New York Magazine July 6th, 2020

New York Magazine

The Strategist

The Best Styling Products for Curly Hair, According to Hairstylists and Salon Owners


“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, you first have to 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.

The products that follow, all recommended by Fritzler and nine other stylists, include defining cream, flaxseed gel, and a miracle “custard” for that wash-and-go look. 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). Finally, a note back to the point about the variations within this hair genre: We have not designated a “best overall” product among this bunch (as we normally do with our Recommended By Experts stories) because there are lots of bests for lots of different curl types.

Best styling gel for all curly-hair types

CurlMix Pure Homemade Flaxseed Gel in Strengthen

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,” says Louis. 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,” says Louis. “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, according to Louis, “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 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 styling creams for all curly-hair types

Jane Carter Solution Curl Defining Cream

Using ingredients like jojoba and avocado oils, this cream helps with frizz, shrinkage, and definition while nourishing the hair. It’s also incredibly versatile and can be used for a wide range of hairstyles (including blow-drying), making it a good option for lots of different types of curls. “It’s the perfect balance of moisture and hold,” says Hardges of this curl cream, which is her favorite for all curl types. “The consistency is easy to manipulate through the hair when twisting or setting curls.” For best results, apply this to super-wet hair and work it through section by section, which will ensure maximum hold and maintenance of definition.

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 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,” says Mistry. “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.”

Best styling primer 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.

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,” says Louis. According to her, those with more coiled hair textures may get better results when pairing the product with a set style, like a twist or bantu knots; 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 possible 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 moisturizing shampoos and conditioners for all curly hair types

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 and 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 and 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.

Keranique Curl Preserve Scalp Nourishing Shampoo and Conditioner 

Bayoumi says her curly-haired clients love Keranique’s shampoo and conditioner, which are “anti-frizz, anti-breakage, and super-moisturizing.” The Keranique company specializes in hair-regrowth products, and its curl shampoo’s gentle formula contains hair-strengthening Keratin Amino Complex to fortify hair at the strand level and help prevent breaks. The conditioner also has the Keratin Amino Complex and is fairly lightweight, so curls will be hydrated but not weighed down.