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How to Detangle Knotty Hair, According to Stylists

Photo: Courtesy Paramount Pictures

While certain types of hair (like the chemically treated and long, fine strands) are more prone to tangling, anything from an especially windy day to sleeping on unbrushed hair can lead to knotted strands that are difficult, and often painful, to detangle. But matted hair doesn’t have to be a literal headache to deal with, especially if you’re armed with the right products and tools. We spoke to five hair stylists who shared their techniques and favorite shampoos, sprays, and oils, for getting out knots — and preventing them.

Best products for preventing tangles

Act+Acre Cold Processed Scalp Detox

To stop hair from tangling in the first place, stylists stress the importance of keeping hair healthy. “You do really have to start with the health of the hair,” says hairstylist Kristi Wilczopolski. “The healthier the hair, the less tangles it’s going to have.” She explains that build-up on the scalp, from product use or even environmental pollution, makes hair brittle and more likely to tangle. A weekly scalp detox — her favorite is this all-natural one from Act+Acre — cleanses and stimulates the scalp to encourage healthy hair growth. “It’s really fresh, and it’s made of all-natural oils, so it’s super nourishing,” she says.

AKS Anti-Frizz Shampoo
AKS Anti-Frizz Conditioner

Stylist Antonio Diaz’s philosophy is similar to Wilczopolski’s. “The best thing is just to use a good shampoo and a good conditioner to prepare the hair when it’s wet so it doesn’t get too tangled,” he says. He calls this duo from Manhattan’s Salon AKS “amazing” for taming frizzy hair, which is especially prone to getting knotty.

Bumble and Bumble Sunday Shampoo

Like the scalp detox, a clarifying shampoo gives hair a deep clean, washing away the buildup that causes strands to tangle. “It’s important to get a good one because you don’t want it to fully strip and dry out the hair,” says Wilczopolski. As its name suggests, Bumble and Bumble’s Sunday Shampoo, one of her “tried and true” picks, should be used once a week to cleanse hair of any residue.

R+Co Oblivion Clarifying Shampoo

Wilczopolski likes R+Co’s deep-cleaning Oblivion shampoo because it’s actually gentle enough to use daily. “They’ve made this crazy formula that’s in between a clarifying and everyday shampoo,” she says. “It leaves the hair pretty glossy.” Coconut oil moisturizes the hair, preventing it from drying out.

Acure Curiously Clarifying Lemongrass Shampoo

For a cruelty-free, vegan clarifying shampoo that’s also free of parabens and sulfates, Wilczopolski likes this surprisingly affordable option from Acure. “It leaves the hair clean yet the oils in the shampoo are going to nourish and be super nutrient-rich for the actual hair follicles.”

Best tools for preventing tangles

T3 Source Showerhead Mineral Water Filter

Along with washing with a clarifying shampoo to rid hair of impurities, Wilczopolski says you can eliminate some buildup by using a water-softening shower filter, especially if you live in an area with hard water. “Hard water has a ton of calcium and minerals in it that gets built up on the hair over time,” she says. “It’s the same thing as if you’re using lots of products every day.” She uses the T3 filter to ensure she’s only rinsing with clear, clean water.

Mason Pearson Popular Mixture Hair Brush

According to hair stylist Kyle Malone, not brushing your hair regularly quickly leads to knots. Stylist Andrew Chen agrees, adding, “Finer, textured, and denser hair will need more TLC, so you’ll need to brush more frequently throughout the day.” He recommends using a Mason Pearson brush daily to keep hair snarl-free, though it works best as a preventative measure rather than a detangling tool (more on those below).

Best detangling oils and serums

Shu Uemura Art of Hair Essence Absolue Nourishing Protective Oil

If you’re already dealing with a head full of tangles, stylists have lots of suggestions for products that’ll help you work through the knots. Chen likes using oils, especially this hydrating one from Shu Uemura. “A little drop goes a long way,” he says. “[It’s] never greasy and moisturizes amazingly. Always start on the ends of your hair and work your way up.”

