The options seem endless. Do you shampoo or use a sulfate-free cleanser? Should your curls be cut wet or dry? Should you forego the flat iron forever? Confused yet?
There are several philosophies to consider when caring for your curls.
Rest easy -- we cut through the clutter and gathered the top experts in the curly world for their bottom-line stance on cutting, cleansing and styling.
These curl experts have invested decades studying and styling curly hair. Their life’s mission revolves around curls! Although their approaches may differ, their goal is the same: creating gorgeous, healthy curls for their clients.
CURL EXPERT: Shari Harbinger, partner of Lorraine Massey of New York’s Devachan Salon
CUT: When stylists at Devachan Salon prep for a curly cut, they know to trust their intuitive eye and their visual eye.
“You can’t really understand that if the hair is wet because you’re not seeing the hair as you wear it, in its natural form, which is dry,” says Shari Harbinger, who emphasizes that curls should be cut only when the hair is dry.
When curlies make an appointment at Devachan, they’re asked to stop shampooing their curly locks one to two weeks before their cut, although daily conditioning is recommended. When they step into the stylist’s chair, clients are required to arrive with their hair dry and in its natural state, uncombed and without any products in it at all.
“We look at the face shape, the hair, the curl type, the hydration level, and all those factors will determine where we cut, and how much we cut,” Harbinger adds.
The only tools in a Devachan curly cut are scissors and the stylist's hands — no combs or brushes.
“Combs aren’t necessary because you’re then stretching the curl out of its natural form, which defeats the whole purpose of cutting curly hair in its natural order," she says.
CLEANSE & CONDITION: Curly hair can’t get enough moisture, and Harbinger says sulfates in shampoos add to the dehydration of curly locks.
“The philosophy is to remove the sulfates from the product, which are the harsh, lathering and dehydrating ingredients found in 99 percent of the conventional shampoo on the market,” says Harbinger, noting DevaCurl’s product line includes No-Poo, a sulfate-free botanical cleanser. “Just by virtue of eliminating those sulfates and replacing them with botanically derived ingredients, the hair responds immediately.”
If curls are extremely dehydrated, she recommends conditioning every day. For a deeper treatment, Harbinger recommends leaving in the daily conditioner for a half hour to intensify the hydration.
“But you can cleanse every other day because our styling products have nothing synthetic in them to cause buildup or to make the hair feel dirty,” Harbinger says.
STYLE: The styling process begins the moment you’ve stepped out of the shower, Harbinger says.
“Gently tilt your head over, in an upside down position, and squeeze the excess water out of the hair with paper towels or a cotton t-shirt in an upward scrunching motion,” Harbinger says. “Regular towels cause friction and cause the cuticle of curly hair to fray and appear frizzy. They also absorb too much water out of the hair. For the best curl definition, you want to remove just enough water to release the curl of its own water weight and that’s best done by using a paper towel.”
Once you’ve applied a leave-in conditioner and/or gel, then gently bring your head and hair to an upright position and gently shake the curls.
“Wherever they lay, they shall stay,” says Harbinger, who recommends adding clips to the crown for additional lift. “Do not touch the curls when they’re drying because that can create frizz and cause the curl to lose its formation.”
As for flat irons, Harbinger views them as a “death sentence for all hair.”
“Every time you flat iron or ‘blow fry’ the hair, you’re one step further away from your curls being the best they can be,” Harbinger explains. “You’re compromising the elasticity of the curl. The curls will never be as authentic as they can be if they’re in a push-me, pull-me cycle or back and forth.”
Harbinger emphasizes that curly hair is not a trend, it’s a lifestyle.
“If we understand what we have and how to work with it, we can learn to embrace and love our curls,” she says.
CURL EXPERT: Christo, Artistic Director of New York’s Christo Fifth Avenue Salon
CUT: Christo has always believed curly hair should be cut wet.
“Curly hair, when you cut it dry, won’t have the freedom of style,” Christo says. “You may wear your hair curly 90 percent of the time, but maybe the other 10 percent, you want to wear your hair in glamorous waves or you want to blow it straight. I think you should have that option.”
Your textured mane should only be combed (wide-tooth comb only!) when it’s wet and then allowed to bounce back, according to Christo. “That way you can see how the curl is going to bounce, and then you cut accordingly,” he explains. “If the hair is dry, how is it going to bounce? It doesn’t.”
Since there may be many textures on one curly head, Christo may choose to texturize tresses using regular scissors, channel scissors or a double-blade razor on wavy, coarse hair.
“Some people have wavy hair on the bottom, while it’s curly on the top, so you can texturize the bottom in long angle layers, but you have to know to know what you’re doing,” Christo says. “You want the waves to lock into each other — not become bushy and frizzy.”
After the hair is cut and then dried with a diffuser, Christo may make a few touch-up snips on a dry mane, but without combing the hair or disturbing the curl.
CLEANSE & CONDITION: Christo emphasizes that life is about balance — and he applies that philosophy to curly hair. As an advocate of shampoo, Christo views sulfates in shampoo as simply one cleansing component, balanced with other nourishing ingredients, such as proteins and amino acids.
“I think your hair needs shampoo once or twice a week,” Christo says. “The reason is this: It’s not only to remove the buildup that you get from products, etc. There’s also the buildup you get from the environment, which is so dirty.”
He’s also a firm believer in deep conditioners, and recommends feeding your curls with a conditioning treatment or mask once a week — or twice a week, if you color your curls.
