New York Magazine August 2, 2023

New York Magazine

The Strategist

All the Best Curly-Hair Products We’ve Ever Written About


“There are many different kinds of curls out there,” says Ash Fritzler, a master stylist who specializes in cutting and styling curly hair at the Bird House salon in Brooklyn. To figure out how to style yours best, first identify your hair’s specific type of tight coils or loose waves or anything in between. Fritzler points to a popular chart as a starting point for seeing where you fall on the spectrum from wavy to kinky (or, according to the chart’s labeling, from 2a to 4c). This “helps people find what kind of curls they have so they can come up with the best method of care for them,” Fritzler says.

We combed through our archives for curly-hair advice and talked to Fritzler and 23 other stylists, beauty writers, and salon owners to find the best gels, creams, mousses, shampoos, conditioners, brushes, and blow-dryers. And because styling arguably begins in the shower, we also got their top shampoo and conditioner picks. On that note, it should be said that all these experts stressed that curly hair tends to be on the drier side and less porous, thus requiring less frequent lathering up (the sweet spot for Fritzler is two times a week).

Best styling gels for curly hair

Best styling gel for all curly-hair types

CurlMix Organic Flaxseed Gel for Curly Hair with Hemp Seed Oil

Stephanie Louis, owner of Stylebox Salon, says this relatively new gel product works “on every single curl type — loose, wavy, tight curls, tightly coiled, all of it.” What she likes about the flaxseed gel is that it can be used for a wash-and-go look (though she notes that you’ll have to use some trial and error to find just the right amount of gel to suit your hair type, depending on its thickness). “And one of the best things about this gel is that it won’t leave your hair crunchy at all,” Louis says. According to CurlMix, this product is designed so you’ll have to use it only once a week, after washing, and it counts organic jojoba oil, which is similar to the oil that hair naturally produces, on the ingredient list. The gel helps infuse hair with that oil to give it a more moisturized feel. Leigh Hardges, a stylist at Chicago-based Maxine Salon, is also a fan and says it does a great job of separating, holding, and hydrating curls.

Best styling gel for tight curls

Soultanicals Sprung Coil Boosting Gelly

“Soultanicals is another brand that really understands curly hair, especially those with tightly coiled hair at the end of the curl spectrum,” Louis says. “This ‘Gelly’ is a phenomenal curl definer and curl elongator — so the holy grail of double whammies.” It has a slight hold, which will keep your hair looking curly but not crunchy, and, Louis says, “makes frizz invisible.” To use it, you apply the gel to wet hair, smoothing it into each section, then let hair air-dry before scrunching your curls (according to Soultanicals’ site, it’s best not to touch the hair while you let it air-dry; otherwise it may start to frizz). The amount of product you use will depend on the density of your hair, so those with looser, wavier curls should use less, while those with thicker and tighter coils can use more.

Best light-hold styling gel for tight curls

Ouidad Curl Quencher Moisturizing Styling Gel

“When curls tend to be tighter, they don’t need as much hold,” says Dhiran Mistry, a stylist at David Mallett salon. Instead, tight curls need more moisture; that’s what helps them hold their shape. This Ouidad gel contains meadowfoam-seed oil and arnica flower to lock in moisture — and cut down on dryness and frizz.

Best styling creams for curly hair

Best styling creams for all curly-hair types

Luxju Nourishing Hair Creme

Celebrity hairstylist Monae Everett likes this cream from Luxju, which she says works well on various hair types and textures. “I love that you can use less if you have finer hair and more if you have thicker hair,” she says, adding that it dries down completely flake-free and uses ingredients like coconut oil and almond oil to nourish. This should be applied to damp hair, she says; it will help to maintain the hair’s shape as it dries, while also imparting moisture onto strands.

Tree Naturals Honey, Fruit & Flowers Hair Milk

Everett also likes this hair milk from Tree Naturals, which she says makes hair feel great (moisturized and bouncy) and smell good. The six-in-one product acts as a leave-in, moisturizer, detangler, definer, refresher, and styler, meaning any hair type can use it to fit specific hair needs.

