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Decode your curl pattern once and for all with these expert tips

Get to the bottom of your curl conundrums.
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Curly hair comes in many shapes, lengths and textures, but identifying your curl pattern can be a bit challenging. The beauty lexicon has a limiting amount of words to identify the different curl types and textures commonly found in human hair. But in reality, there are numerous hair types based on scalp health, hair porosity, width and density.

From kinky textures to beachy waves, there's not a one-product-fits-all formula to care for your locks. In reality, you might need a completely different curly hair routine based on your lifestyle and hair length.

Shop TODAY talked to curl experts to decipher the intricacies of naturally curly hair. We also found some shopper-loved products that'll surely help take your curly tresses down the right path.

Why does your hair curl?

From afro-textured hair to wavy locks, the curl pattern on your hair is the result of the biology and chemistry of your hair follicles. According to a 2019 research study, your curl type is linked to the structure of the follicle and how the fiber grows above your scalp.

While there is still not a definitive conclusion of the different follicular components, there is demonstrated evidence that curly fibers are generated by curved and oval-shaped follicles. Straight hair, meanwhile, emerges at a right angle from the scalp in a collinear direction.

The degrees of curliness of your hair also correlate with the fiber's features like elasticity and diameter. The hair curvature is more complicated than it seems and is typically the product of environmental factors, genetics and molecular mechanisms.

How to identify your curl pattern

Hair experts differ in opinions when it comes to classifying curls and pattern differences.

"Technically, there are nine categories for curl types, but I find that to be extremely limiting," said Los Angeles-based curl expert Alex Mouneu. Hair products are traditionally categorized in four different ways — curly, wavy, kinky and coily — but even that may not be enough classifications.

"Those categories don’t tell you what your porosity is [or] how your hair reacts to moisture/protein. At the end of the day, it’s best to see a curl specialist to determine your texture needs," added Mouneu.

But to break it down easier for your ringlets, curl expert Marilyn Rose identifies them in three main types with subcategories which identify "how wavy, how curly and how spiral" your hair fibers are. Wavy hair type falls under the 2A, 2B and 2C group; curly hair is grouped in types 3A, 3B and 3C; and coily hair is sorted in types 4A, 4B and 4C.

How to take care of wavy hair types

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Wavy hair falls between straight and curly with an S pattern. What distinguishes this hair type from classic curly hair is that wavy strands do not form spirals. Instead, the hair fiber usually grows straight and the wave takes shape when air-dried. This type is also more prone to frizz and difficult to retain volume. Therefore, it's important to use the right products to provide your desired shape and texture.

There's different ways to take care of your wavy hair, depending on which category your follicle pattern falls under:

  • Type 2A "has lots of natural oils still in the hair. If you’re 2A and your pattern is wavy, we know you’re gonna have lots of natural oils in your hair," said Mattie Calloway, curl expert and colorist for Hairstory Dallas salon.
  • For type 2B, you will find less natural oil. This type of wavy hair is "mostly straight at the root and falls into more defined S-shaped waves. As we continue to move to the left of 2A, we encounter less and less natural oil in the hair," shared Hairstory's head of product development, Jackie Gilbert Bauer.
  • Type 2C is identified by a thicker curl. "The S-bends are well-defined and begin at the roots," added Bauer.

Mouneu also recommends using a clarifying shampoo to help minimize frizz over time, then styling your hair while it's wet. When your hair is frizzy, it means it needs hydration and moisture. "By putting a product on soaking wet hair, you are locking In that definition that is already there," she adds.

L'Oréal Paris Dream Lengths Curls No-Build Curls Micellar Shampoo

This foamy shampoo from L'Oréal Paris creates a rich lather to remove all the buildup from your hair. It also contains hyaluronic acid and castor oil to achieve a bouncy and hydrated curl texture. One reviewer said this shampoo helps in giving "both shape and curl volume to [her] naturally frizzy and uncontrollable hair! I can't boast enough about how much of a difference this product made for my hair!"

Alodia Curl Enhancing Butter Cream

Enhance and moisture your waves with this buttery cream made with vitamin E. This one is ideal to control your frizz hair texture and soften your curls thanks to the addition of cupuacu butter that improves elasticity and durability over time.

Amika Curl Corps Curl Defining Cream

Mouneu recommends this defining cream from Amika for wavy to curly hair. If your waves have become unmanageable, this product will provide frizz control and add more bounce to your waves.

Ouidad Advanced Climate Control Heat & Humidity Gel

The trick for great curls is to seal your cuticles and add moisture. This gel will do just that while creating a barrier against humidity thanks to its anti-frizz nanotechnology. For the best results, you'll want to make sure the product is evenly distributed throughout your hair.

