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.
Are you using the wrong product?
First off, if you want super-defined curls the first thing you’ll need is the correct TYPE of product. What do I mean?
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. 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.
How polymers (and gels) work
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. These polymers are often the source of hold in styling products such as hair gels, cream gels and hairsprays.
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 4b and 4c hair.
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
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.
The "f" word - flaking
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 4b 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.
Common gelling ingredients
So what polymers are typically going to be in a gel formula? This list is not complete but contains some of the more common ingredients you’ll find in hair care products.
- PVP (Poly n-vinyl-2-pyrrolidone) - This polymer is notorious for causing flaking. It’s great at film-forming and can be washed away with water which is great for the no-poo or low-poo naturals. It’s also inexpensive. However some notable drawbacks are a crunchy feel to the hair, flaking in cold, dry weather, and, in humid conditions tackiness, stickiness and frizz.
- PVA (poly vinyl acetate) - PVA is another ingredient commonly found in hair gels and it overcomes some of the drawbacks of PVP. It is water resistant and therefore doesn’t absorb as much moisture from the atmosphere. The hold is more flexible which means less flaking. A drawback of PVA is that it doesn’t provide that much hold to the hair.
- Copolymers - Copolymers include ingredients such as PVP/VA copolymer and the acrylates copolymer and they have been designed to bring more balance to a formula creating a polymer that is strong yet flexible and less likely to flake. It can also be used in more temperature extremes while still maintaining optimal performance.
- Xanthan Gum - Xanthan gum is used in food products as well as cosmetic application and it’s a naturally derived polymer that is obtained by way of a fermentation process using a bacteria call Xanthomonas campestris. It’s useful in modifying the viscosity of products resulting in a product that is thick and creamy. It can also be used to create styling gels which result in a clear film on par with the typical synthetic polymers noted above. I absolutely love xanthan gum in my hair gels but one thing I’ll note is that not all xanthan gums perform the same. I’ve used xanthan gums with softer holds and others that form more rigid polymer structures. So you’ll need to try the formula to ensure it will work for your hair.
- Dehydroxanthan Gum - This is a naturally-derived, modified form of xanthan gum that provides great hold, humidity resistance and minimal flaking.
The ingredients that work well for my Type 4 hair are dehydroxanthan gum and xanthan gum. I haven’t tried products that contain PVP, PVA or the copolymers, mainly because my interest is in choosing products with more naturally sourced rather than synthetic polymers.
How to choose a gel for maximum clumping
Gels for natural hair come in many flavors, colors, textures and names. From curling jellies to curling custards, the name is more descriptive than functional. In essence, these are products that are manufactured to enhance curl definition by causing the hair to clump and keeping the strands in place as the hair dries. Because I’m a hair gel junkie, I can pretty much tell whether a gel will work for my hair as soon as I read the ingredient listing. My hair type and curl patterns is 4b and c and why this is important is because there are certain requirements for a hair gel to meet in order to effectively work on my hair.
Gels for Type 4 Hair
Type 4 curlies have various curl patterns and textures but if there is one thing that most type 4’s have in common it’s the lack of visible curl definition. What this means is that a little more work is required in order to achieve defined curls. I’ve gotten the best results from the following types of gels:
- Thick, dense hair gel. Thicker gels cause my thick hair to clump better and dense gels add weight to my hair, allowing it to hang
- Choose gels with a lot of slip. For me, slip means the gel goes on easily and helps to detangle my hair in the process
- The gel should feel gooey and snot-like between your fingers. I know it’s a little gross but trust me on this one! The more gooey and stringy the better because this means MAJOR clumping and curl definition
Gels for Type 3 Hair
For women who have hair that has visible definition regardless of product use, your gel needs are little different. I have two daughters with two completely different hair textures. Based on my experience with my baby girl’s hair (extremely fine hair, silkier texture, visible curl definition without product) a gel that is more liquid and less dense but with a lot of slip works very well for her. The gel that I would use on my eldest daughter’s hair or my hair would be way too thick and would just matte baby girl’s hair.
It’s one thing to have the right product; it’s another to know how to apply it properly. And this is another area where there are polarized opinions in the natural hair community.
I’ll present you with a few different techniques, the rationale behind them and give you the pros and cons of each so that you can make the best decision on how to apply gels to your hair for the best definition.
Let’s start with some problems when it comes to hair gels:
- The potential for flaking and residue
- The potential for dryness
- Tackiness and stickiness (depending on the formulation as well)
Here are some issues you’re trying to overcome with your hair:
- Lack of curl definition
- Shrinkage (big one!)
- Lasting style
Applying gel on soaking wet hair
This is not my first choice for my hair. If it works for you then carry on. But for me, it’s doesn’t result in the look I’m going for. The thing about hair is that when it’s wet is expands to allow the excess water. So the hair is going to be longer. However, as the hair dries the hair shaft contracts and shrinks up. So when you apply gel to wet hair, the length is not going to magically locked in. Sorry if you thought so or if the bottle or jar told you this. And this is because the hair is wet because of the excess water. But eventually the hair dries. And you get some major shrinkage.
I’ve also found that applying the product to wet hair for me doesn’t result in all of the curl definition I would like. So what are the pros and cons of applying the product to wet hair?
- The hair is a little easier to work with because it’s hydrated
- It’s easier to apply the gel to the hair and get it distributed throughout the hair from the scalp to the tip
- Applying gel wet helps to reduce the stickiness, tackiness and whiteness that could occur with the gel
- Shrinkage (big time!)
- You don’t really maximize curl definition is some hair types
- Increased chance of breakage due to manipulation. Hair is pretty fragile and even more so when wet.
- Could lead to frizz and poor curl definition when it dries
For wash n’ gos some people use different techniques to apply the gel. Once the gel is applied you can wet your hair more, shake your head vigorously and apply more gel. I haven’t mastered this technique because I don’t use it. However it’s important to apply it from the scalp to the ends of the hair and with the hair wet, it’s a little easier to do then when it’s dry.
Applying gel on damp hair
This is what I do and it works well for me for how I want my hair to look – with maximum definition and less shrinkage. Starting with damp hair may seem to be a little bit counterintuitive if you want less shrinkage, but it works well. This is because when you apply the gel to hair that is damp, WYSIWYG. Translation – what you see is what you get. If it’s a good gel it will encourage the actual length of the hair from it’s density and curl “clumpiness”. Then when the hair dries the style will lock in place. I also find I get great shine from this method and better moisture retention. Some potential issues with applying product to damp hair is that the hair can feel sticky or tacky depending on the formulation of the gel used. And on some hair textures there can be some residue. The fix for the cons is to add a little water to the hair the work the gel into the hair more.
So what are the pros and cons?
- Maximum definition
- Less shrinkage
- More moisture retention
- Sleeker look to the style
- Tackiness and stickiness (depending on the formulation)
- Some residue (depending on your hair texture)
Hair gels can be used to lock in any style: wash n’ gos, twists, braids, twist-outs, braid-outs, bantu knots. You name it, gels lock and hold.
Okay so there you have it! In my usual round about, long explanation manner I’ve given you my opinion and experience with using hair gels. Hopefully you understand how to achieve maximum definition from any style you choose to wear and longevity from the style.
Do you use hair gel? If so, which one? What works for you? Let’s discuss!
This article was written by Susan Walker of Dr. Walker Wellness and published on CurlyNikki.