curly hair 101: Image of blonde curls beside a face

Curly Hair 101: 24 Tips to Go from Flat-Ironed (or Frizzy) Hair to Waves and/or Curls

I haven’t straightened my hair since January 2016.

One Sunday at church a gorgeous African American gal ran her hands over my flat-ironed hair and said, “You don’t have to do this, you know. You could wear it the way God made it.”

I squinched my nose at her. Because I was pretty sure my hair resembled cacca (That’s Italian for bathroom function #2.) unless I straightened it. But it got me to thinking and later that day,

I remembered a friend raving about “co-washing” and “no-pooing.” 

I Googled the terms and followed the links to Curly Girl: The Handbook,* by Lorraine Massey. I ordered the book and when it arrived, I zoomed through it in an afternoon. Soon after, I placed a sizable order for Deva Curl products on

I also started asking questions of Holly Brimm–a fellow curly girl and owner of Untangled, a salon in Morgantown. Holly added me to a private Facebook group for curly-haired people. I love this group and find it very supportive. However, for me, it can be like Pandora’s Box. Or crack.

These days I love to pop on there and heart all the gorgeous curly selfies. But in the beginning, I used to get on and rabidly scribble notes about everyone’s products and processes. So I could copy them to the letter. Usually I ended up at Sally Beauty Supply, blowing money on products that for the most part did not work on my hair. Which is why I’m creating this document telling you all the curly hair tips I’ve learned in the last 2.5 years—to save you time and money. And only a few have anything to do with a hair product.

#1: Read The Curly Girl Handbook.

This book is basically the Bible for people with textured–wavy or curly–hair. And there are a lot of us. Statistics say approximately 65% of women have wavy or curly hair. The Curly Girl Handbook tells you all the do’s and don’ts regarding caring for your locks. In my opinion, this book is where everyone should begin their curly hair journey. Buy a copy for yourself or ask to borrow mine.

#2 Patience is a virtue.

Meredith Nelson, one of the gals on the above-mentioned Facebook page, offers this advice: “Don’t rush change. It takes time and patience to reverse the damage.” The damage she’s talking about is due to heat or non-curl-friendly ingredients in hair products. More on both damage types down below.

Nelson is so right. The path to curls for most people is not measured in weeks, maybe not even in months. For many, it takes years. The first time I had my hair cut by a curly hair specialist, I boasted that I’d not straightened my hair in 18 months. “You’re a baby in curly girl years,” the stylist told me.

#3 Curly hair is thirsty hair.

Though it’s #3 on my list, this may actually be the #1 law of textured hair. My local curl mentor, Holly Brimm, says, “Don’t be afraid to leave a lot of conditioner in your hair. (Silicone and paraben free, of course!) Curls need moisture!”

Holly is so right. Nothing will bring waves and curls to life like lots of moisture. I remember gawking when she told me she doesn’t rinse out her conditioner. However, her hair was gorgeous, so who was I to disagree?

#4 Beat the heat.

I now travel two-plus hours to Charleston, Best Virginia a few times a year to have my curls cut by Deva-certified stylist Larry Bragg at 721 Salon. Larry’s rule of thumb is: “If it’s too hot for the hand, it’s too hot for the hair.” As such, he doesn’t use a flat-iron, curling iron, or high heat blow dryer on curls.

And rightly so. Since curly hair is thirsty hair, you can imagine what heat-exposure will cause… thirstier hair.

With that said, some of my curly-haired friends occasionally straighten their hair. Larry says every time you flat-iron your hair, you set it back three weeks, in terms of healthy hair. I’ve not yet been willing to take that risk.

#5 Become an ingredient inspector.

According to The Curly Girl Handbook, there are certain ingredients you should avoid.

  • Harsh sulfates: Certain sulfates will dry the heck out of your hair. Others are more gentle. Here’s a list of sulfates that should be avoided and sulfates that are more acceptable.
  • Silicones: Most curly girls avoid hair products with silicones because they can weigh hair down. Some folks say they suffocate the hair, not letting the strands breathe or take in moisture. With that said, I’ve read where more than one curly girl claims her hair loves ‘cones. To be on the safe side though, I avoid them.