Afro Sheen Crown Defining Curl Cream

Celebrity hairstylist Nicole Newland, whose clients include Queen Sugar’s Bianca Lawson and Insecure’s Amanda Seales, swears by this curl-defining cream that defines, hydrates, and works well on everything from a twist-out to a wash-and-go. The formula contains an array of good-for-hair ingredients like flaxseed oil, which is packed with omega-3’s and promotes growth, and shea butter, which helps reduce split ends and has fatty acids and vitamins to boost your hair’s moisture.

Best styling creams for loose curls

SheaMoisture Coconut Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie

“Loose curls will typically have a little less hold to them and need more assistance to coil better,” Mistry says. “Something a little thicker in substance will help hold those curls in place while drying.” His go-to is SheaMoisture’s Coconut and Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie; the ingredients of silk protein and neem-seed oil, he says, help promote hair growth while preventing damage. Louis is also a fan of the brand’s products (and recommends its Red Palm & Cocoa Butter Curl Stretch Pudding further down on this list). “There’s a reason SheaMoisture has been a long-standing tour de force on the market,” she says.

Aveda be curly™ Curl Enhancer

Another product that may appeal to those looking to amp up loose curls is Aveda’s Be Curly curl enhancer, which Shirley Hagel, a stylist at Parlor Salon, says “uses hydrolyzed wheat protein and an aloe blend that expands when the hair is wet and retracts when hair is dry to enhance the wave or curl.” The expanding effect of wheat protein adds body and volume to hair, and because this protein easily absorbs into the hair shaft, it can help repair damage to the follicle as well.

Best styling creams for bouncy curls

R+Co Turntable Curl Defining Crème

For those with hair that’s more curly than wavy, R+Co’s Turntable Curl Defining Crème can bring out curls that are “more full, bouncy, luscious, and shiny,” says Fritzler. “Turntable has that hold without the crunchy, gritty feeling in the hair, and it also hydrates.” To use the cream, she’ll work between a nickel- and a quarter-size amount into hair, then finger-coil or two-strand-twist the curls before using a diffuser to dry without deflating or flattening them. Another draw of the Turntable cream is that it “reactivates” when wet: If your curls are starting to lose their shape, you can dampen the hair and the product will have a second life. “For many curly girls, it takes a lot of work to get a desired style, so you don’t want to be washing or wetting your hair every day,” says Fritzler. “Turntable is really good because on day two or day three after washing, you can use a spray bottle, rewet the hair, and kind of re-form your curls.”

Moroccanoil Curl Defining Cream

Another option for those who either want to shape the curls they have or bring out more shape in their waves is this defining cream, a favorite of Mirjam Bayoumi, who owns a namesake salon on the Upper East Side. “It’s a leave-in product to make hair less frizzy,” she says. “You put it on after the shower, and it’s basically wash-and-go — you can twist your curls a little bit, but that’s it.” Mistry recommends the Morocconoil cream as well, saying it “works well on wavy hair as well as curly hair by helping smooth and define curls.”

Adwoa Beauty Baomint Moisturizing Curl Defining Cream

After growing her hair out for nearly four years, Strategist contributor India Edwards sought a way to revive her flat and frizzy curls, so she tried this minty Adwoa defining cream for bouncy ringlets. “When I applied a medium-size dollop to my damp hair, I was surprised at how effortlessly my curls detangled,” she says. “I let them air-dry and found the formula to be fast-absorbing with a medium hold.” It’s full of natural ingredients like honey, shea butter, and vitamins E and A, Edwards says, so unlike products with synthetic chemicals, it won’t strip your hair of its natural oils. And after months of use, Edwards says she has shiny, healthy curls that last all day — it revives her curls so well that she’s been able to cut her wash days down from twice a week to once every nine days. “I’ve had curly hair all my life, and this is the best thing I’ve used,” she says.

Best styling creams for tight curls

SheaMoisture Red Palm Oil & Cocoa Butter Curl Stretch Pudding Styler

“This is a beyond-exceptional styler (or ‘pudding,’ as they name it) to help elongate curly to tightly coiled hair textures,” Louis says. Those with more coiled hair textures may get better results when pairing the product with a set style, like a twist or bantu knots, she says; after you undo the knots or twists, this will leave curls with a more defined look. Meanwhile, “those with looser curls can add the pudding to their pre-detangled hair and get amazing results after using a diffuser or hood dryer,” she says. The product is packed with linseed oil, which supplies moisture to the hair strand and follicle, making the hair healthier and more elastic. Louis does note that some may be concerned to see this cream contains potentially drying alcohol, but she says the high oil content “counterbalances” that effect.

