Figuring out your curl type takes time. Contrary to popular belief, curly hair isn't just one big category. It actually encompasses a vast array of curl types with unique characteristics and traits. Although it's easy to group hair into straight versus curly categories, that generalization does not account for the true beauty of hair in all its varied glory.
So how do you identify your curl type? For starters, it takes a bit of exploring. Considering the fact that our hair transforms over time, it also takes patience and a lot of kindness to your curls. A simple Google search of "curl type" will bring you to fascinating charts and offer a look inside cult communities of women who've bonded over their curl type. (I haven't fully learned my curl type and which products bring my coils to life, but I'm okay with that.)
I decided to reach out to curl experts and natural haircare founders who know best. Michelle Breyer, NaturallyCurl
Of course, I couldn't write about curls without tapping the curl master, Vernon François, who also happens to be a celebrity hairstylist and founder of the Vernon François Haircare collection, along with curl extraordinaire Diane C. Bailey, who is a celebrity stylist and SheaMoisture brand ambassador. Read on for the ultimate curl type breakdown you're going to want to bookmark ASAP.
A Breakdown of Each Curl Type
According to Breyer, below are the characteristics of each curl type:
Type 2a: Slightly "S"-waved hair that sticks close to the head and tends to be fine in density.
Type 2b: The wave usually forms throughout the hair in the shape of an "S" like Type 2a, but the hair sticks closer to the head. Type 2b waves might be slightly frizzier on the crown of the head and tend to lose curl definition easily.
Type 2c: These waves are the coarsest of wavy hair patterns. They are composed of a few more actual curls, as opposed to just waves.
Type 3a: Curls show a definite loopy "S" pattern that is well defined and usually springy. Type 3a curls have a circumference the width of a piece of sidewalk chalk.
Type 3b: Curls are more voluminous and have a smaller circumference than Type 3a curls—the size of a Sharpie marker.
Type 3c: Curls resemble tight corkscrews and are approximately the circumference of a pencil or straw. Type 3c hair tends to be higher in density and coarser than type 2 or 3 hair.
Type 4a: Tightly coiled hair that has an "S" pattern. It has more moisture than Type 4b coils and has a visible curl pattern. The circumference of the spirals is close to that of a crochet needle.
Type 4b: Strands have a "Z" shape and a less defined curl pattern. Instead of curling or coiling, the hair bends in sharp angles like the letter "Z." Type 4b hair is tightly coiled and can feel wiry to the touch.
Type 4c: Hair is composed of strands that will almost never clump without the use of styling techniques. Type 4c hair can range from fine, thin and soft to coarse with densely packed strands.
There are different approaches to defining curl types. François, for instance, likes to look at them by texture. "I define the characteristics of each hair type by its true texture, not numbers and letters because it's much simpler. There's often some overlap with chart systems—like Type 4 may be both kinky and coily—so for me, being dyslexic, it makes much more sense to define by texture," he says.
François continues with his curl breakdown: Kinky hair has kinks in it, meaning the strands make a zigzag shape, not a curl or a wave. A sign the kinky hair is due for a cut is when the ends of the strands start tangling together easily. Coily hair is when each of the strands forms tight coils. It's very versatile but can be fragile, especially if the strands are fine, because it usually has a thin external layer. Curly hair strands cluster together and wind around themselves in a spiral or looser curl shape. This texture needs plenty of moisture to encourage a defined pattern, but a little frizz can give it personality. Wavy hair is when strands curve or form an "S" shape. Straight is when strands go straight up and down. Kinky, coily, curly, wavy and straight hair can also be stressed by heat styling, colouring or chemical treatment and may need some extra TLC, so damaged is a hair type too.
What's the easiest way to ID your curl type?
Breyer's company decided to make an online quiz to easily help women identify their natural curl type. "The quiz also helps identify other texture attributes, such as porosity, density and width, which can be equally important when it comes to finding the right products, styles and cuts for your hair," says Breyer.
François takes a more visual approach. "Anyone with no idea about ID'ing their hair texture should check out my icons," he explains. "I created these hair texture shapes because my clients told me that they found texture typing charts confusing. Being dyslexic, finding a visual solution was second nature to me. People can see at a glance what their hair type is and identify the best products from my collection for them. It's a universal visual language for hair: Just match the shape that your strands make with the shape on the icon: kinky, coily, curly, wavy, straight or damaged."
