It doesn’t matter how great of a cut you have: if you don’t know how to care for and maintain your curls at home, your hair will never be the best it can be. When I was in beauty school, someone once told me, “Make sure you never show your clients how to finish their hair as well as you do it, because it will make them think you’re a genius.”
I remember feeling so offended by that. Why in the world would I not want one of my clients to be able to style her hair as well as I can? Why would I not want her to look as gorgeous as possible, no matter who does her hair?
And really, isn’t it also in my best interest for my client to look like a million bucks, 24 hours a day? Inevitably, someone is bound to go up to her and ask her, “You have to tell me who does your hair!” That is what is going to make me look like a genius (and, frankly, bring me more business), not holding back on education I firmly believe each and every one of my clients has the right to own.
Here is everything you need to know to keep your curls sassy, healthy and frizz-free:
There’s a whole lot of screaming going on these days about whether to shampoo or not to shampoo. In the last several years, many curly girls have abandoned detergent-based shampoos in favor of non-sulfate cleansers or even simple conditioner cleanses in an effort to minimize dryness. However, advocates of shampooing insist that by not using detergent-based shampoo to cleanse the scalp and hair, these individuals will start to experience scalp issues and eventual hair loss. These shampoos, they argue, are the only way to ensure the hair and scalp are as clean as they need to be in order to maintain proper hair health.
Piffle, I say. Read on.
What are Sulfates?
Sulfates are harsh, drying detergents (surfactants) found in regular shampoos that are extremely damaging to curly hair because they strip it of its natural moisture, making it frizzy and unmanageable.
It has been my experience that discontinuing the use of sulfate-based products will restore about 80% of the hair’s general health. Now, that’s not a scientific number, merely an observation I’ve made with my own clients, but I doubt there are many non-sulfate cleanser advocates who would disagree with me—I’d bet with confidence they’ve observed exactly the same thing.
Anyone who tells you not shampooing will eventually lead to hair loss IS partially right—but they are only giving you half the picture. If you don’t cleanse your scalp properly and your hair follicles become clogged with sebum, then yes, you absolutely could start to experience some serious issues. Your hair follicles can suffocate, they can become infected, and/or you can indeed start losing your hair over time.
But it is not the sulfates in shampoo that keep your scalp and follicles clean—movement and agitation are what do the cleansing. Think of a washing machine: that agitator in the middle that swishes your clothes back and forth is there for a reason. Without it, your laundry detergent would be fairly ineffective, no matter how many “mountain fresh” chemicals are loaded in there.
If you use a non-sulfate based or conditioner cleanser or shampoo with an alternate surfactant once a week and give yourself a really good, brisk scalp massage while cleansing—using your fingertips and rubbing your scalp with a firm, energetic circular motion—you are massaging the sebum, dirt and debris out of your hair follicles while stimulating your sebaceous glands to maintain their proper function. The cleanser acts as an agent to carry that oil and debris away without damaging and drying out your hair shaft. That’s the real purpose of a cleanser, not this sulfate-based shampoo nonsense that strips your hair of the moisture and essential oils that keep it healthy.
If, however, you use a non-sulfate or conditioner cleanser or shampoo with an alternate surfactant once a week and you squirt a bit on your scalp and kind of halfheartedly move it around, then rinse without really doing any kind of work, you aren’t cleansing your scalp correctly and you may, in fact, start having problems. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that you are not using shampoo. I’ve seen clients who use regular shampoo and their scalp is full of dry flakes and scales because they don’t cleanse their scalp properly.
I personally believe much of the “you MUST use shampoo” screaming is an effort to drive more product sales within the beauty industry. Quite frankly, however, if you are doing a weekly non-sulfate cleansing with some serious scalp massage and really focusing on getting your scalp clean, you are doing all the right things and you should never have any issues with clogged or damaged hair follicles (at least not because of your cleansing routine).
