Curly hair has a complicated reputation. It’s considered unruly, unmanageable, and incredibly high-maintenance—so challenging to care for that the pivotal courtroom scene in Legally Blonde centers on the pitfalls of a curly hair routine (albeit permed, but still, you get the picture). And then, of course, there’s that shot in the Princess Diaries of a stylist’s brush breaking in half the moment it meets Mia’s frizzed-out coils. And while I would be lying to you if I said I had never fought with my own curls, I am here to set the record straight: Curly hair rocks. It’s romantic and expressionistic, equally beautiful when it’s been carefully tended to as when it’s left loose, ethereal and fluffy. Learning about your curl pattern and density—and experimenting with different ways to care for and style your particular texture—can open you up to an entire community of like-curled individuals. This is for all of you who have googled “Alia Shawkat hair–how?” or printed out a picture of Zendaya for your hairdresser. For this, the ultimate curl guide, I spoke to a range of curl connoisseurs, from stylists to TikTok stars, each of whom shared thoughtful tips and tricks for caring for your beautiful ringlets.
Curly Haircut How-Tos
There used to be nothing scarier for me (and my curls) than a haircut. It took me years before I discovered the joy a good one can bring. I reached out to the woman responsible for that joy, curl guru and New York-based stylist Shelby Samaria, about the most important things to look for when you’re looking to book an appointment at a new salon. “You should look for a stylist who’s familiar, comfortable, patient, and confident with curly, textured hair,” she tells me “Someone who listens carefully and doesn’t want to automatically deviate from styling your natural texture. Someone who understands volumized shape and structure and is happy to embrace the natural identity of your most natural hair state. Most of all, look for a stylist who is happy to cut your hair.”
In terms of technique, one option Samaria swears by is the dry cut, which is exactly what it sounds like. “I find [dry cuts] to be more exact when it comes to seeing shape and saving length,” she says. “I’m also a very visual person, so I appreciate seeing the hair shape evolve as I cut. It makes my heart sing.”
As for how often you should get your hair cut, that depends on your hair. Every four months for a small trim is the general recommendation, but if you notice split ends or your hair is thriving, you can adjust as needed. What cuts look “good” on curly hair is also a matter of preference; the best look is one that fits in with your lifestyle and makes you feel amazing. Share your day-to-day routine with your stylist: if you are incredibly low-maintenance about your hair, they may suggest not going with a cut that requires daily styling, like bangs.
Foolproof Styling Routines and Techniques
Zia O’Shaughnessy’s TikTok video of her plopping her curls into a bowl of water has garnered 15.7 million views and counting. The bowl method, O'Shaughnessy explains in a caption set over visuals of her scrunching her soaking wet locks, “hydrates hair, creates curl clumps and dilutes product.” Over email she elaborated: “I find for me it works best with a leave-in conditioner and curl cream in my hair first, then applying styling products after.” As for what types of curls the bowl method most benefits, O’Shaughnessy thinks it can benefit a range of patterns, but notes that she’s seen particularly “great results on looser curl types.”
Comedian Jacqueline Novak, one-half of the curly-haired duo behind the podcast Poog, has come to her current routine in a more circuitous way. “I’ve done the full curly girl methods—plopping, DevaCurl—but have abandoned them in favor of embracing frizz as part of the texture of my hair instead of desperately trying to moisturize every lock into submission,” she says. “If I left the comb in another room, brushing it might not happen. I often sleep on it wet and let it do its thing. I barely use products either. Some might say, ‘Yeah, we can tell.’ But I’m fine with it.”
Samaria shared some dos and don’ts. Do: “apply conditioner at the ends of the hair first and work up to the mid-length, never directly on the root. When combing or detangling, always start at the ends of the hair first and when combing, comb outward—the hair detangles easier. For kinky and coily textures, separate hair into twists as you condition and detangle—it makes styling more manageable. ” Don’t: “shampoo way too often, forget to switch hair products along with the season (i.e., more hydration in drier months), pull the hair with a towel after a wash—instead, you should scrunch the hair and gently pat or wrap the towel around the hair to enhance your curl and to reduce friction.”
Bread Beauty Supply Founder Maeva Heim.
The actress Juliana Canfield.
Curl-Defining Products that Work
Maeva Heim, the founder of haircare company Bread Beauty Supply, follows a simple rule when she’s formulating products. “Our philosophy is that good curly hair formulas are actually just really good hair formulas. It’s more about technique and routine than it is necessarily about a specific formula for a specific curl type,” she says. She avoids sulfates and silicones, both of which are bad news for curls. Sulfates, which are added to most shampoos to create lather, tend to strip the hair of its natural oils, while silicones, which are added to create the illusion of moisture, actually just sit on top of your strands and create build-up. Heim received a diploma in hair cosmetic formulation, not just so she could make the products but so that she could better communicate with her manufacturers and chemists to come up with the best formulas. “One of the things I discovered is that textured hair is the most delicate type of hair,” Heim explains. “I think there’s this general misconception that it’s actually very strong or ‘coarse’ but it’s super fragile. We built our brand on this idea, that you should treat your hair like it’s silk or cashmere.”
Samaria listed Bread amongst her favorite curl-friendly brands, along with Sandor, Rahua, Reverie, Olaplex and K18 (which W editors also love). Juliana Canfield, Succession fan favorite and the only person with curly hair at Waystar Royco, loves Christophe Robin’s Delicate Volumizing Conditioner with Rose Extracts, “My only non-negotiable product is a really thick conditioner because I need it to detangle and reshape my curls,” she tells me. “This one smells really good and does a great job, the only bone I have to pick is that it doesn’t come in a mega-big bottle.”
Novak likes treating her hair in the same way she treats her face, favoring exfoliating products like Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Happi Scalp Scrub and Briogeo’s Charcoal and Tea Tree Cooling Hydration Scalp Mask (“smells like a Thin Mint!”) and spritzing on InnisFree’s Essence after washing. O’Shaughnessey’s favorite range is from Only Curls, but she rotates through different brands often, “I pick my products based on what I feel my hair needs, whether it’s a scalp scrub, oil treatment, or deep conditioning mask.” As for me, I’ve written at length about how much I love the Davines Nourishing Shampoo and Conditioner, I also love the Shea Moisture Curl Enhancing Smoothie for every day and Bread’s Hair Cream for when I want my curls more defined.
I hope this guide finds you putting down the straightener and picking up the leave-in conditioner, and that it lifts some of the mystique surrounding the care and keeping of your tresses. I leave you with this quote from Canfield that sums it up perfectly, “Everyone’s curls are different, but a really good curl is the most satisfying achievement in beauty history.”
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