Whether you've got coils, curls, or waves, a proper maintenance plan is a must. Use this guide to find out how to take care of your curly hair and style your waves.

By Didi Gluck and Jenn Barthole
Updated February 10, 2021
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Woman with curly hair

Curly hair is fundamentally different from other hair types: It's drier and more prone to damage than straight hair since ripples cause tiny tears in the outer cuticle, which let moisture escape; its follicles are oval-shaped, which makes it more difficult for the scalp’s naturally hydrating oils to travel down strands; and it has a different protein composition. In fact, according to a new Nexxus study, curly hair protein is richer in glycine and serine amino acids (the proteins found in hair) than straight hair.

This is why textured hair needs specialized hair care to become hydrated, strong, and flexible. These pro tips and products will help you take care of curly hair. (Related: I Tried the Curly Girl Method and It Totally Transformed My Hair)

How to Take Care of Curly Hair and Waves

Step One: Cleanse & Condition

How you take care of curly hair all comes down to your curl type. Those with very tight curls may need to shampoo only once a week, while those with wavier textures are better off cleansing two or three times a week. And if you have very dry, frizzy hair, wash it once or twice a week at most, says celebrity hairstylist Harry Josh. Over-cleansing can strip it of sebum, the natural oil on your scalp, and can disrupt the natural curl pattern.

Before you step into the shower, wet hair and apply a strengthening treatment like Nexxus Curl Define Ultra-8 Pre-Wash Treatment (Buy It, $17, cvs.com), then put on a shower cap to trap heat. This opens the hair follicles so the formula can penetrate better. After a minimum of 10 minutes, wash hair with a sulfate-free shampoo. "Good curls start with your shampoo," says stylist Ouidad, creator of Ouidad products for curly hair. "Pick shampoos labeled mild, gentle, or 'low-poo' or cleansing conditioners, which contain fewer harsh lathering agents and more moisturizers than traditional formulas," she says. Try KMS MoistRepair Cleansing Conditioner (Buy It, $24, amazon.com). (Also read: Should You Be Co-Washing Your Hair?)

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Then apply conditioner two to three inches away from the scalp, so you don't weigh down your texture. Try Ouidad Advanced Climate Control Defrizzing Conditioner (Buy It, $10, amazon.com) with strengthening wheat amino acids. From there, begin your knot-busting routine. (One of these other conditioners for curly hair will do the trick, too.)

“Start detangling in the shower,” says Irinel de León, a Los Angeles hair-stylist. “As you rinse, gently rake your fingers through strands, then scrunch them to activate your natural curl pattern.” If your fingers don't cut it, try using a wide-toothed comb to help detangle. (More here: Should You Ever Really Brush Your Hair?)

Step Two: Prep

Wrap a microfiber towel around your hair to squeeze out excess water — don’t rub, which encourages frizz. Next, rake about a quarter-size dab of leave-in conditioner mixed with curl cream from roots to ends with your fingers, says de León.

For tight curls, try Ouidad Curl Immersion Silky Soufflé Setting Crème (Buy It, $28, amazon.com), which elongates spirals. For fine waves, try Goldwell Stylesign Soft Waver Lightweight Fluid. "Rake and shake" the products through damp hair using your fingers, says Ouidad. If you hold your fingers closer together when raking, the ensuing curls will be tighter. Then, scrunch curls, says de León.

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Step Three: Style

Your safest drying option when it comes to caring for curly hair: air dry. "Heat from a blow-dryer can deplete hair of its must-needed moisture,” says de León. But if you do need to dry your hair quickly, add a diffuser attachment to your blow-dryer and keep it on a low heat and speed setting. “This gives curls the room to form without being blasted with overly hot air,” says de León. To diffuse your hair gently, "lay it across the top of the diffuser, and blow from the underside of the hair," says Ouidad.

No matter which way you dry it, resist touching your hair; you’ll upset the curl pattern and bring on frizz. (And remember to use a heat-protectant spray if your hair is chemically processed.) (Related: Why Do Hairstylists Insist On Straightening My Curly Hair?)

Step Four: Maintain

Between washes, mist hair with water and then a hydrating leave-in (like Tresemmé Flawless Curls Refresher Spray, $5, target.com) to reenergize your curls. Before bed, put your hair in twisted buns or braids, and sleep with a silk pillowcase to minimize friction.

Every two weeks, use a deep treatment to "feed" your hair, says Ouidad. This fortifies the internal structure of your strands, which yields healthier-looking curls. Try Inoar Divine Curls Mask (Buy It, $31, inoarus.com) with hydrating coconut oil and shea butter.

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How to Make Curly Hair Straight

On day one, prep damp hair with a pea-size drop of styling cream, such as PhytoSpecific Curl Legend Curl Sculpting Cream-Gel (Buy It, $24, us-phyto.com). Blow hair dry in sections, working with a large, round natural-bristle brush, says Sharon Medina, an educator for the hair-care company Inoar.

On day two, add a bit of oil, like ColorProof TruCurl Anti-Frizz Oil (Buy It, $25, colorproof.com) to your hair to seal the cuticle, then restyle with the dryer. On day three, simply use a flat iron. "It seals the cuticle and boosts shine," says Medina.

How to Make Straight Hair Curly

Distribute an oil-, gel-, or cream-based product through damp hair, then fashion sections into pin curls (for tighter curls, wrap hair around one finger, then secure with a clip; for looser waves, wrap hair around three fingers before pinning). Let pin curls air-dry, or heat them with a diffuser. Remove clips, then set with finishing spray. (Here's another way to curl hair without heat.)

Do You Need a Special Haircut for Curly Hair?

Quite possibly. The biggest clue that you have a good curly haircut is that it "sits well whether you wear it curly or straight," says Ouidad, who explains that curls must be sliced from the inside out (then around the perimeter) so that they stack neatly atop one another. If your curls take a long time to tame at home, consider seeing a curl specialist or at least finding the stylist at your regular salon who has the most experience with textured hair.

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