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Curly Hair Types: The Definitive Guide

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Curly hair is fun, wild, freeing, and always trendy. But correctly caring for your curly hair requires knowing your hair type.

Decoding this can be tricky, but with our definitive guide to different types of curls, how to classify yours, and what products are best, you can enjoy your locks stress-free.

The standard hair type guide categorizes curly hair under types 3 and 4, curly and kinky (coily), respectively. They subcategorize to define the curls into 3 A, B, and C, from soft, loose, and flowy curls to 4 A, B, and C – tight, springy, and dense patterns. 

If you’re following the standard hair types, you can discover your curly hair type to find what works best. No matter what curly hair type you have, understanding your hair is essential to having healthy hair and a successful regimen

Infographic showing the different curly hair types from 2a to 4c.

The Different Hair Types Explained  

Hair comes in different shapes, sizes, colors, patterns, and textures. While they all are similar to being one of our greatest organic, built-in accessories, some hair requires more attention and care than others. 

The hair types stem from the Andre Walker hair typing system, created in the 1990s.

It was widely adopted as the standard hair classification chart and is used to date to define hair types. Andre Walker was Oprah Winfrey’s hairstylist of 20 years.  

The 4 hair types by Andre Walker: 

Type 1 (A, B, C) – Straight Hair 

Type 2 (A, B, C) – Wavy Hair 

Type 3 (A, B, C) – Curly Hair 

Type 4 (A, B, C) – Kinky (Coily) Hair 

Each hair type is defined by how the hair naturally falls, the texture of the hair, and the diameter of spirals in curly hair. This is where A, B, and C subcategories play in. 

Type 1 is straight hair. This hair type usually requires no specific styling and looks naturally healthy and ironed.

It can range from thin to thick, with a slight texture change. It doesn’t require as much effort as wavy and curly types but can also lack volume and look weighed down. 

Type 2 Hair

Wavy hair from type 2 is a particular hair type on its own but is often brought into explanation when discussing curly hair. This is because, at some level, it requires similar care to curly styles. 

Let’s get into a brief understanding of type 2 wavy hair: 

Type 2A Hair 

2A hair is defined as beach waves everyone wishes they naturally had. It has a few bends from the middle of the hair downwards and can often be confused with straight hair.

It may also look like dents from a ponytail or bun and is not straight enough but also not quite wavy enough.

picture showing what 2a hair type look like.

Type 2B Hair 

2B hair has loose natural waves that begin midway down the hair shaft. It has a slight lack of definition and is typically frizzy.

It has S-shaped waves that are fuller and more defined than 2A hair.

The roots of the hair are flat and look as if the hair might be a little directionally confused. 

Image of woman with 2b hair type.

Type 2C Hair 

2C hair is the ultimate wavy and is often mistaken for curly hair because the waves can look like spirals.

The waves start at the roots and continue down to the hair ends. 2C hair is often thicker than the other two wavy types.  

Image of woman with 2c hair.

Products for Type 2 Hair 

Products that condition and lubricate your hair and reduce frizz are best. Foams, mousses, gels, and cream gels are ideal.

Apply foam or mousse to your roots to enhance them, and look for shampoos and conditioners that won’t weigh your hair down but also adds some volume. 

Different Types of Curly Hair Explained 

Curly hair is different and easily recognizable. It requires particular routines and products. It has different porosity levels and falls under 2 distinct types, each with subcategories. 

Let’s dive deeper into the 2 curly hair types, their subcategories, and recommended products.

These guidelines serve as a starting point to help you experiment and discover the products and routines that best suit your curly pattern. 

Type 3 Curly Hair 

Type 3 is the softer but defined spirally curly hair. It is easily noticeable as curly hair due to its more voluminous bounce.  

Below, we explain each category of type 3 hair and also give you a breakdown of the best products for this type of hair.

3A Hair 

Each strand of 3A hair is fine and shiny and falls with spiral loose curls compared to deeper patterns. This type of curly hair is easily defined without heavy styling products and is prone to slight frizz. 

Picture showing what 3a hair type looks like

3B Hair 

In this subcategory, 3B hair (also known as b curls) has medium to tight ringlet curls.

While this curl type is prone to exhibit multiple hair types together, it is also prone to frizz.    

