While it can seem intimidating at first (what doesn’t in the curly world?), resources like Naturally Curly have pioneered a classification system, ranging from 2A to 4C, that makes it easier to identify your curl pattern. The number refers to curl families, while the letter points to how tightly wound your curls are within that. Curl type 1 is pretty much the absence of curl—in other words, straight. Type 2 means waves, while 3s are spiraled curls, and 4s are kinks and coils.
Why knowing your curl type matters
While your curl pattern is usually pretty clear just from looking in the mirror, listening to it makes a big difference, says hairstylist Shai Amiel, who goes by The Curl Doctor on Instagram. Curl types are a good blueprint for figuring out your routine. So if you have major curls, you can avoid wasting time with too-weak products and go for the heavy-hitting curl creams. Or vice versa—if you’ve got fine waves, you can focus on the stuff that won’t weigh them down.
Also, because most products aren’t classified by the numerical system, knowing your curl type helps you home in on buzzwords when you’re wandering the hair-care aisle, says celebrity hairstylist Vernon Francois. “Everyone is constantly faced with what their hair texture is and how to enhance it, and this simplifies it,” he says. “Then you can investigate from there according to your needs.”
A leave-in product and a curl definer make up the standard routine, but both Amiel and Francois agree there are more factors to bringing out the best in your texture. The system thought up by the curly community works pretty well—even if there has been some debate around it—but as with everything, the better you can know your hair, the easier it will be to pick the best curly hair products for you.
How to determine the best products for your curl type
Before we get into the break down of the nine different types of curls, it helps to know three key terms that’ll have an effect on how well products will work for your hair. They are porosity, elasticity, and curl variance.
OK, so porosity isn’t the sexiest-sounding word when it comes to talking about hair, but it is an important factor in narrowing down the products that’ll bring out your curls’ shape. The term refers to how easily your hair sucks up liquids, i.e., why your hair might take forever to dry (a question some morning showerers know well). If you have no idea where you stand in the porosity scales, Francois says an easy test can clear things up. Dunk the ends of a lock of your hair in a cup of water (or take a bath, any excuse), and see if your hair floats, sinks, or stays somewhere in the middle. Boom, you know your porosity.
If your hair floats, it’s nonporous and doesn’t easily absorb product, so you should reach for heavier creams that’ll fight the good fight and get the job done. If it sinks, your hair takes in liquids easily. Look for lighter, water-based products, Francois says.
This may be obvious, but elasticity refers to your hair’s snap-back. Amiel suggests stretching a curl out with your fingers. If it barely coils back to where it started, that means it’s lacking elasticity and needs moisture. But he warns against reaching for oils to do the job. That sentence strikes fear right into our oil-loving hearts, but, unfortunately, he compares them to wetsuits in a bad way.
“We know that oil and water don’t mix, so you can’t apply anything oily to wet hair. If your hair is wet and you’re applying an oil-based product on it, the water will push the oil out, and it’ll sit on top of the surface,” Amiel says. “It’s like trying to shower with a wetsuit: your hair’s not getting any moisture, so it becomes dry and brittle and breaks off.” Yeah, not great. Instead, Amiel recommends water-based products. While they may feel lighter and less powerful, you can rest easy knowing they’re sinking into your hair instead of just lying on top.
So what happens if you have two curl types on your one head? Don’t stress, Francois says, because it’s super common. Most people’s curls fall somewhere between types or they’ve got multiple patterns. He suggests using more product in the stronger-curl sections—so no, you don’t need to pick up a gel just for the section behind your ear or at the nape of your neck.
How to figure out where you fall on the curl type chart
Still not sure what curl type you fall into? We asked the pros to help identify and define each curl pattern, along with product recommendations to make the curl care aisle a little more inviting the next time you wander down it. We all know how fast our tubes and jars go empty.
If you have Type 2A, there’s a slight wave to your hair and lots of body. Frizz can be a factor depending on the porosity. You typically have a medium- to lower-porosity hair (depending upon chemical or heat damage). Hydrating shampoos and conditioners, especially for longer lengths, will help minimize frizz.
Leigh Hardges, a stylist at Maxine Salon in Chicago, suggests water-based products like mouses and gels to give your waves the best results possible. Two of her favorite products to use when styling are Kerastase Discipline Curl Ideal and Oribe Gel Serum Radiance in addition to a light leave-in conditioner.
Kerastase Discipline Curl Ideal
Celebrity stylist Kim Kimble defines this curl type as “beachy waves with a loose ‘s’ pattern with little to no bounce.” She suggests her Curl Whip Mousse to achieve a defined curl.
Frizz is sometimes an issue for 2B, which can be aided with extra moisture. Kimble recommends incorporating a mask into your shampoo routine about twice a month. To achieve softer, more uniform waves, use water-based products in lotion or cream form, like the Aveda Smooth Infusion Style-Prep Smoother or Moroccanoil Smoothing Lotion.
Kim Kimble Curl Whip Mousse
Aveda Smooth Infusion Style-Prep Smoother
Moroccanoil Smoothing Lotion
2C can be described as a deep wave, or “a true definition of S waves,” says celebrity hairstylist Marcus Francis. Almost a curl, your hair is manageable to style but prone to frizz—still with a smooth texture to each strand. That means it’s also more vulnerable to heat damage, especially when chemically treated.
