly hair products. Most importantly, don’t give up! It will be worth it in the end when you see your beautiful, moisturized and behaving curls in the mirror.