I habitually straightened my naturally curly hair for about 15 years, and on the rare occasion I went out with it in its natural state, or when I told someone about all the chemicals and heat tools that went into manipulating it, they would inevitably ask why I didn’t just “leave it curly.” Wouldn’t that be “less work?” Actually, no. What no one tells you about having curly hair is that it takes just as much effort to make it look good as it would to straighten it — maybe even more.
This has become crystal clear to me over the past year as I’ve embarked on my own natural hair journey (which you can read more about here). And while I’ve gotten my wash day routine down (or so I thought) and brought my hair to a pretty healthy place after all those years of damage, I’m still left with some questions. How do I make it look its best for a special event? How can I manipulate the shape of the curls themselves? What’s really the best way to revive second- or third-day hair? What hairstyles exist besides “down” and “ponytail”? So I decided to ask the experts, in hopes that their advice might help not only me, but also the many others who have likely begun embracing their natural textures in quarantine.
And by experts, I mean the stylists to the curly-haired stars. Nai’vasha has worked with the likes of Yara Shahidi, Janelle Monáe and Alicia Keys, in addition to tending to her own incredible curly locks. The curl expert even launched her own brand, Curl Queen, which features a unique invention called The Glove, which can be used to detangle, shampoo and massage the scalp to stimulate blood circulation, which is crucial for growth.
Also a curly girl herself, Naeemah LaFond is behind many of the coolest statement-making natural hair looks in editorial and on the (sometimes virtual) runway with designers like Christopher John Rogers. She also serves as Amika’s global artistic director.
Finally, we also turned to the inimitable Vernon François. With clients including Lupita Nyong’o, Karrueche Tran and Tracee Ellis Ross, François launched his own hair-care line in 2016 with the goal of helping people embrace their natural hair textures. He was also recently tapped by Redken to be the brand’s global consultant.
Below, Nai’vasha, LaFond and François share their best tips for making curly hair look its best — including mistakes you’re probably making, styling tricks you probably hadn’t considered, and a few simple words of encouragement. Read on.
Don’t skip shampoo
A common issue that Nai’vasha and LaFond encounter is curls weighed down by product, which could be the result of using too many products, using products that are too heavy, not washing thoroughly enough, or all of the above. With the proliferation of co-washes and the messaging that more is more when it comes to moisture on curly hair, shampooing can feel like it should be an afterthought.
“The absolute biggest mistake that I see people do with their curly hair is not shampoo it. They just do a co-wash and what’s happening is that all of that product and elements from the air and being outside is stacking on top of each one of your strands,” explains Nai’vasha. “Using a clarifying shampoo or using a scrub or some type of exfoliator a couple times a month or once a week, just to get all of the nitty gritty off of your hair, is very necessary.” And that means shampooing all of the hair — not just the scalp (as I’ve mistakenly been doing). She adds that after shampooing, hair is more ready to absorb all the benefits of whatever conditioner or hair mask you apply next, similarly to how double cleansing or exfoliating your face can help skin-care products absorb better.
François also stresses the importance of getting “the basics” of your routine right, recommending Redken’s reparative Acidic Bonding Concentrate Shampoo for Damaged Hair.
Even if you do a great job of washing, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to pile on as many leave-in styling products as you want. “Using products that leave too much residue on the hair or using the wrong products can leave the hair looking flakey and cakey,” shares LaFond. She suggests using a gel if you want to stretch your curls out a bit, and a cream if you you want them to be more light and bouncy.
Master the twist
If you want to manipulate the look and shape of your curls, you may not need more than your hands and a few hair ties. Nai’vasha suggests the two-strand twist — a cool-looking protective style in its own right, that can also be used as a styling trick to elongate curls and improve manageability. You take a section of damp hair — the more hair you have, or the thicker your hair is, the more sections you’ll want to do — then divide that into two sections, and simply twist them together all the way down like a rope. You can tie off the end with a hair tie, or use a roller or rod at the end to add even more length and shape, she says. Take the twists out when the hair is dry. My new go-to is just doing this with two sections of hair after I wash it. This gives my hair a nice relaxed, wavy look that stays manageable and holds its shape pretty well up until the next wash day.
Another option, suggests Nai’vasha, is bantu knots: First, twist your damp hair into little buns all over your head. Then, “let it dry completely. Once it’s absolutely dry, undo your bantu knots and shake it out.”
Twisting is also a great move for sleeping. “Taking time to twist and pin curls in sections for bedtime, sleeping with hair covered in a silk cap, using your fingers more and your hairbrush less to preserve your curl pattern, all these things will help if you do them consistently,” says Francois.
Spray bottles are your friend
Having a reliable method of bringing your curls back to life on those days post-wash when it’s looking dull, frizzy, tangled and shapeless is key. There are products designed to do exactly that: François, Redken’s global consultant, recommends the brand’s One United Leave-in Conditioner.
LaFond and Nai’vasha both recommend the spray bottle route. Pick one up on Amazon and just fill it with water. “Always remember that water is your best friend when you want to rehydrate the hair; however keep in mind that if your curls are stretched, rehydrating the hair will cause shrinkage,” advises LaFond. She suggests wetting second- or third-day hair and following that up with Amika Curl Corps Defining Cream. “The cream will seal in the moisture,” she notes.
Nai’vasha’s go-to is a simple mixture of water and whatever your favorite conditioner is in a spray bottle. It’s also her first step to “wake up” someone’s hair she’s about to style for a shoot. (Personally, I’ve had great results with a mixture of water and a little of my Pattern Beauty Leave-in Conditioner.)
Try an unexpected cut or style
Sometimes curly hair can feel like it’s just…there. If you want your curly hair to have more of a defined look or shape, our stylists have some of-the-moment suggestions.
“Curly cuts with less traditional shapes are trending right now,” says LaFond. “You’re seeing more angles and less circular shapes. Mullets on curly hair have even made an appearance on celebs like Rihanna and in fashion campaigns like that of Christopher John Rogers.” That’s right, it might be time to embrace your inner Emhoff and try a curly mullet. Nai’vasha also loves bangs on curly hair.
If you’re not ready for a cut, LaFond also suggests doing a side part and smoothing and pinning the smaller side up. “This is an instant look and will do wonders for framing the face,” she says.
Meanwhile, Nai’vasha likes the use of a curling iron to change up the shape of curly hair. “There’s nothing wrong with curling it with curling irons — not straightening — then setting it, then brushing it out to have big, voluminous hair,” she says. “Or another style option is you can roll it with big rollers, sit under the dryer, and brush it out.”
Maybe lay off the diffuser
YouTubers and people with Dyson hair dryers love to tell you to diffuse your curly hair to dry it, and while Nai’vasha and LaFond aren’t quite anti-diffuser, they both prefer air-drying (as do I). “I find that air-drying the hair is less disruptive and creates more of a defined finish,” says LaFond.
“I feel like [air-dried hair is] bouncier and the curls are a little bit less manipulated,” echoes Nai’vasha.
Be patient and embrace the frizz
Your mindset is almost as important as your styling skills when it comes to loving your curly hair.
“Mindset is key if you’re looking to embrace your hair’s true texture on an ongoing basis because it’s a journey,” offers François. “Remember, accept, and be flexible to the fact that curls, kinks, coils and waves may look, behave, and respond in different ways on different days.”
Nai’vasha’s advice is simple: “to not get frustrated, to be patient, and embrace your frizz.”
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