Curl Care Series Part 1: The basics of curly hair and The Curly Girl Method
June 30, 2021
It’s not a secret that sometimes curly hair can be a bit overwhelming to have and to care for. There’s no end of suggestions for curls ranging from extremely detailed instruction lists to “let’s just wing it and see what happens” and everything in between. I feel the need to preemptively reiterate here that this is my opinion based on my current knowledge and research. Hair care is a very individual and personal thing, as it should be because hair itself is very individual and personal.
Doing some digging into the Curly Girl Method is giving me all sorts of feelings. In theory it’s not a bad idea, but it feels full of scare tactics the more I read up on it. I’m still a big fan of “if it’s working for you then by all means keep at it” but the CGM is not something I’m prepared to suggest as a professional; if for no other reason than the fact that while the steps they’re giving you aren’t necessarily bad the reasons that go along with them aren’t always scientifically sound. It’s almost like saying “you shouldn’t drink bleach because it will kill the bacteria in your gut and throw off the balance of your digestive system”. Like, you definitely shouldn’t drink bleach but I really feel like that’s not the reason to use for why. Of course I am in no way comparing the Curly Girl MethodMethod to drinking bleach, I promise. The basic gist of the method overall is that it’s essentially the “no ‘poo” method but designed more for curly hair. I take some issue with the no ‘poo method as well for similar reasons. Once again the theory is there, but the reasons aren’t as solid to me.
Starting at the beginning: basics and curl typing
So let’s start by talking about some of the basics we already know about curly hair (and possibly brush up on hair basics in general). The hair’s cuticle (that protective outer layer) is what helps to keep good moisture in and frizz causing moisture out. It’s actually made up of multiple layers that need to lay smoothly (think shingles on a roof) to create that smooth shiny look. Because the hair naturally bends as it grows with curly hair, it does tend to be more difficult to get that sleek shiny look without straightening it, but it’s absolutely not impossible.
Now that we have a better understanding of some of the basic hair makeup, let’s move on to curl typing. Some folks swear by the 2/3/4 a/b/c format, but honestly for most people it’s hard to match a type exactly and then you feel like nothing is working because you’re not using the right product. It can be a great tool for dialing in a care plan for curls, but if you’re just starting out it’s usually better to keep it a little more simple and stick with typing to wavy/curly/coily/kinky. Curious where you fall? Let me help you out!
✨ You probably have wavy hair if:
- The curl or wave starts further down the hair strand as opposed to starting right at the root. You can still have spirals towards the end of your hair, but unless those spirals go all the way to your head it’s still wavy hair.
- Looks straight or less wavy when wet.
- Mostly S waves that straighten out after a day or two or when the hair gets long. The length and weight of the hair can reduce the amount of curl/wave visible, and would also lead to curls or waves more towards your ends rather than throughout the hair.
✨ You probably have curly hair if:
- The curl forms in a spiral straight from the root and is still curly when wet.
- Length and weight of hair don’t affect the curl shape as much; you still have ringlets starting right from the scalp even if your hair is long.
- Ringlets are usually the size of a pencil, pen, or Sharpie. This just means they share the same diameter.
✨ You probably have coily or kinky hair if:
- The curl is a tightly formed coil approximately the size of a pen spring. This may also present as a tight zigzag pattern.
- High shrinkage when dry and not affected by length or weight of hair.
- Common misconceptions are that this hair type is always coarse or rough; a majority of it is actually very fine in texture.
- Typically doesn’t have as many cuticle layers, which makes it more fragile and prone to breakage and dryness.
These images are a great visual for you to compare your hair to and see where you fall. It’s important to make sure you’re basing your information on the majority of your hair rather than one or two small sections that differ or have a more intense curl pattern. This will help to ensure that you’re taking the right journey for your hair type. If the products you choose are for curlier hair than yours, it’s highly likely that your hair will feel heavy and weighed down. If you’re choosing something that isn’t intense enough, your hair will probably look and feel dry and frizzy. It’s a delicate balancing act and worth noting that you may need different products for different times of the year or even different days, depending on local weather and whatever activities you have planned, etc.
The “avoid” list:
Circling back around to the things you’re being told to avoid and *why* you’re being told to avoid them. The Curly Girl Method in particular recommends totally avoiding shampoo, heat, combs and brushes, sulfates, non-water soluble silicones, and alcohol. It’s easy to see why, on the surface, this sounds like a great idea.
✨ Shampoo and sulfates:
- I’m putting these two together in the same spot for a reason: the number 1 reason I saw for recommending cutting out shampoo entirely was because of sulfates. The most common sulfates in shampoos are sodium-lauryl sulfate and sodium laureate sulfate.
- Generally sulfates are on the “avoid” list because they’re such effective cleaners and remove everything both good and bad from the hair.
- The biggest issue with heat, in my experience, has been misuse. It’s easy to want to crank the heat to “sun” and blast your way through whatever you’re doing but the “low and slow” method of cooking is popular for a reason and using the highest heat available on your hair to try to speed up your drying time is like cranking the oven up to bake your cookies faster; all you’re really going to accomplish is burning things.
- If you can get away with a totally heat free styling that’s usually what I recommend. However a lot of people find that they need some sort of heat to help with styling, and that’s ok too. Using the right products for your hair to protect and prevent damage, along with making sure you’re using the right heat setting, will usually give you the results that you’re looking for without causing more damage than is necessary.