Kinky Curly Original Curling Custard Natural Styling Gel

“This Curling Custard is so popular among people with curly to coil-y hair textures who want easy, super-curl-defining results,” says Louis. She attributes its popularity to the fact that “there are so very few curly products that deliver on the wash-and-go promise.” It may take a little trial and error to figure out the exact right amount of the product to use (“Use too little and you won’t get much curl definition. Use too much and it can get really sticky — and I mean literally sticky and gunky,” Louis notes). But “once you figure out that golden ratio, this will feel like a miracle product.” The custard is also anti-humectant (a.k.a. anti-frizz) thanks to the inclusion of agave nectar among its ingredients.

Best styling primers for bouncy curls

R+Co Twister Curl Primer

While we’re on the subject of bouncy curls, there’s also a primer out there that Fritzler loves right now for bouncy curls specifically. Similar to a primer you might use in a skin-care routine to keep your makeup in place, a hair primer can be useful for preparing hair for styling and protecting it from frizz, oiliness, and any number of other factors that could ruin an otherwise good hair day. “One of my go-tos right now is Twister, which is a curl primer for really bouncy curls,” says Fritzler. “A lot of people want really bouncy, big, defined curls, without a lot of frizz, and Twister is great for that.” To use the primer, you put a dime-size amount on damp hair and work it through the way you might do with a leave-in conditioner. “You comb it through from maybe an inch to an inch and a half away from the scalp and then continue with curl styling, whether that’s finger coiling, two-strand twisting, scrunching, or diffusing,” she says. “Once you put this in, it can either be used as its own styling product or you can build upon it.” She told us she’ll often pair it with the Turntable cream to achieve more defined curls.

Better Not Younger No Remorse Heat Protection & Taming Spray

“The twists and turns of curly hair mean that natural scalp oils, which confer shine and protection, don’t distribute easily down the hair shaft,” Strategist contributor Cheryl Kramer Kaye says. To replicate the benefits of those crucial oils, Kaye uses this lightweight mist, which has vitamin E and argan and avocado oils to lock in moisture and protect hair from heat and environmental damage — she says she just mists it on and combs it through to balance the porosity of her hair. And because Better Not Younger’s products are created with women ages 40-plus in mind, Kaye says the brand is an appropriate choice for those who notice their scalp sebum production decreasing with age.

Best mousse for all curly-hair types

Design Essentials Almond & Avocado Curl Enhancing Mousse

The owner of the Brooklyn-based salon Magic Fingers Studio, Stasha M Harris, is a big fan of this lightweight mousse from Design Essentials for achieving definition and reducing frizz without making your hair stiff or flaky. “If there is any existing curl pattern, whether fine curls or tight curls, this mousse will find it,” she says. For even more definition, she pairs it with Shine ’n Jam Black Castor Flaxseed Oil Styler, which she says offers good hold with no buildup.

Best heat protectant for curly hair

Cantu Thermal Shield Heat Protectant

When using heat on your hair, Strategist writer Tembe Denton-Hurst says a protectant is essential for ensuring curls bounce back to their natural state. Nigella Miller, owner of Nigella Hair Studio, recommends this oil-based option from Cantu that behaves like a water product, but “it’s very lightweight, so the hair can suck it right up,” she says. The formula includes shea butter, which the brand says moisturizes while acting as a protective barrier.

Best shampoos and conditioners for curly hair

Best moisturizing shampoos and conditioners for all curly hair types

R+Co Cassette Curl Shampoo + Superseed Oil Complex

R+Co Cassette Curl Conditioner + Superseed Oil Complex

Since curly hair tends to be on the drier side, you’ll want to look for a shampoo and conditioner that moisturize exceptionally well. Fritzler says R+Co’s Cassette Curl Shampoo is her go-to for “pretty much anyone with curly hair, from wavy curly to kinky curly.” Like all of R+Co’s products, the shampoo is sulfate free, which is important because sulfates can dry out hair that already needs moisture. “A lot of curly-hair products used to have petroleum and mineral oils in them because it makes the hair shiny, but it also builds up on the hair,” Fritzler adds. “The R+Co shampoo and conditioner doesn’t have any petroleum or mineral oil in it but is still extremely hydrating without stripping natural oils away.” Fritzler says the shampoo works with the natural oils in your scalp while giving hair a clean feeling. Perhaps her favorite thing about it is that “it has a good anti-humectant in it, which means it tames frizz, making it really good for the summer when it’s hot and humid.”