#6 Can’t touch this.

This may be the second MOST IMPORTANT curly hair rule. Once all of your products have been applied to your hair, do not touch it until it is 100% dry.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say most curly-haired people use a gel product as the final step in their hair routine. If gelled hair is left untouched until it’s completely dry, it will form what’s called a “cast.” This crunchy coating, in essence, protects the curl pattern of each clump of hair. Mess with the crunch, and you risk incurring every curly girl’s nemesis: FRIZZ.

#7 What the heck is SOTC?

SOTC stands for “scrunch out the crunch.” This is when you use your hands to “break the cast.” Using your hands to squeeze and squish the curl will break the cast and make the hair soft and natural looking again.

I recently learned a super helpful trick from my curlfriend Lora Rigatti. I met Lora last year when we both participated in the national event “Listen to Your Mother.” Lora now has a super popular Instagram feed for curly girls. You can see her SOTC trick here. Lora has a TON of great curly info on her IG.

#8 Twice is nice.

Most curly-haired gals I know only wash their hair twice a week. Some people balk at this, usually the ones with oily hair. However, an interesting thing happens when you don’t wash your hair (especially with a sulfate shampoo) every day. Your hair will produce less oil. Be patient though. It takes a little while to get there. A dry shampoo can get you through that time.

#9 How refreshing!

When you have curls, on the days you don’t wash your hair, you may need to “refresh” it. This means doing whatever it takes to get your curls to look shiny and bouncy like they did on “wash day.”

For me, this means spritzing my hair with a special concoction I make. My secret recipe is basically 1 part conditioner whisked into 4-5 parts water then poured into a spray bottle. I also add a tablespoon of aloe vera gel because my hair loves it. In time, you too will learn what your curls love.

#10 The pineapple is not just a symbol of hospitality.

In curly hair lingo, a “pineapple” is hair gathered up into a high ponytail or bun. Many curly girls, myself included do this every single night to preserve our curl patterns. Otherwise, all the tossing and turning can create frizz.

Other options include a buff or bonnet. Buffs are good for shorter cuts. I can’t speak to the bonnet option. I’ve never tried one. I don’t think Tony Bear would be a fan.

#11 Smaster’s of ceremony.

“Smaster’s” is a weird term for a refreshing process I love to use on Day 2, Day 3, and sometimes even Day 4 hair.

After I free my hair from its “pineapple,” I mist it all over (including the underside) to slightly dampen every strand. Then I wet my hands and take about a 1/2 teaspoon of my favorite curl enhancing gel and smoosh it between my palms. First I lightly run my hands over the top surface of my hair, then I wet my palms, smoosh more gel between them and coat the underside of my hair.

I have no idea exactly how smastering works but usually it makes my hair look fantastic. To see a demo of the the Smaster’s Technique, click here:

#12 How dry I am.

There are a number of ways to dry your curly locks.

  • Air dry. This is when you put your product in, maybe clip up the roots for volume, and let nature take its course. Air drying takes hours, especially with a lot of moisturizing products on your hair.
  • Bonnet dry. I used to always let my hair air dry. But then winter showed up. Brrrr! That’s when I purchased a Conair Bonnet Hair Dryer. Sitting under this gizmo dries my hair in 20 minutes instead of 3-4 hours. It’s a great way to get some quality reading time!
  • Diffuse. I used to only diffuse when I was feeling fancy. But then Larry, my Deva dude, provided additional incentive. He told me diffusing wet hair takes weight out of the hair, weight that pulls the hair down which can reduce curliness. I now diffuse way more frequently. I love this diffuser.* Unfortunately it doesn’t fit every blow dryer. But don’t despair, I found this video with a super clever work-around.
  • Car Vent Dry. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this option. If your hair isn’t dry by the time you leave for work, crank the heat or air in your car and aim the vents at either side of your hair. Hey, better than nothing.