STYLE: To style curly locks, Christo divides the hair in four or five sections.
“If you want to make it easy, clip each section so it’s not in your way,” he says. “Then, take one section at a time, and apply the lotion or gel according to your texture. Then, run your fingers through your hair, shake it a little bit or scrunch it to get the curl to bounce back.”
If you want to smooth it with a flat iron for a different look, Christo warns curlies not to overdo it.
“Use it with balance, once in a while,” he says. “If you use the flat iron once a month it will not damage your hair, but if you use it two or three times a week, that doesn’t work.”
And if you have a daily addiction to the iron, Christo says there’s no way to avoid damaging your hair, no matter how much you condition it.
CURL EXPERT: Jonathan Torch, Toronto’s Curly Hair Institute
CUT: Jonathan Torch studies curly hair when it’s dry to look at the direction the hair grows, but he always cuts hair when it’s wet.
“That way I can see the grouping of the curls and the way the curls bounce,” Torch says. “We look at the individual curls and choose the size of the curl. In order to make a ringlet, the hair has to rotate 2.5 times, otherwise you get wings.”
Since every curly head has more than one curl pattern, Torch recommends against traditional layers for curly hair.
“Even layers do not work in curly hair,” Torch says. “We have developed a technique called curly layers, and it’s all about creating unevenness, breaking it up.”
If you’re looking for height, volume or bounce, Torch suggests telling your stylist exactly that.
“You have to change your terminology. If you want volume, say you want volume. Don’t say you want layers because you’re going to be upset with the result,” Torch warns.
CLEANSE & CONDITION: Cleansing your curls with shampoo is an important step to maintaining healthy hair, according to Torch, whose shampoos contain sulfates, along with silk amino acids.
“We chose silk amino acids as our moisturizing protein because it has the tiniest molecule,” Torch says. “The size of the molecule is essential, because the smaller the molecule the deeper the penetration of absorption. The most important thing is getting that moisture molecule inside the hair.”
When conditioning your curls, he says it’s not as simple as “laying it on thick.”
“Just because a conditioner is thicker in consistency doesn’t make it a better-performing product,” Torch explains. “People like the heaviness because they feel it’s actually going to be doing something, but in reality, it may be only cosmetic.”
How a conditioner performs depends on its ability to penetrate and help the hair hold onto the moisture, according to Torch.
“Naturally curly hair repels moisture, so how do you condition hair that is repelling moisture? Our conditioners have pH levels of 3.5 to 4 -- that’s extremely low. The lower the pH, the more you’re going to close the cuticle,” Torch says. “Our products deposit generous amounts of silk amino acids and panthenol.”
STYLE: Even if you have healthy hair and a great curly cut, you won’t truly embrace your curls until you master the styling process. The key to achieving a successful style, Torch says, is not how well you dry your hair. It’s how well you prepare your hair before it dries.
“You have to start off with tangle-free hair, and the more hair you group in an individual ringlet the looser the curls,” Torch explains. “If you want your hair off your face, you have to get it back off your face from the roots. If you can get the roots going in a certain direction then you can get successful hair. Allowing the cuticle to dry on its own will guarantee frizz-free hairstyles.”
CURL EXPERT: Ouidad, author of CurlTalk, owner of New York’s Ouidad Salon, the Curl Education Center
CUT: Using her “Carve-and-Slice” method, Ouidad always cuts curly hair when it’s wet.
“Curly hair doesn’t dry the same, so it’s very difficult to cut it dry. You need to know the curvature of the curl in its natural state,” Ouidad says.
The Carve-and-Slice cut is a process that follows the curvature of the curl, and Ouidad says it allows the curls to puzzle into each other so they don’t expand.
“I section the pieces and shake the curls between my fingers so I can see the wave pattern and the curvature of the curl,” she explains.
CLEANSE & CONDITION: Ouidad believes shampoo (including sulfates) is “essential” for healthy hair.
“It’s very important to shampoo twice a week and apply conditioner daily, starting about two inches from the root so you’re not blocking the pores of the scalp,” she says.
Although Ouidad warns against shampooing too frequently, she emphasizes the importance of cleansing the oils from the scalp to allow the hair follicle to breathe.
“My philosophy is to work from the inside out -- not topically” Ouidad says. “The idea is to rebuild the internal layer by connecting your internal molecular layer with protein, amino acid and sulfur -- that’s what my deep treatments are made of. The idea is to feed the curls by using deep treatments on a regular basis. They’re essential to have successful curly hair. Curly hair can’t live without deep treatments, it just doesn’t work.”
And don’t forget that leave-in conditioner before you start styling, she adds.
STYLE: When it comes to styling, Ouidad believes that less is more.
“The less you handle and manipulate your curl, the more successful you’ll be with your hair,” she explains.
Use only water-soluble styling products, and skip the oils, waxes and silicones that boost buildup, Ouidad says.
When applying gel or styling lotion, she follows her “shake and rake” technique, which uses your fingers to “rake” through the hair, and then “shake” the curl pattern back into place.
“Section the hair starting in the nape area and use a quarter-size of gel, rubbing the palms together,” Ouidad explains. “Separate the fingers and run them through the hair. The more hair between your fingers, the looser the curl will be. Then, hold it at the bottom and just shake it.”
To add some lift to the crown, she suggests sliding a few duckbill clips at the roots, allowing the curls to cascade down freely and dry naturally.