“There are many different kinds of curls out there,” says Ash Fritzler, a master stylist who specializes in cutting and styling curly hair at the Bird House salon in Brooklyn. In order to figure out how to style them best, the first step is identifying your hair’s specific type of tight coils or loose waves or anything in between. Fritzler points to a popular chart as a starting point for seeing where you fall on the spectrum from wavy to kinky (or, according to the chart’s labeling, from 2a to 4c). This “helps people find what kind of curls they have so they can come up with the best method of care for them,” Fritzler says.
The products that follow, all recommended by Fritzler and five other stylists, include defining cream, flaxseed gel, and a miracle “custard” for that wash-and-go look. And because styling arguably begins in the shower, we also got their top shampoo and conditioner picks, too. But on that note, it should be said that all these experts stressed that curly hair tends to be on the drier side, and less porous, and thus requires less frequent lathering up (the sweet spot for Fritzler is two times per week). Finally, a note back to the point about the variation within this hair genre: We have not designated a “best overall” product among this bunch (as we normally do with our Recommended By Experts stories) because there are lots of bests for lots of different curl types.
Best styling gel for all curly-hair types
Stephanie Louis, owner of Stylebox Salon, says that this relatively new gel product works “on every single curl type — loose, wavy, tight curls, tightly coiled, all of it.” What she likes about the flaxseed gel is that it can be used for a wash-and-go look (though she notes that you’ll have to use some trial and error to find just the right amount of gel to suit your hair type, depending on its thickness). “And one of the best things about this gel is that it won’t leave your hair crunchy AT ALL,” says Louis. According to the CurlMix literature, the product is designed so that you’ll only have to use it once a week after washing, and counts organic jojoba oil, which is similar to the oil hair naturally produces, on the ingredient list. The product helps infuse hair with that oil to give it a more moisturized feeling.
Best styling gel for tight curls
“Soultanicals is another brand that really understands curly hair, especially those with tightly coiled hair at the end of the curl spectrum,” says Louis. “This ‘Gelly’ is a phenomenal curl definer and curl elongator — so the holy grail of double whammies.” The gel has a slight hold, which will keep your hair looking curly but not crunchy, and, according to Louis, “makes frizz invisible.” To use the gel, you apply it to wet hair, smoothing it into each section, and then let hair air dry before scrunching curls (according to Soultanicals’ site, it’s best not to touch the hair while you let it air dry, otherwise it might start to frizz). The amount of product you use will depend on the density of your hair, so those with looser, wavier curls should use less, while those with thicker and tighter coils can use more.
Best light-hold styling gel for tight curls
“When curls tend to be tighter, they don’t need as much hold,” says Dhiran Mistry, stylist at David Mallett salon. Instead, tight curls need more moisture; that’s what helps them hold their shape. This Ouidad gel contains meadow foam seed oil and arnica flower for locking in moisture — and cutting down on dryness and frizz.
Best styling creams for loose curls
“Loose curls will typically have a little less hold to them, and need more assistance to coil better,” says Mistry. “Something a little thicker in substance will help hold those curls in place while drying.” His go-to is Shea Moisture’s Coconut and Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie, whose ingredients of silk protein and neem seed oil he says help promote hair growth while preventing damage. Louis is also a fan of Shea Moisture’s products (and recommends their Red Palm & Cocoa Butter Curl Stretch Pudding further down this list). “There’s a reason Shea Moisture has been a longstanding tour-de-force on the market,” she says.
Another product that might appeal to those looking to amp up loose curls is Aveda’s Be Curly curl enhancer, which Shirley Hagel, a stylist at Parlor Salon, says “uses hydrolyzed wheat protein and an aloe blend that expands when the hair is wet, and retracts when hair is dry to enhance the wave or curl.” The expanding effect of wheat protein adds body and volume to hair, and because wheat protein easily absorbs into the hair shaft, it can help repair damage to the follicle, as well.
Best styling creams for bouncy curls
For those with hair that’s more curly than wavy, R+Co’s Turntable Curl Defining Crème can bring out curls that are “more full, bouncy, luscious, and shiny,” says Fritzler. “Turntable has that hold, without the crunchy, gritty feeling in the hair, and it also hydrates.” To use the cream, she’ll work between a nickel and quarter amount into the hair, and then finger coil or two-strand twist the curls, before using a diffuser to dry the hair without deflating or flattening the curls. Another draw of the Turntable cream is that it “reactivates” when wet, meaning that if your curls are starting to lose their shape, you can dampen the hair and the product will have a second life. “For many curly girls, it takes a lot of work to get a desired style, so you don’t want to be washing or wetting your hair every day,” says Fritzler. “Turntable is really good because on day two or day three after washing, you can use a spray bottle, re-wet the hair, and kind of reform your curls.”
Another option for those who either want to shape the curls they have or bring out more shape in their waves is this defining cream. A favorite of Mirjam Bayoumi, who owns a namesake salon on the Upper East Side, “It’s a leave-in product to make hair less frizzy,” she says. “You put it on after the shower and it’s basically wash and go — you can twist your curls a little bit, but that’s it.” Dhiran Mistry, a stylist at David Mallett salon, recommended the Morocconoil cream, as well, and says it “works well on wavy hair, as well as curly hair, by helping smooth and define curls.”