Aveda Nutriplenish Deep Moisture Shampoo

Aveda Nutriplenish Deep Moisture Conditioner

Hagel says if you want to add moisture to curls, Aveda’s new Nutriplenish Deep Moisture line is a great one to try. “Nutriplenish is all about hydration,” she says. “There is a light-moisture and a deep-moisture option, and the deep-moisture option is great for curly hair of all types.” The shampoo and conditioner are designed specifically for curly hair and are packed with organic pomegranate oil, which is rich in omega-5’s (to hydrate); mango butter (to smooth frizz); and coconut oil (to enhance softness and shine through fatty acids) — not to mention the lovely cocoa, cardamom, and ginger scent.

R+Co Atlantis Moisturizing B5 Shampoo

R+Co Atlantis Moisturizing B5 Conditioner

“If you’re someone who can blow-dry your hair straight but can also get some texture in there with the right products and scrunch, that’s where I really like Atlantis,” says Fritzler. “It’s pretty versatile, so it’s a good one for people who have a little bit of wave and are sometimes blowing out or are heat styling.” The shampoo and conditioner are full of nourishing ingredients like vitamin B5, which hydrates and adds shine to hair; prickly-pear-stem extract, which has vitamin E for balancing the pH of your scalp (meaning less irritation); and nettle extract, which makes dull hair gleam and strengthens at the follicle level for less breakage. The shampoo and conditioner are both lightweight, so they’ll clean and moisturize curly-wavy hair without making it too heavy and work as a perfect preparation for the styling products above.

Best shampoo for tightly coiled hair

Design Essentials Almond & Avocado Sulfate-Free Shampoo

Tightly coiled hair is prone to tangles and dryness, and harsher ingredients like sulfates can strip it. Hairstylist and owner of Magic Fingers Studio recommends this moisturizing shampoo from Design Essentials, which is sulfate-free. “It cleanses all buildup, as well as softening the texture,” she says of the shampoo, which uses nourishing oils like avocado to moisturize and preps hair for detangling.

BREAD BEAUTY SUPPLY Hair Wash Gentle Milky Hair Cleanser

This all-in-one Bread shampoo with argan oil, aloe-vera juice, and lemon tea tree oil gives Cut beauty writer Erica Smith the feeling of co-washing, as she says she loves that the milky formula simultaneously cleanses and hydrates. Smith says it left her 3C curls “clean but not crispy; moisturized but not weighed down; soft, while still embracing all my natural frizz.”

Best shampoo and conditioner for curly, high-porosity hair

Maria Nila Repair Shampoo, 1L

Maria Nila Structure Repair Conditioner

If you have high-porosity hair, meaning your hair easily accepts moisture but has a hard time retaining it, it’s important to find a shampoo and conditioner that are reparative and contain ingredients that help to fill in the gaps in your hair shaft. This can be a result of color-processing or genetics, and it can be addressed via your hair-care routine. Owner of Simplee Beautiful hair salon Diane Da Costa likes this combo from Maria Nila, which contains algae extract, known to help repair and strengthen hair.

Best shampoo for curly, low porosity hair

Kinky Curly Come Clean Natural Moisturizing Shampoo

On the other hand, low-porosity hair has a hard time accepting moisture but holds onto it pretty well once it’s in. That means it’s also prone to buildup and requires clarifying shampoos like this one, which comes recommended by celebrity hairstylist Christin Brown. “It gives your hair a chance to let go of ingredients that build up, preventing proper hydration,” she says. This shampoo cleanses using phytic acid, which removes hard water minerals as well as old product and oils.

Best conditioner for curly, low-porosity hair

The Mane Choice Peach Black Tea Conditioner

Lightweight conditioners are key for low-porosity hair because it won’t weigh it down or sit on top of it. This one is a favorite of cosmetologist Ebony Clark-Bomani and uses glycerin, a humectant, to attract moisture to the hair. It also doesn’t contain protein, which can build up on the hair and cause it to become dry and brittle.