#13 Dear (Hair) Diary….

If you’ve been reading my blog since the beginning, you know I’m a fan of journaling. For all kinds of reasons. And now, let me show you a brand new reason.

As you go through your curly girl journey, you will experience successes and failures. I suggest keeping a record of both. So hopefully, you won’t make the same mistake twice.

Dedicate a specific notebook to recording your various hair experiments. Each “wash day,” write down what products you used in what order. Also make note of the results. This way, if you have an AMAZING hair day, you know how to make it happen again. And again.

#14 Good things come in small packages.

Remember at the top of the page when I said I ordered a boatload of Deva Curl products? Well, I made the mistake of ordering some of them in jumbo-sized bottles. “Value-priced,” the headline read. “Sign me up,” I chirped cheerily. And then my hair responded, “Hated it!” Sigh…

Behind every mistake though, is a lesson learned. Now when I want to try a new product, I search for samples of it. Or I buy travel-sized bottles. Man, does this save you money! Especially since curly hair products can be pricey.

#15 Time to throw in the towel.

My older daughter has super fantastic curly hair. It’s like the good Lord twirled it around a pencil when she was swimming in my belly. A few years back, she was the one who told me terry towels are bad for hair. The little loops rough up the cuticle and cause frizz. “Use a t-shirt instead,” she advised.

As soon as I started my curly life, I “borrowed” a long-sleeved t-shirt from my son and never gave it back.

Another option is a microfiber towel. Sally Beauty Supply stores carry them. Deva makes one. Oh, and some folks use flour-sack fabric. Find what works for your hair and your budget.

#16 Nights in white (or colored) satin.

“Invest in a satin pillowcase. It’s a game changer.” This is the advice of Suzanne, another gal on the curly girl Facebook page I frequent. Suzanne is correct. The slippery surface of a satin (or silk) pillowcase drastically reduces the amount of frizz you see in the morning.  I believe in satin pillowcase* power so much, I travel with one.

Not only are silky pillowcases good for your hair, word has it they also can help you stave off facial wrinkles. I wrote about that in this post.

#17 Drip, drip, drip little April shower.

You might be in the habit of applying your styling products after you’re out of the shower, when your hair is merely damp, not soaking wet.

I encourage you to try applying your products (ie. leave-in conditioner, curl enhancer, gel) while your hair is still dripping wet, in the shower even. For many curly-haired people this really improves product distribution and later, curl definition.

#18 Sisters are doing it for themselves.

One of my favorite people in the curly community is a gal named Wendy. I call her the Curl Whisperer. Wendy writes a science-based informational blog about hair: The Science-y Hair Blog. On her blog, Wendy covers all kinds of topics. One of my favorite “tabs” on her site is titled: “Recipes and Projects.” Here are my favorite recipes of Wendy’s.

  • DIY Flaxseed Gel: I don’t know why, but my hair is crazy in love with this stuff. I’ve made it twice now. It’s a bit of a pain since you basically have to press snot through a sieve (or length of panty hose). Still, I plan to make this until further notice because nothing I’ve tried makes my curls this soft and shiny and defined.
  • DIY Protein Treatment: Some hair loves protein. Some hair hates it. My curls love it. That’s why I’ve been cooking up this recipe of Wendy’s for over two years now. I do a protein treatment on my hair every fourth wash.

#19 Twice is nice. Sometimes.

Remember how earlier in this post Holly Brimm encouraged the use of lots of conditioner? I concur. Conditioner, lots of it, is absolutely essential for the care and feeding of curls.

Recently I made the mistake of using a clarifying shampoo (one that will strip product build-up from your hair) two times in a row. This significantly dried out my hair. To remedy the situation I’ve taken to deep conditioning my curls every wash day. I wet my hair, apply deep conditioner, comb it through, and clip it up in a bun. 20-30+ minutes later, I step in the shower and go through my usual routine.