How to take care of curly hair types

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You can identify your curly hair pattern by the way it spirals into tight corkscrew shapes and defined springs. While this hair type is more receptive to staying in shape, the cuticle tends to break and frizz more easily because it doesn't lay flat. As a result, they'll require lots of moisture to prevent your hair from tangling.

Mouneau shared some additional ways you can identify your specific curl type:

  • Type 3A hair is mostly wavy with a bit of curl. "Usually this hair type lays flatter, but with the right layering, we can see bigger barrel-style looking curls."
  • "Type 3B hair has more of a spiral to the curl than 3A. It tends to have more volume because it stacks on top of itself more with the tighter ringlets."
  • As for type 3C hair, this one is the most spiral of them all. "I notice my clients with this texture experience a bit more dryness than usual. Protein is great, but be aware that too much will leave your hair feeling brittle and ultimately, breaking."

"Type 3A-3C are tighter curls that may need more product to obtain curls. These curls are more like soft pencil curls," shared celebrity hairstylist Matthew JeanPierre. For example, type 3C has more tightly-packed curls, while less bouncy ones are type 3A.

In terms of how to take care of types 3A, 3B and 3C, Calloway mentioned, "We will notice that the hair has less kink pattern and will have a heavier presence of oil. This pattern will appreciate lighter weight oils such as argan & grape seed oil, as well as serum oils."

Imbue Curl Liberating Sulphate-Free Shampoo

Refresh your hair next time in the shower with this sulfate-free shampoo. The formula is infused with natural oils including coconut water and Cupuacu seed butter collected from the Cupuacu tree native to the Amazonian rainforest. These ingredients will seal your cuticles while giving your curls a natural bounce.

Verelle Curly Set

This specialized set from Verelle comes with a shampoo, conditioner and all-in-one cream for taming frizz and styling curls. This brand focuses on custom hair care instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. You'll also feel better knowing you're maintaining your natural hair with vegan ingredients.

"I definitely noticed my hair being softer and have a more defined wavy/curliness to it after only one wash," added one verified reviewer who gave it high marks across the board.

CURLē Deep Conditioner

If you have dry and damaged curly hair, is time to hydrate your strands with this conditioner. This product has exotic ingredients like argan oil, Babassu seed oil sourced from Brazil and mango butter sourced from India.

Twist by Ouidad Strengthen the Bond

Do you have color-treated hair? Then this hair mask will work its magic. The product is made with TeraBond technology that fights breakage and repair hair structure.

How to take care of coily hair types

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Out of all the hair types, types 4A, 4B and 4C are the curliest. They tend to form a compacted Z pattern, plus they have a high density that requires creams, gels and custards to hold their shape and reduce volume. Plus, due to the lack of cuticle layers, coily hair also requires extra moisture. These hair types tend to shrink in a more compact style and appear shorter than they are.

  • Type 4A is the loosest of the coil family and "at the tail end of curls, it's considered as a hybrid — a combination of curl and kink," said Calloway.
  • Type 4B is a coily pattern that resembles the shape of a spring "that has been stretched out to have a slight bit of space between each bend," Calloway added. "This pattern appreciates the application of water and lighter weight but penetrative oils such as jojoba & sunflower seed oil."
  • Type 4C has a tightly coiled Z pattern "that is present in all textures in varying amounts. This pattern (affectionately known as kinky) appreciates the application of water and heavy penetrative oils such as castor & avocado oil."

Mielle Pomegranate and Honey Curling Defining Mousse

This beloved product by the curly community boasts incredible results and hold thanks to the blend of shea butter, pomegranate, honey, apple, aloe and jojoba oils. This mousse has also become a TikTok favorite for its curl-defining features and incredible aroma.

Design Essentials Almond and Avocado Curl Enhancing Mousse

If you need extra sheen for your 4A hair type, this mousse will give you the bouncy lock you desire without the frizz. This mousse is designed to separate your curls and dry quickly. With 8,100+ glowing five-star ratings, one buyer said, "I have 3C/4A/4B texture and it separates my curls [PERFECTLY]."

Imbue Coil Awakening Sulphate Free Cream Cleanser

For those with 4A to 4C hair types, you'll want to use creamy cleanser like this one from Imbue. The lightweight yet silky texture will untangle the toughest of coils, plus the mix of baobab oil and Cupuacu butter will moisturize your curlies while keeping the frizz at bay.

"It left my coils super soft without feeling weighed down. Even though it is sulfate-free, it lathers well and I felt that my hair was very clean after using it," added one reviewer.

Bomba Curls Dominican Forbidden Hair Mask

Bomba Curls is created by a curly-haired woman and is the first Afro-Dominican hair care brand to be sold at Target. What makes this product special is its vegan and cruelty-free formula with its all-natural whipped banana blend. The product is ideal for women with type 3 and type 4 hair and combines a mix of traditional Dominican hair secrets, according to the brand.

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