Best leave-in conditioner

Oribe Priming Lotion Leave-In Conditioning Detangler

“Highly textured curly hair is naturally lacking moisture — and color-treated curls are even more at risk of damage,” says Austin Medearis, master colorist and “curl enthusiast” at Butterfly Studio Salon. To bring back needed hydration, he recommends Oribe’s Priming Lotion, which he says will penetrate curls and preserve their original texture and bounce while also restoring pH and preventing buildup. Ingredients including murumuru, mango, and cocoa-seed butters to moisturize and smooth, according to the brand.

SheaMoisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen & Restore Leave-In Conditioner

At half the price of Oribe, this leave-in from SheaMoisture will “have your hair feeling shiny and silky due to its shea butter, castor oil, and reparative omegas,” hairstylist Giovanni Vaccaro says. It’s his choice for really textured curls, as he says it’s “rich and carries weight.” The brand says it will smooth and nourish natural, chemically processed, or heat-styled hair, and reviewers say it leaves their hair feeling much stronger, softer, and healthier.

Best hair masks for curly hair

Best hair mask for fine, curly hair

Hours in Minutes Silkening Mask

If you have fine curls, Kaye says this mask from Hours in Minutes doesn’t weigh hers down, thanks to the formula’s avocado and coconut oils — the first has fatty acids to moisturize and strengthen hair, while the second’s low molecular weight works to lightly condition and prevent breakage. “Faster than you can say Rumpelstiltskin, this heavenly scented hair mask spins strawlike hair into gold,” says Kaye, who reaches for it nearly every time she’s in the shower.

Best hair mask for natural hair

TGIN Honey Miracle Hair Mask Deep Conditioner With Raw Honey & Olive Oil

Natural hair, on the other hand, might need a richer product to lock in moisture, and Michelle Dixon, a stylist at Chicago-based Maxine salon, recommends this deep-conditioning option for 4C hair. She likes that the mask incorporates raw honey (a humectant) and jojoba and olive oils to moisturize and minimize shedding and breakage.

Best finishing cream for curly hair

Kerasilk Finishing Cream

To preserve her curls, Kaye uses this finishing cream, which she says is like a light pomade — it has a little bit of hold and a lot of shine, thanks to the iridescent mica. She says she simply rubs a drop of product between her fingers and retwists any flat or too-fluffy curls to rehydrate the strands and make them look healthy again. The cream is formulated with biomimetic silk-infused technology, which the brand says helps strengthen hair.

Best detangling brushes for curly hair

Denman Classic Styling Brush 7 Rows

In comparison to a basic flat brush, Denman’s is smaller and more rounded, and it has bristles that are slightly farther spaced apart, “which is great for combing out wet curly hair, leaving your curls more individually defined and less frizzy,” hairstylist Sara Jane Booth says. Celebrity stylist Ro Morgan, whose clients include Naomi Campbell and Precious Lee, says the bristles are also flexible and safe to use on delicate natural hair. Plus, the brush has an antistatic rubber pad to help minimize frizz and flyaways.

Cantu Kids’ Detangle Hair Brush

Strategist contributor Natasha Marsh says she went on a wild goose chase to find the perfect brush for detangling, a task she loathes. After much failed experimentation, she tried this plastic yellow brush for kids from Cantu, which she says has long, spaced-out bristles that glide through hair without pulling. Marsh says her detangling routine shortened dramatically and her arm no longer aches, since the handle is comfortable to hold. Because her curls now have better definition, Marsh says moisture can move down the hair shaft easier and she doesn’t have to use as much product or refresh them as often.

Best blow-dryer for curly hair

Curlsmith Defrizzion Hair Dryer

After air-drying, Kaye says she blow-dries to add volume, and her tool of choice is this Curlsmith for its frizz-minimizing ions and “great range of settings” (three speeds and four heat levels). It also comes with a diffuser that one reviewer calls an almost comically large dish that “cups all my hair and dries it evenly … It doesn’t scrunch my hair and restrict airflow like a smaller diffuser would.” She says she’s noticed more volume and better defined curls since she started using it.