Iles Formula Haute Performance Finishing Serum
L’Oréal Professional Mythic Oil

Two products Diaz loves for detangling, as well as prepping hair for heat styling, are an old standby L’Oréal oil and a newer serum from Iles Formula. “Neither of these products weigh down the hair,” he says. “[They] give it shine and also prepare it for blow-drying.”

Best detangling sprays

Wella Elements Leave In Conditioner

“Detangling hair wet is best,” says Chen. “Using a little bit of conditioner or hair masque will make the job easier in the shower. Another trick is to use a light leave-in conditioner.” Like all of these detangling sprays, the Wella leave-in conditioner (that Chen calls “super light and nourishing”) should be spritzed on damp hair for best results.

Leonor Greyl Lait Luminescence Bi-Phase Detangling Milk Styling Spray

A combination leave-in conditioner and detangler, this “milky” spray is a go-to for both Malone and stylist Romina Manenti. Manenti says it “acts as a moisturizer and contains humectants which will draw moisture into your hair and promote [detangling].” She explains that moisturizing hair helps seal the cuticles that are otherwise raised and prone to knot-causing friction.

Oribe Run-Through Detangling Primer

A “luxurious, elegant” spray, according to Wilczopolski, Oribe’s detangling primer both breaks up knots and nourishes hair. “It instantly detangles and is best used with a comb,” she says. While it’ll work for all hair types, Wilczopolski says that because it’s on the more expensive side, it may be a better deal for people with finer hair who won’t have to use as much product each time.

R+Co Pinstripe Intense Detangling Spray

Another option for fine hair, this R+Co mist is Wilczopolski’s pick for those who may find other products too heavy. “This one’s really, really light and it doesn’t weigh down the roots,” she says.

Verb Leave-In Mist

On the other hand, if you have thicker hair, Wilczopolski likes Verb’s creamy mist. “It’s super hydrating so you don’t want to use it so much on the roots, you want to concentrate it more on the ends.” It’s perfectly suited for coarse hair that won’t be weighed down by its rich formula.

DevaCurl No-Comb Detangling Spray Lightweight Curl Tamer

For very curly hair, Wilczopolski says DevaCurl is the gold standard in detangling. “DevaCurl is good whether the hair is fine or coarse, and it still helps hold the curl pattern,” she says. Like a lightweight leave-in conditioner, it untangle curls without even a brush or comb.

Best detangling tools

The Wet Brush Original Pro Detangler Brush

We’ve already heard about the wonders of the detangling Wet Brush from writer Alice Gregory, and it turns out Chen and Malone are fans as well. “It has gotten out really matted hair,” says Malone. “It’s very durable and it really gets through to everything. It’s literally like magic.” True to its name, it’s ideal for detangling wet hair, but Malone says it can also be used on dry hair as an everyday brush.

Yves Durif Brush

Diaz’s brush of choice is designed by celebrity stylist Yves Durif, who owns an eponymous salon in the Carlyle Hotel. He likes that even on the most matted, tangled hair, it’s gentle enough to not break or split strands.

Beurer Electric Detangling Hair Brush

Manenti takes a high-tech approach to detangling with this electric brush, which she discovered after working on-set with models who had “big hair, antigravity” looks (that were achieved by lots of tangle-inducing backcombing and product use). “I had to upgrade my tools to detangle hair,” she says. “The detangling brush generates negative ions, which counteract the static charge of the hair, creating smooth, luscious hair.”

Ouidad Double Detangler Comb

While Wilczopolski finds brushes too damaging for knotty hair and prefers to use a wide-toothed comb, she agrees with other stylists on the most effective detangling technique. “When you’re coming out [of] the hair, you want to start from the ends and work your way back up, so you’re not just pushing any tangles down into the ends where you’re just getting even more tangled,” she says.

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How to Detangle Knotty Hair, According to Stylists