✨ Combs and brushes:
- With limited exceptions, don’t avoid these. Hair needs to be maintained to stay healthy and a good comb or brush can be vital to getting the results you need. The catch? It may not be needed where you think it is.
- For almost every curl type, unless you’re trying to get big poofy curls (which is a-ok, by the way), don’t comb or brush your hair when it’s dry. Instead, try using a wide tooth comb or detangling brush in the shower to untangle and separate out your curls while your conditioner is in your hair.
✨ Fragrances and alcohols:
- I also combined these two because they tend to be added to lists for similar reasons. Some alcohols and fragrances are definitely drying to the hair, and some fragrances can also be major skin irritants. There’s also the deeper issue of the fact that the label “fragrance” is sort of a catch all when it comes to added scents.
✨ Non-water soluble silicones:
- Silicones are typically added to hair products as a smoothing feature since they help the layers of the cuticle lay down and stay there. They’re also great at helping to detangle and add shine, but if they aren’t water soluble they’ll build up over time creating other issues.
The Curly Girl Method
Some of the do’s and don’t’s are more product directed, so that will be covered in Part 2. Here I want to focus more on the directions of the CGM.
It starts by explaining that the CGM “trades in damaging habits (like shampooing and heat styling) for a healthy curly hair regimen using just conditioner and gel)”. The particular site I found the instructions on did give you the benefit of telling you that you should feel free to modify the recommendations to suit your hair, but, to me, it almost felt underhanded.
Honestly I think my biggest issue is that it always feels like it starts out with OH MY GOD DON’T USE ANY OF THESE THINGS EVER WHY DO YOU HATE YOUR HAIR BECAUSE CLEARLY YOU DO IF YOU USE THEM and then turns right around and makes suggestions that really do fall under the categories of the things it’s telling you to avoid, rather than taking the time up front to try and explain the differences enough that you don’t have to dig through the entire method multiple times to really see what you need. So let’s dig.
✨ Step 1: Start by gently scrubbing and stimulating the entire scalp with your fingertips and conditioner. They make sure to emphasize not to use your nails at all, and say that the friction will lift residue, sweat, and oil to be rinsed.
- For the most part, yeah. The avoidance of fingernails is to make sure you’re not causing unnecessary irritation to your scalp. Conditioner is also a fairly good lubricant, so you’re not creating a ton of friction by using it on your scalp; instead your hair strands are more than likely creating the needed friction to lift residue. You can also use a silicone tipped scalp brush (I also recommend nothing scratchy) if using your fingers for an extended period of time is bothersome for you. I also still recommend using an actual cleanser from time to time.
✨ Remember earlier when it said “never use shampoo”? When asking how often should you cleanse your hair the recommendations given are:
- Wavy hair – you can use regular shampoo but only once a week and always condition before and after using shampoo
- Curly hair: cowash with water and conditioner every 7-10 days
- Coily hair: In between cowash days, wet your hair and go straight to step 2
- “Cowash” is a fancy name for washing your hair with conditioner. There are true cleansing conditioners on the market that are great for using this method of washing that have cationic surfactants which really do help to cleanse and condition at the same time. Even still you’ll want to use a more clarifying shampoo 1-2 times a month to really ensure you’re removing excess buildup.
- “Regular shampoo” here, in my opinion, is a shampoo meant specifically for cleaning rather than a cleansing conditioner which potentially won’t remove as much residue.
✨ Step 2: Condition! Smooth conditioner over your hair in sections until all your hair is covered and then let the water distribute the product evenly.
- Wavy hair: Rinse for just a few seconds, it’s ok if a little bit of conditioner is left on the hair.
- Curly hair: Rinse or leave the conditioner on depending how much moisture you need.
- Coily hair: If you have the time, wrap your hair and apply heat for 15 minutes for an added moisture boost and then rinse completely to avoid a visible film.
- In my opinion, the texture of your hair is going to have a bigger role in how much conditioner should or shouldn’t come out than just basing it on your curl pattern. While it’s true that the curlier your hair is the more moisture it needs, coarser hair will benefit the most from minimal rinsing and finer hair will be weighed down more if a lot of product is left behind.
- The type of conditioner you use here is also important. If you have fine wavy hair but use something designed for coarser wavy hair, it’s very likely that even with a full rinse you’ll feel like your hair is still weighed down.
- If your hair tends to get really tangly, especially when it’s wet, this would be a good time to use your brush or comb to work some of those out and make sure the conditioner is evenly distributed. Be sure to start at the bottom and work your way up, and don’t be afraid to let the running water help you move the conditioner around.
✨ Step 3: Dry and style – bend forward and blot your hair dry by cupping curls in a towel, making sure you’re not wringing or disturbing your curls, and then air dry or use a diffuser if you’re in a hurry. It says next to scrunch gel from the ends toward the scalp starting at the nape and working up, scrunching the top layer last and clipping the roots for lift, but doesn’t specify how much moisture should still be in your hair when you do that.
- Wavy hair: encourage your curls to form with extra scrunching or by doing pin curls.
- Curly hair: When hair is completely dry, bend forward and fluff from underneath to create lift, taking care not to touch the top layer to avoid frizz.
- Coily hair: Recommended to just wash and go, however you can style any way you want as long as you try to avoid heat.
✨ There are a loooooot of things that could potentially affect the style of your curls or waves, and we’ll go into that more in Part 3.
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