This is thankfully bringing my hair back to life. I wish I’d done this with my curls from the get go. I think it might have hastened my curl journey.

#20 Co-Wash your hair.

So what exactly is “co-washing?” Co-washing is curly girl speak for “washing” your hair with conditioner. Lorraine Massey and curly-haired folks everywhere insist that warm water and friction (provided by the pads of your fingers scrubbing energetically) are great for removing dirt, oil, and styling products from your hair. And they don’t dry your hair like shampoo or even “low poo” can.

Honestly, I’ve had mixed results with co-washing. My first day hair looks really great, but then the next day my scalp is often itchy. Boo! Consequently, I almost never co-wash. However, when I do, I use Suave Tropical Coconut Conditioner. You can get it at the Dollar Store or Walmart for less than $2. If your hair and scalp will tolerate co-washing, this is a great product to try.

#21 Plopping is not a bathroom function.

As I mentioned above, air drying can take a looooonnnngggg time. “Plopping” is one way to shorten your drying time.

Plopping is a weird word, isn’t it? But that’s what all of us curlies call it. Basically, it’s wrapping your hair in the curly-girl-friendly cloth of your choice: t-shirt, microfiber towel, flour sack, etc.. After that, you leave it plopped for whatever time works for you. The fabric will absorb the moisture from your hair as well as any excess product your hair doesn’t drink up.

Personally, I plop for 20 minutes. Some people plop overnight. I’ve never tried it. Because of a rumor about mold in pillowcases…

#22 The Brush-Off

Lorraine Massey encourages her followers to stop brushing and combing their hair. She says it can damage the hair. Some people follow her counsel. Some do not.

I haven’t brushed my hair since starting the Curly Girl Method, but I do use a comb every now and then. In the shower, I comb through my conditioner with a wide-toothed comb. I also use a comb to part my hair after I remove the t-shirt. Figure out what works best for you.

#23 If money is no object…

  • Hair Analysis: Early on, I purchased a hair analysis from Wendy, the Curl Whisperer. You mail her a few dozen strands of just-cleansed, product-free hair and within a few weeks she’ll respond with a comprehensive report on the nature of your hair and the ingredients your hair will probably love. I asked her a few questions when I sent her my hair sample and she answered all of them. Every few months, I get out my hair analysis to remember what she said about this issue or that. These custom reports are not super expensive, maybe $30.
  • Deva Cut: A Deva cut costs more than $30. The price tag can be just shy or even over $100. Especially for the first time since you will be given an extensive tutorial on how to cleanse, condition, apply styling products, and dry your hair. The thing about curly hair though is, it doesn’t grow straight. It grows in a spiral. As such, it takes more time to gain length. While some people get their hair cut 8-12 times a year, with a Deva cut, you can go much longer in between. I tend to schedule a cut every 3 or 4 months. A trained and certified Deva stylist will cut your hair DRY and curl-by-curl. Knowing how to do this takes hours in the classroom. With that said, I know people with curly hair who look terrific even though their hair was cut with traditional beauty school techniques. Learn what works best for you.

#24 You be you. 

There are so many areas of my life where people are legalistic and dogmatic about beliefs and behavior: ie. faith, food, and now hair. Everyone has an opinion about what is right and what is wrong. It seems everyone wants everyone else to do, say, and believe exactly what they do.

I’d rather explore, research, and experiment to find out what works best for me. I recommend you do the same. With that said, if you find some of the information above helpful, hooray. If not, oh, well. Please know that my heart’s in the right place. Or rather, my hair.

I created a little graphic to illustrate my hair journey. High school, before the Curly Girl Method, after the Curly Girl Method, and my latest experiment: curly hair with bangs.


Note 1: There are affiliate links(*) in this post. If you click on a link and buy a product I suggested, I might make a quarter:) Yay, college fund! Note 2: If you really and truly want a detailed list of my very favorite curly hair products, email me here and I’ll get you one:)

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