The world of curly hair can be tricky to navigate. While straight hair tends to be a bit more predictable, hair with more texture can sometimes seem like it has a mind of its own. But don't throw in the microfiber towel just yet; rest assured that there are ways to get the curly hair of your dreams. The first step: Get to know your curl type.
Many curly hair experts agree that knowing your curl type and texture is critical. "That's pretty much half the battle," says celebrity hairstylist Ursula Stephen. "You have to understand your hair." Luckily, there's an easy way to do so.
The curl classification system was first popularized by Oprah Winfrey's longtime hairstylist, Andre Walker. It breaks hair into four categories: type 1 is straight, type 2 is wavy, type 3 is curly, and type 4 is coily. From there, the categories can be further broken down into types A, B, and C, identifying more specific curl patterns. This curl type categorization is not the answer to all your curly Q's, but once you can speak the language you'll be able to better understand your hair. Keep reading for how to discover your exact curl type—and expert-recommended tips for taking care of it.
Type 2A hair is best described as bendy. Rather than having defined waves or curls, this hair type will have a few relaxed, organic bends throughout the hair that give it a tousled texture. People with this hair type should prioritize products that promote extra volume to get the most out of their 2A hair.
First, start with the products you use in the shower, like the Bumble and bumble thickening volume shampoo ($28) and conditioner ($30) that use thickening and volumizing ingredients. Then, celebrity hairstylist Irinel de Léon recommends using a volume spray, like Ouai's Volume Spray ($26), on damp roots. For best results, she suggests flipping your hair upside down for maximum va-va-voom effect. If you want to add a little extra shine at the end, you can finish styling your hair with a spray like the It's a 10 Blow Dry Miracle Glossing Leave-in ($25), a 2020 HelloGiggles Beauty Crush Award Winner.
2B hair will start to show a bit more of an "S" shape, like the more textbook definition of wavy hair. For most people, the goal will be to bring out the wave and give it more hold so that its shape lasts all day. Celebrity hairstylist and curl expert Ona Diaz-Santin suggests using foams, which she says allow you to "go heavy-handed with a light product" and add texture and definition without weighing your hair down.
For wavy hair, de Léon specifically recommends the Ouidad Amplifying PlayCurl Foam ($19). While hair is wet, generously rake the product through the hair and then use a microfiber towel or cotton T-shirt to scrunch out the excess moisture.
The waves in type 2C hair will be less loose, more defined, and will likely have more volume than types 2A and 2B. This curl may lean on the drier side and will therefore benefit from moisturizing and multi-purpose products like Bumble and bumble's 3-in-1 Custom Conditioner ($34), which Diaz-Santin recommends. The conditioner can be used as a hydrating co-wash in the shower, then as a leave-in product to lock in moisture as the hair dries.
To get more definition out of your waves, you can rake a gel throughout your hair while it's wet and follow up with de Léon's scrunch-out method to dry it without creating extra frizz. If your hair tends to fall flat when air-dried, you can blow-dry your hair with a diffuser to get more volume and bounce.
Now we're getting to the curls. Type 3A hair will have more of a spiral effect, with curls that are loose and bouncy. However, it's also important to know that everyone's hair is different and can be made up of various patterns in different areas. "Most of the time, it's a mix of two or three different patterns, maybe more," explains Diaz-Santin. So you may have some sections or strands that look like 2B or 2C, while others look more like 3A.
To play up your 3A curls, use a moisturizing styling cream like Innersense's Quiet Calm Curl Control ($26), which has hydrating shea butter and honey extract. For best results, section your hair out and generously rake the product through it, making sure to saturate each strand. Depending on your desired look, you can then air-dry or diffuse it. "When you air-dry, you have more relaxed, elongated waves or curls in comparison to when you diffuse, which, if diffused properly, gives you a much tighter wave or curl pattern and a lot more body," explains de Léon.
3B curls look like defined ringlets or corkscrews, with a circumference that's about the size of a Sharpie marker. Most 3B curl types will retain a good amount of length while also having a more defined curl shape. To promote this curl shape while keeping frizz at bay, drench damp curls in a creamy moisturizing product like Shea Moisture's Coconut & Hibiscus Curl & Style Milk ($9). For added definition, follow up with a product like Ouidad's Climate Control Heat & Humidity Gel ($26), which is great for tackling frizz.
Type 3C curls, which have a circumference that's about the size of a pencil, provide a good amount of volume on their own but can be prone to frizz. Since this hair type is more textured than 3B overall, you'll want to lock in extra moisture with a leave-in product, like Ellis-Ross' very own Pattern Leave-In Conditioner ($42). If you're looking for a bit more hold, you can mix in a hydrating gel, like Briogeo's Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Quinoa Frizz Control Gel ($20).
If you have a mixture of patterns in your hair, try applying more product to the more densely packed curls to ensure that each strand is properly cared for.
Type 4A hair typically looks like springy, tight corkscrews with an abundance of volume. This type will have a tighter curl pattern than type 3 hair but may retain similar softness. To promote that softness, treat your hair to a rich, dense, and moisturizing treatment after washing. We like the Shea Moisture Curl Enhancing Smoothie ($11) since it's infused with coconut oil, neem oil, and silk protein.
Rather than an "S"-shaped curl, 4B hair can look like tightly packed "Z" shapes. Stephen loves Dove's Shaping Butter Cream ($7), saying that it's great for styling hair in twists-outs or braid-outs. Here's her added tip: If you like a product but think it's a bit too heavy for your hair, you can dilute it with some water and make it the consistency that works for you. After washing, layer generous amounts of product into wet hair in sections, squeeze out any excess moisture with a microfiber towel or cotton T-shirt, and allow the rest to air-dry from there.
Type 4C hair is tightly coiled and has a coarse zig-zag type pattern. These textures are prone to the most shrinkage and dryness, so moisture is key for this curl type. This texture needs a thick and custard-like product, like Briogeo's Curl Charisma Chia + Flax Seed Coil Custard ($26), to penetrate and soak into the hair since lighter products sit on the surface but won't treat it.
When working your product into wet hair, be sure to apply it into sections to ensure that each strand is getting the hydration it needs. If needed, de Léon suggests having a spray bottle of warm water on hand to make sure the hair is wet when applying product, since this hair type doesn't hold water as long as less coarse textures do. Once the hair is completely dry, you can follow up by raking through a hair oil, like Pattern's Jojoba Oil Hair Serum ($25), to add extra shine and definition to your coils.