Best styling primer for bouncy curls
While we’re on the subject of bouncy curls, there’s also a primer out there right now that Fritzler loves for bouncy curls, specifically. Similar to a primer that you might use in a skincare routine to keep your makeup in place, a hair primer can be useful for preparing hair for styling, and for protecting it from frizz, oiliness, and any other number of factors that could ruin an otherwise good hair day. “One of my go-tos right now is Twister, which is a curl primer for really bouncy curls,” says Fritzler. “A lot of people want really bouncy, big, defined curls, without a lot of frizz, and Twister is great for that.” To use the primer, you put a dime-size amount on damp hair, and work it through the way you might a leave-in conditioner. “You comb it through from maybe an inch to an inch and a half away from the scalp, and then continue with curl styling, whether that’s finger coiling, two-strand twisting, scrunching, or diffusing,” says Fritzler. “Once you put this in it can either be used as its own styling product or you can build upon it.” She told us that she’ll often pair it with the Turntable cream to achieve more defined curls.
Best styling creams for tight curls
“This is a beyond exceptional styler (or ‘pudding,’ as they name it) to help elongate curly to tightly coiled hair textures,” says Louis. According to Louis, those with coilier hair textures may get better results when pairing the product with a set style, like a twist or bantu knots, which, after undoing the knots or twists, will leave curls with a more defined look. Meanwhile, “Those with looser curls can add the pudding to their pre-detangled hair and get amazing results after using a diffuser or hood dryer.” The product is packed with linseed oil, which supplies moisture to the hair strand and follicle, making the hair healthier and more elastic. Louis does note that some might be concerned to see the product has potentially-drying alcohol in it, but she says that the high oil content “counterbalances” that possible effect.
“This Curly Custard is so popular among people with curly to coily hair textures who want easy, super curl-defining results,” says Louis. She attributes the popularity to the fact that “there are so very few curly products that deliver on the wash-and-go promise.” It might take a little trial and error to figure out the exact right amount of the product to use (“Use too little and you won’t get much curl definition. Use too much and it can get really sticky — and I mean literally sticky and gunky,” Louis notes). But “once you figure out that golden ratio, this will feel like a miracle product.” The custard is also an anti-humectant (a.k.a. anti-frizz) thanks to its inclusion of agave nectar as an ingredient.
Best moisturizing shampoos and conditioners for all curly hair types
Since curly hair tends to be on the drier side, you’ll want to look for a shampoo and conditioner that moisturize exceptionally well. Fritzler says that R+Co’s Cassette Curl Shampoo is her go-to for “pretty much anyone with curly hair, from wavy-curly to kinky-curly.” The shampoo, like all of R+Co’s products, is sulfate-free, which is important because sulfates can dry out hair that already needs moisture. Also: “A lot of curly-hair products used to have petroleum and mineral oils in them because it makes the hair shiny, but it also builds up on the hair,” says Fritzler. “The R+Co shampoo and conditioner doesn’t have any petroleum or mineral oil in it, but is still extremely hydrating without stripping natural oils away.” Fritzler says that the shampoo works with the natural oils in your scalp while also giving hair a clean feeling. And perhaps her favorite thing about it is that “it has a good anti-humectant in it, which means it tames frizz, making it really good for the summer when it’s hot and humid.”
Hagel says that if you want to add moisture to curls, Aveda’s new Nutriplenish Deep Moisture line is a great one to try. “Nutriplenish is all about hydration,” she says. “There is a light moisture and a deep moisture option, and the deep moisture option is great for curly hair of all types.” The shampoo and conditioner are designed specifically for curly hair and packed with organic pomegranate oil, which is rich in omega-5 (hydrating); mango butter (helps smooth frizz); and coconut oil (the fatty acids enhance softness and shine). Not to mention their lovely cocoa, cardamom, and ginger scent.
“If you’re someone who can blow dry your hair straight, but can also get some texture in there with the right products and scrunch, that’s where I really like Atlantis,” says Fritzler. “It’s pretty versatile, so it’s a good one for people who have a little bit of wave and are sometimes blowing out or are heat styling.” The shampoo and conditioner are full of nourishing ingredients like Vitamin B5, which hydrates and adds shine to hair; prickly stem pear extract, which has vitamin E for balancing the pH of your scalp (meaning less irritation); and nettle extract, which makes dull hair gleam and strengthens at the follicle level for less breakage. The shampoo and conditioner are both lightweight, so they’ll clean and moisturize curly-wavy hair without making it too heavy, and work as a perfect preparation for the styling products above.
Bayoumi says that her curly-haired clients love Keranique’s shampoo and conditioner, which are “anti-frizz, anti-breakage, and super moisturizing.” Keranique is a company that specializes in hair regrowth products, and their curl shampoo is made with a gentle formula containing hair-strengthening Keratin Amino Complex that will fortify the hair at the strand level and help prevent breaks. The conditioner also has the Keratin Amino Complex, and is fairly lightweight, so that curls will be hydrated, but not weighed down.
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