How I got my naturally curly hair back in my late twenties (and you can too)
Growing up, I had loosely curly hair that sometimes wavered towards Hermione Granger-esque bushiness due to some unnecessary brushing (thanks Mom).
However, because my hair is quite fine, it would dry beautifully until it got about 90% of the way and then – POOF. I rarely liked it growing up and through my teens it was either scraped back into a definitely-not-Kardashian-esque bun on the crown of my head or straightened until I resembled Cousin It from The Addams Family.
By the time I hit my mid-twenties, I started to miss my curls but it already appeared too late. My hair was flat and wispy, left to its own devices it just became a frizzy mess. I tried hundreds of different products and stylers, but unless I stood stock still in an airless room until it was bone dry, it barely made a difference.
Then, one day on Instagram searching for wavy updos for a wedding, I came across the hashtag #curlygirl. It had a lot of mentions – over four million. A bit more Googling told me that it’s actually a whole routine (with hundreds of blogs dedicated to it) that focuses on the products you use, but also how you use them to encourage your natural curl.
The Curly Girl Routine recommends using hair products that have no sulphates, no silicones, no parabens. These chemicals strip your hair of the natural oils that help your hair follicles curl, causing lack-lustre curls and frizz. There are tons of Curl Girl-approved products out there, I’ve tried a good selection from Boots, all of which were inexpensive (about €7 euro a bottle) and brilliant.
However, before you go shopping, I found the first place to start was with the routine. Once you see the impact the routine has using your normal products, you’ll be more willing to dive in.
Step 1: Wash & Condition
Start by shampooing your hair as normal. Some people forgo shampoo entirely and use a conditioner to clean their scalp or a co-wash product (a conditioning wash). However, my hair is too fine that the conditioner ends up weighing down my curls. Instead, I use a Curly Girl approved shampoo. When it’s ready for the conditioner, flick your head upside down and work the conditioner through your hair using your fingers to comb out any knots. Your fingers are the gentlest way of brushing out your hair without breaking it. This process can take a while so have patience with it.
This is the last time you’re allowed to run your fingers or a brush through your hair until you next shower, everything from here on out is about coaxing your hair into nice little clumps. You can say goodbye to any brushes you normally use because they’re gone too. Brushing is way too harsh on your hair and only when you heat-style does your hair get knotty enough to need one.
Step 2: Squish to Condish
Stick your silky hair under the shower head quickly, just enough to soak it again (the aim is to keep as much of the conditioner in your hair as possible, not rinse it out) and then, with your hands joined together in a bowl shape, in an upwards motion gather your hair from the ends to the top and gently squeeze it, as you might if your hair was dry and you were trying to scrunch it up a bit. Try and capture some of the condition-y water that’s dripping from your ends as you do, working it back into the upper strands. It should make a very satisfying squishing noise.
This process really helps your hair absorb the conditioner and lock in as much moisture as possible. The longer you spend doing this, the better results you’ll have. You might need to run your hair under the shower two or three times to keep it soaking wet. If you’re not sure what I’m on about, this video gives you a visual explainer.
Step 3: Products
Once you feel like you’ve worked the conditioner in well, don’t rinse it out. It’ll feel weird, like seaweed and like you put way too much in but it’s fine, trust me. Now, the official Curly GIrl Routine suggests that you should apply your product when you’re hair is still dripping wet, however, I have found that I lose a lot of product in the drying stages so I prefer to wrap it up for a few minutes before adding product. You have to try a few things to see what works for you. You can use a variety of different products here but they should be applied in this order: Leave-in conditioner, mousse, cream and finally gel. I only use a mousse (for volume) and a cream but it’s about figuring out what works for you.
Again, don’t run your fingers through your hair, distribute your product over the top, bottom and sides before gently squishing again. Once you’ve done with all your products, then you can squeeze out some of the water, but leave it quite wet – you should be able to see some of the clumps of curls developing. Your hair will feel gunky but you’ll lose a lot of product as it dries.
Step 4: Drying
Lay either a microfibre towel or a soft cotton t-shirt on a low surface. Regular towels have too rough a texture for your curls right now. With your head still bent forward, let your hair fall into it like spaghetti into a bowl. This means when you tie it off and stand up, most of it will be piled securely on the crown of your head. This is known as plopping. Leave it tied up for about twenty minutes so it’s still wet but not dripping and then either let it air dry or use a diffuser on a low heat. While it’s still wet, be gentle, don’t touch it and don’t flip it around too much.
Step 5: Scrunch Out The Crunch
When it’s bone dry (do not do this if it’s still in any way wet or less you’ll just make frizz), the mousse should have created a crispy cast around your curls. This is good! If you’re sure it’s dry, start scrunching just like you did with the conditioner and products, this will get rid of the crunchiness and you should have lovely soft curls afterwards.
This all sounds like a lot to do, but do it once and you’ll see what a difference it makes. A hair mask once a week is also a good idea and you should be working towards washing your hair less often (as in every 3 to 4 days). When you’re sleeping, tie it up loosely with a fabric scrunchie on the top of your head so you look like a pineapple (it’s called a pineapple).
There are plenty more elements you can introduce depending on what you want from your hair but these are the basics. And there’s plenty of room for trial and error, from choosing the right products to getting your routine right. I’d recommend finding a Curl Girl blogger who has a similar curl type and weight as you and begin with their routine before you can start tweaking. If you have coarse hair, you will likely need an intensive conditioner, whereas, for someone with fine hair, it can leave hair feeling dirty and greasy.
But do try the squish to condish if nothing else, it’s a game-changer.
This article was originally published in January 2022.