The cleansing routine I recommend is this: apply a curly-friendly cleanser to your hair and massage it into your scalp for several minutes with a firm, circular motion, scrunching it into the length to help activate the curl (don’t use your fingernails, just the pads of your fingers). Rinse well with warm water, massaging your scalp to help remove the product. Then take a bit more of your cleanser on your fingertips and perform a second, very gentle massage on your scalp—not as long as your initial cleanse, but just a minute or so. Rinse it out, then proceed with your routine. You’ve stimulated your sebaceous glands and flushed everything out of your follicles with the first massage, then calmed everything down, relaxed your follicles, and slowed down your sebaceous glands with the second one. I’ve found this is the most effective way to treat your scalp and it will keep it very healthy.
You should only need to cleanse your hair once or twice a week, depending on the hydration level of your hair. (back to top)
Moisture, moisture, moisture! It’s all about the MOISTURE level of your hair, my friends. Hair that’s been well-moisturized with products appropriate for curly hair and that has good porosity is what leads to healthy, well-defined curls. MOISTURE is what defines and shapes our curls, not product. MOISTURE is what chases frizz away. Curly hair already tends to be dry naturally. Figure in the drying, dehydrating and generally curl-unfriendly products we routinely use and it’s no wonder most of us are a dry, frizzy mess.
The biggest offender other than sulfates? Silicones, specifically non-water soluble silicones. If sulfates are Public Enemy #1, non-water soluble silicones occupy second place on the FBI (Frizz Buster Identification) Most Wanted list.
Why Some Silicones are Not Our Friends
Many conditioners and styling products on the market, both professional and drugstore brands, contain non-water soluble silicones, which lie on top of the hair, creating an impenetrable barrier into the hair shaft. They look like a quick fix for frizz since they temporarily smooth the hair shaft down and make frizz seem to disappear—but they also suck out the moisture from inside the hair, dehydrating curly locks and creating more frizz in the long run. Since they can’t be rinsed away with water, they also build up on the hair shaft and generally require a surfactant (detergent)-based shampoo to remove. Yet another vicious cycle in the minefield of curly hair health.
You absolutely, positively must use a conditioner that’s either silicone-free or has acceptable, water-soluble silicones in it to condition your hair. Your hair will not form beautiful curls without frizz unless it is well-moisturized—no ifs, ands or buts―and the conditioning step of a good curly hair care maintenance routine is the most effective place to get adequate moisture into your curls.
To effectively apply the conditioner to your hair: rake it liberally all through your hair with your fingers, scrunching it into the length, and let it sit for a few minutes so your hair can absorb what it needs. Rinse out any excess with cool water. Cool water, like acid-based products, will shut your cuticle down and help keep all that healthy product inside your hair shaft where it belongs. (back to top)
Pump Up the Moisture
Adding some conditioner back into your hair as a leave-in will help to pump up the moisture in your hair even further.
When your hair is rinsed, bend over and let your dripping wet hair hang free. Gently scrunch out the excess water from your hair with your hands, but don’t wring it dry—hair products normally work much better on curly hair if it is very wet when you apply them. Rake in a good conditioner appropriate for your hair type with your fingers from scalp to ends until your hair feels like wet silk. It’s lack of moisture that causes frizz, so make sure your hair is getting enough! As you become more familiar with the routine, you will begin to automatically sense how much your hair will require at any given time (some days, you might not even need any). Let your instincts become your guide.
As an example: my hair is very, very moisturized and very healthy, so I usually only need to use a dollop the size of a quarter on my about-five-inches-below-the-shoulder (dry) hair. If you are just starting on your odyssey to curly hair health, you will find you might need a good palmful at first, but take heart—that amount will gradually decrease over time as your hair becomes less dry.
Some people advocate just leaving in some of your original conditioner rather than rinsing it all out and applying additional product as your leave-in. I disagree with that approach for two reasons: one, how do you gauge how much you’ve rinsed out of your hair or know that you’ve left in enough of the conditioner to be effective? Sticking your head under a shower head or a hand-held sprayer doesn’t exactly give you the best level of control and you may be rinsing out more product than you should.
