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defined curly hair

Curl definition. It’s what many naturals want to achieve; yet it seems to elusive and unreal. Is it even possible? To have ultra-defined curls?

My natural hair journey began with the quest for the perfect gel and I spent countless hours researching information and experimenting with methods and techniques that work on my hair to get the best curl definition.

I investigated, researched, tried and err’d and now share what I discovered with you. Just keep this in mind: my hair type and texture is different from yours so you may be able to get away with using slightly different types of products, and modifying your technique somewhat while still getting great curl definition. However if you understand the principles you can tweak whatever you need to to get the perfect curl.

Hold & Clump

First off, if you want super-defined curls the first thing you’ll need is the correct TYPE of product. When women are concerned about their hair styles becoming frizzy, puffy and lacking definition they’re usually using oils, leave in conditioners or butters to style their hair. This is the problem.

If you want super-defined curls the first thing you’ll need is the correct TYPE of product. 
Oh sure they’ll have the moisture they need. But not the definition. This is because oils, butters and regular leave-in conditioners typically don’t contain ingredients that give HOLD to styles. And the reality is that for women with some hair types and textures – like type 4 hair - they’re not going to achieve any curl definition or longevity to their style without a product that gives hold.

So what’s the word of the day for defined curls that last? HOLD. And you also need clumping.

In order to achieve these two things you’ll need to use a hair gel. And more specifically, a product that contains POLYMERS.

There are various types of polymers in hair and skin care. Types include conditioning polymers, viscosity modifying polymers and film-forming polymers. The ones we’re concerned with mostly are the film-forming polymers.

How Polymers (and gels) Work

These polymers are often the source of hold in styling products such as hair gels, cream gels and hairsprays. Does anyone use those anymore BTW?!

According to curl chemist Tonya Mckay,

A gel consists of solid particles (usually polymers) dispersed throughout a liquid. These particles form a network throughout the liquid that swells and forms a gelly .

As the product is applied to the hair, the polymers are deposited onto the surface of the hair and cause adjacent strands to be attracted to each other, creating bonds between the strands. This creates the desired “clumping” effect. The more clumping I see happening, the better the final result. Especially for type 4 b and c hair.

Once the water in the product evaporates the polymers dry to form clear films which not only help to maintain the curl, but add shine. This hold will typically last until the bonds are broken through combing, brushing or touching the hair, or until the product is washed out.

In my opinion there is nothing like a good hair gel for defining curls, giving them staying power, providing shine and minimizing frizz. However you’ll need to find the right type of gel to enhance your curls.

As a consumer, one of the main challenges with hair gels is assessing whether or not the gel is going to do what you want it to do without doing what you DON’T want it to do. What do we want the gel to do? Clump the curls, define and hold them in place. What do we NOT want the gel to do? Provide a stiff, crunchy, inflexible hold and flake (especially in excessive amounts). Some polymers provide great hold but they’re too brittle and can cause flaking. Others don’t flake at all but provide a softer hold that can be susceptible to moisture and frizz in humid conditions. Because of all of the factors that can contribute to a complete “gel-fail” there is a lot of research and development that goes into the manufacture of polymers used in hair care products. Certain ingredients can be added to soften the film formed by the polymer without a huge compromise in the performance of the product.

Is that Dandruff???

If there is one fear of using hair gels that many naturals have it’s the dreaded “f” word – flaking. This is the number one concern followed closely by the gels making the hair hard. This really comes down to the formulation of the product.

What determines whether or not a gel will flake depends a lot on the polymer that’s used, as well as other ingredients in the formula. A strong hold is desired for curl definition, especially on type 4 b and c hair that will almost never clump without product. However, if there is any manipulation to the hair (like combing or brushing the hair when the curls are “locked in place” or you have this overwhelming urge to always touch your hair, then the clear films are disrupted and as a result, flaking occurs. Keep in mind that the more gel and product you pile on onto your hair, the more flaking and residue you can expect.

In some products polymers aren’t the only ingredient to blame. Other ingredients in a formulation may contribute to flaking or, if you’re layering products from different product lines, there may be an incompatibility of ingredients that will result in your hair looking like you were rolling around in snow once it dries! Understanding common polymer ingredients is important if you’re going to assess a curl enhancing gel formula for effectiveness.

MORE: Top 20 Curl-Friendly Gels

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