Bailey has a slightly different tip. She recommends examining your curls while they're wet—the texture will be evident. "You may have more than one texture in your hair, which is common," she says. She also sends most of her clients to Breyer's NaturallyCurly.com curl type chart.
Is it possible to be between curl types?
"It's definitely possible to have in-between curl types and several curl types on your head," Breyer explains. For example, I have 3b curls on most of my head but 3c and 4a at the nape of my neck and 2c on my crown. That's part of the fun of being a curly girl."
"All of us are in-between," Bailey reassures us. "No two textures are alike. The diameter of the hair may be different; the density of the strands may vary, as well as the porosity and growth cycles of the strands will change. Everyone has more than one hair type or texture. In the back it may be one texture, very curly, fine and fragile; the midsection may be dense, less curl/more frizz; the front hairline may be softer and less curly, with more breakage."
Which products work best for each curl type?
Breyer laid out her favourite, go-to products for each curl type:
Type 2: Make sure to use lighter products that won't weigh your hair down. Mousses, gels and cream-gels work well for soft waves. To enhance your texture, seasalt sprays work especially well.
Type 3a to 3b: Use an anti-humectant (humidity blocking) styling cream, a cream gel or styling milk for less frizz but more definition.
Type 3c: Use styling creams or puddings that moisturize. Deep-condition at least once a week to retain elasticity and moisture.
Type 4: Use a creamy humectant as a leave-in treatment to maximize protection and moisture. A curl-defining custard or gelee can stretch the coil safely for twist-outs and braid-outs
François recommends that all women with textured hair use sulphate-free shampoos to preserve moisture and avoid drying their hair out. "Regular co-washing in between sulphate-free shampooing is also a good idea to help to boost moisture levels and keep hair well nourished so that it’s less brittle, and using a wide-tooth comb will help to keep curls formed," he notes.
Each of the ranges in François's collection has ingredients to benefit different curl types. "For kinky and coily textures, I'd recommend the shampoo, conditioner, and moisture spray from my PureFro range," he says. "For curly, coily, and wavy hair, my Curl range collection. Women with damaged hair will love the ReVamp line. Whipped Deep Conditioner is a luxurious treat for restoring all stressed-out hair. A lot of my clients like to use this on a Sunday night every few weeks as part of their home pampering session."
According to François, his Styling Cream works across all hair textures and is great for doing two-strand twists with curly, kinky and coily hair types. "It works great with several styles like finger twists with wavy, kinky and coily types," he says.
Also, "SheaMoisture Coconut and Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie enhances your curl pattern while lightly hydrating," explains Bailey. "For the kinky/coily curls, SheaMoisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen, Grow and Restore Smoothie defines curls while conditioning and nourishing your hair and scalp."
Favourite hairstyles for each type?
For waves, Breyer loves a tousled look achieved by diffusing while the hair is almost dry. "Wavy braids, with a few tendrils left out, are also a pretty look when you need to get ready in a hurry. For curlies, high curly buns can work well in any weather, the messier, the better," explains Breyer.
"Twists or twist outs are popular styling techniques. Twists, twist outs, flat twist and flat-twist outs are usually created on wet or dry hair, taking two equal sections of your hair and wrapping one section around the other until you reach the ends, and twirl the end around their finger to ensure closure and less frizz. The twist out is merely untwisting the hair and fluffing to a desired look.
"Essentially, the best go-to style is one that creates a flattering shape for your face, which will vary from person—there aren't any set rules by hair type," François adds. "How you style your hair can reflect your personality, so I'd always recommend having a consultation with a hairstylist who is experienced in working with your hair texture for best personalized advice. François always cuts textured hair when hair is dry so that the amount of shrinkage can be factored in and there are no unwanted surprises for the client at the end.
"The go-to style for wavy and /curly hair types is a messy bun or braid: pull all your hair up in an unstructured bun or free-style braid," explains Bailey. The go-to style for kinky and coily curls is a 'fro hawk.' Pull both sides back with a kirby grip, leaving the middle section in a textured afro.