Two, most people with curly hair only wash their hair once a week, but many of us do a rinse and condition every day or every other day. And let’s face it, we live in a polluted world these days: cigarette smoke, vehicle emissions, manufacturing pollutants—there is a ton of dirt and debris in the air that we aren’t even aware is getting in our hair. These particles are going to cling to the conditioner you put in your hair and stay in there if you don’t rinse it out. So, don’t you think you should get rid of all that mess and put in a little fresh conditioner instead?
Speaking of leave-ins: I don’t generally have a whole lot of use for products labeled “leave-in conditioners.” I find that they are usually only watered-down versions of regular conditioners and since we curly girls need all the moisture we can get, why bother? A bit of our regular conditioner as a leave-in is a far superior (and more cost-effective) method instead. (back to top)
While moisture is what defines and shapes your curls, styling products are what provide the hold. The same rules for conditioners apply to these products as well: dump the non-curl friendly silicones in favor of ones that are or choose styling products that have no silicones in them at all.
Still in the upside down position: rake a tablespoon of gel from your scalp to your ends, distributing the product through the length, but concentrating on the area from the roots to the mid-shaft (this guarantees good product coverage on the top of your head, an area not always coated well with product by only scrunching the product into your hair). Don’t forget your crown area and the nape of your neck, two areas that are commonly neglected in styling product application—lean side to side to reach these areas more easily, if necessary. Then liberally scrunch a generous palmful of the gel into the length of your hair, starting at the ends. Scrunch and squeeze your curls in a firm, upward motion to your scalp, squeezing out as much remaining excess water as you can while squeezing in the gel. The water will mix with the product and form a crystalline cast over your curls, holding them in place and preventing frizz from forming until they are dry.
In general, I advocate the use of styling gels over mousses and creams, but that’s not to say these products can’t be effective. Remember, I live in Florida and we combat a hellacious, sub-tropical humidity for several months out of the year, so very strong gels tend to work better for us down here. But mousses can often make hair look thicker―a bonus for curlies with thin, very fine hair—and very light creams can prevent fine, wavy hair from looking and feeling weighed down, so these might be better choices for you. Experiment and play with different styling product types until you find the one that works best. (back to top)
Blot Dry and Clip
To remove the rest of the excess water from your hair, use a cotton t-shirt, paper towels, baby diapers, or flour sack towels—any cotton-based, absorbent product that has a completely smooth surface (regular towels, such as terrycloth or microfiber, are too heavy to be used on curly hair. They can cause friction, which will ruffle the cuticle and cause frizz). Repeat the scrunching process, cupping “clusters” of curls in the t-shirt. Scrunch and squeeze them towards your scalp in a firm, upward motion, squeezing out the remaining excess water. Put some muscle into it!
Stand up and toss your hair back gently (do not fling your head back!) and let your curls fall naturally to your shoulders, shaking your head gently if necessary. Use the tail of a rat tail comb to make sure none of your curls are catching on each other and they are falling downwards without wrapping around each other. If you wear your hair in a part, this is the time to arrange your curls so they are falling the way you want them when your hair is dry.
Clip up small sections of your hair on the top and crown of your head to create more volume as your hair dries. Pinch a small section of curl at the roots, then replace your fingers with a flat metal clip. Make sure you keep the head of the pin clear so the clip will not catch your curls and create frizz when it is removed. How your hair looks now is what it will look like when it is dry, so clip carefully to avoid any funny bumps or corners. Don’t neglect the back of your head at the crown, an area very easy to miss when you are clipping yourself: we curly girls have a tendency to go flat in that area. Use a handheld mirror to view the back of your head so you can easily spot areas that should be clipped. You can pinch the area with one hand while looking at it in the mirror, then put the mirror down to clip it.
Sometimes I also like to put two clips at the sides right below the temple area to keep those side curls falling in a downward direction, plus it helps to keep my hair from falling into my face while I am air-drying and going about the rest of my morning routine (I HATE wet hair in my face!).
Once you get used to clipping and find a clip arrangement you like, you can usually clip yourself in less than two minutes. (back to top)
The Heat is On: Blow-Dry or Air-Dry?