Francis recommends doing a mask twice a month to provide manageability and moisture. To smooth the hair cuticle down and help reduce frizz, Hardges says to apply a light layer of a cream-based product for blowouts or natural waves. We love the Better Natured Damage Repair Strengthening Leave-In Cream or Amika Curl Corps Curl Defining Cream for a bouncy yet defined look.
Better Natured Damage Repair Strengthening Leave-In Cream
Amika Curl Corps Curl Defining Cream
3A is a loose spiral curl without a lot of shrinkage. The loop of your curl can fit around a permanent marker. Hardges warns that shampooing too frequently is not good for your hair (since it can dry your curls out), and that you should aim to shampoo every five to seven days for healthier-looking curls. Using masks or leave-ins instead of a classic conditioner is best for your hair. One Hardges recommends? The Joico Moisture Recovery Treatment Balm.
Also, if you do decide to straighten your hair, you’re going to need extra protection to keep from damaging your curl pattern. Use products that retain moisture and protect from heat. The Mizani Thermasmooth Shine Extend is a great heat protectant that locks in shine at the same time, says Hardges.
Joico Moisture Recovery Treatment Balm
Mizani Thermasmooth Shine Extend
3B is a tighter curl, with a spring back of an inch to 2 inches that needs more TLC. A pencil can fit into your curls, but they are most likely looser in the front of your head. Again, Francis recommends weekly wash days—as opposed to more frequent washing—since any more than that can dry out your curls.
You’ll experience your best results using masks with heat, if available, every time you cleanse and condition. (A deep conditioning cap you can pop in the microwave makes all the difference here, but you can also sit in the steam of your shower or under a bonnet dryer to really get the product to penetrate your curls.) Creams, oils, and butter will give your hair moisture and flexibility when styling, says Kimble. Try something like Better Natured Hydrating Leave-In Milk or Pattern Beauty’s Leave-In Conditioner.
Better Natured Hydrating Leave-In Milk
Pattern Beauty Leave-In Conditioner
It’s likely that with 3C curls, you may have a few textures going on—some might be a corkscrew and some might zig-zag tightly. Either way, your natural textures tends to be coarse, says Kimble. Always handle gently, and make sure to detangle using a leave-in conditioner and a wide-tooth comb. Hardges’ go-to products are the Jane Carter Solution Revitalizing Leave-In Conditioner and Kemi Oyl All Natural Hair Oil to assist your hair in retaining its moisture.
Also, applying a denser styling cream or butter will help to manipulate your hair, making your curls look lush and uniform. Try Oribe’s Styling Butter Curl Enhancing Crème, made with olive and avocado oils to attain deeply penetrated hydration.
Jane Carter Solution Revitalizing Leave In Conditioner
Kemi Oyl All Natural Hair Oil
Oribe Styling Butter Curl Enhancing Crème
4A hair is coily, a toothpick can fit inside of your curl loop. These curls start to get more shrinkage as they tend to wrap around themselves, or they can be more elongated. Either way, moisture and hydration are paramount to keep your coils looking and feeling their best. Hardges recommends the LOC (leave-in, oil, cream) method to really lock in the moisture your hair needs. As for styling, she loves Uncle Funky’s Daughter Curly Magic Curl Stimulator, an aloe-based, firm-hold curl-enhancing gel.
Uncle Funky’s Daughter Curly Magic Curl Stimulator
4B hair is a zig-zag more than a curl. It’s very fragile, highly porous, and prone to breakage, which is why it needs a lot of love and care in the form of hydration and deep conditioning.
Kimble says the LOC method is going to make your hair more hydrated, giving you more elasticity for styling. Mielle Organics Pomegranate & Honey Curl Sculpting Custard is a thick curl detangler that delivers moisture and shine to your curls. Another go-to for coily girls? SheaMoisture’s African Black Soap Bamboo Charcoal Purification Masque, which is a game-changer for preventing dry, brittle ends.
Mielle Organics Pomegranate & Honey Coil Sculpting Custard
SheaMoisture African Black Soap Bamboo Charcoal Purification Masque
Similar to 4B textures, 4C hair is tightly coiled, so much so you might not see its zig zag pattern without stretching it. 4C coils wraps around themselves with little to no drop to the curl. Kimble’s advice is to use heavier hydrating pomades and gels. Your hair will also benefit from products formulated with butters, especially when shampooing. (We love Kimble’s brand-new Curl Defining Shampoo and Conditioner for Afro-textured kinks and coils.)
4C is also the most fragile of the curl types and is more prone to shrinkage and snapping, especially if you try to blow it out or straighten it. Francis suggests the Better Natured Heat Styling Lotion when using any type of hot tool. Natural styling using the LOC method is the best practice to protect and nurture your coils.
Kim Kimble Curl Defining Shampoo
Kim Kimble Curl Defining Conditioner
Better Natured Heat Styling Lotion
Talia Gutierrez is the beauty assistant at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @taliamichelee. Additional reporting by Rachel Nussbaum.
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