If you have the time in your routine, it can be best to let your hair dry naturally whenever possible, without disturbing the curls, until they are completely dry. If you have to use a blow-dryer, however, use a diffuser and gentle heat to dry your curls without touching them and without moving the dryer around continually—a surefire way to set yourself up for frizz.
To diffuse your hair with a minimum of frizz: first, dry your scalp. Keep the diffuser aimed at different sections of your scalp for about two minutes without moving (use the cool shot to bring down the temperature if the clips are heating up), then move to a different section. Getting your scalp dry is the most critical part of the process, so pay particular attention to make sure you do a good job here.
I personally use a combination of air-drying and diffusing to do my hair. After I clip myself up in the morning, I let my hair air-dry while I go about the rest of my usual routine—fixing breakfast, making beds, packing lunches, putting on my makeup, etc. When I’m ready to go and the only thing I have left to do is put on my shirt, I diffuse for about 10-15 minutes to finish the drying process and I’m done. Who says doing your hair has to take a lot of time and effort?
It should go without saying that using a blow dryer to straighten your hair stretches and distorts your curls, causing dry, damaged hair over time. If you are still straightening your hair all or part of the time, please think long and hard about what you are doing to yourself. Every time you blow-dry or flat-iron your hair, you compromise the health and elasticity of your curls—resulting in frayed cuticles, split ends, and brittle, porous hair. Why spend the time using curly-friendly products in an effort to restore your hair’s luster and health, only to destroy all of your hard work with such a brutal and curl-unfriendly process?
You and your curls deserve so much better than that.
A Word about “Negative Ion” Dryers
Much has been made in recent years about negative ion dryers, whose proponents claim the negative ion air flow will dry hair faster at lower heat settings, resulting in less damage. As of this writing, there is a lot of talk, but not a whole lot of science behind these claims. I have observed that my drying time and the drying time of my clients does appear to be less with a negative ion dryer than with a conventional one, but I can’t sit here and claim I’ve done a whole scientific study to prove it.
These dryers tend to be expensive, so if you are interested in purchasing one, make sure you do your homework and talk to friends who might already own one and can give you their opinion before you make the investment. I have a negative ion dryer at work and a conventional dryer at home, and I’m perfectly happy with my results with both of them. It’s all a matter of personal preference! (back to top)
When your hair is completely dry, remove the clips carefully, then shake your hair gently to set your curls in motion. Bend over, letting your curls fall free, and gently scrunch your curls to break up any crystallized product. You can use a curl-friendly pomade to help scrunch out the crunch and provide an additional level of hold if you’d like, although I typically view these types of products as “nice to have”, not “have to have.” Only scrunch your curls from the underside, to avoid creating frizz on the top of your head. If you would like more volume, “scrub” your roots at the scalp with your fingertips from the upside-down position to loosen the hair from the scalp and to obtain more lift.
Stand up, shake your head again gently, arrange your hair and then stand back and admire your beautiful curls. (back to top)
POINTS TO PONDER
As you begin to get used to your new hair care maintenance routine, here are two things you should keep in mind:
Some people report their hair still feels “dirty” after moving to their new no-sulfate, no non-water soluble silicone routine. But, please—don’t mistake the feeling of hydrated, moisturized hair with dirty hair. We have been so conditioned to shampoo “until it squeaks” that the feel of dry, stripped hair is all we know. Learn to appreciate and love how your hair should feel: silky, supple and full of moisture.
Additionally, your hair may seem to freak out a little bit with the new routine—a halo of frizz may rear its ugly head in the first week or two, leading you to wonder: what am I doing wrong??? Relax! Your hair is having a perfectly normal reaction to your new no-sulfate, no-silicone routine. After years of being stripped of moisture and natural oils, your curls aren’t quite sure how to react to all this sudden hydration. It may take a couple of weeks for your hair to regain its health and settle down. Stick with the routine, no matter how tempted you might be to give it up, and you will be rewarded with healthy, gorgeous, frizz-free curls in the end.