Image of woman with 3b hair type.

3C Hair 

As the tighter pattern in the 3 subcategories, 3 C hair produces tighter coils than 3B. The c curls usually have a lot of texture with a corkscrew-like spiral. The rings can range from tight to loose. 

A study by online beauty platform Texture Media reveals that women with curls spend 100% more on hair care items.

They are also less likely to go to a salon and prefer to splurge on a wide range of products to tame their textured crowns. 

Product recommendations are specific to each individual and their curl type. It is important to know what you’re working with before making purchases.

With tight curls, you will want products that define and elongate your curls without weighing them down.

Conversely, if you have dehydrated curly hair, you want to look for moisturizing products to hydrate your curls without adding additional weight. 

Picture showing what 3c hair type looks like

Product Suggestions for Type 3 Hair: 

Shampoo: Righteous Roots Clarifying Shampoo, Briogeo Curl Charisma Hydrating Shampoo, or Bouncecurl Pure Silk Moisturizing Shampoo (Discount code: muse). 

Clarifying shampoo: Kinky Curly Come Clean 

Co-wash: As I Am Long and Luxe Growash or Eden BodyWorks Coconut Shea Cleansing Cowash 

Conditioner: Briogeo Curl Charisma Conditioner, Righteous Roots 2 in-1 Conditioner 

Detangler: Aunt Jackie’s Knot On My Watch Instant Detangling Therapy 

Leave-in Conditioner: Curls Blueberry Bliss or Kinky Curly Knot Today 

Curl Cream: Cantu Shea Butter Curl Activator or Shea Butter Curl Enhancing Smoothie 

Gel: Eco Style Gel or Kinky Curly Custard Gel 

Foam/Mousse: SheaMoisture Curl Mousse for Frizz Control Coconut and Hibiscus with Shea Butter or AG Hair Natural Cloud Airlight Volumizing Mousse 

Deep Conditioner: Briogeo Don’t Despair, Repair! or Shea Moisture Raw Shea Butter Deep Treatment Masque 

Oil: Righteous Roots Oils 

Type 4 Coily Hair 

Type 4 hair is called kinky hair. The term coily better describes it. These are the springy, zig-zag curls primarily found in textured hair.

This hair tends to sit organically curly without effort (although a regimen and quality products are recommended for good hair health). 

4A Hair 

The curl pattern of 4A hair is small and has small S-shaped tight, springy strands. The curls can be fragile and wiry.

4A hair typically shrinks to half the total length once dry. This natural texture has the most defined curl pattern from the Type 4 hair category. 

Image of Black woman with 4a hair type.

4B Hair 

4B hair incorporates a sea of Z coil (crimpy) curls, generally coupled with vertical tight coils. It is densely packed and tighter than 4A curls but less definitive than 4C.

It has a large body and thickness and is prone to dryness and fizziness. 

Image of Black woman with 4b hair type.

4C Hair 

4C hair has the tightest curl pattern. Each strand is densely packed and coarse. The curl pattern has more of a freeing definition, more shrinkage, a tight zig-zag pattern, or coils that look like tight corkscrews.

It is also the most fragile of curly hair types. 

picture showing what 4c hair type looks like

Product Suggestions for Type 4 Hair:  

Shampoo: Camille Rose Naturals Sweet Ginger Cleansing Rinse, Design Essentials Natural Almond & Avocado Moisturizing & Detangling Sulfate-Free Shampoo, Righteous Roots Clarifying Shampoo 

Clarifying shampoo: Kinky Curly Come Clean 

Conditioner: Camille Rose Moroccan Pear Conditioning Custard, Righteous Roots 2 in-1 Conditioner 

Detangler: Soultanicals Knot Sauce Coil Detangler 

Curl Cream: Camille Rose Almond Jai Twisting Butter or Cantu Coconut Curl Cream 

Foam: Lotta Body Wrap Me Foaming Mousse with Coconut and Shea Oils 

Gel: Mielle Organics Honey & Ginger Styling Gel or Ecoco Eco Style Gel Olive Oil 

Deep conditioner: Camille Rose Algae Renew or Soultanicals Afrotastic Curl Elastic 

Oil: Righteous Roots Oils 

The Science Behind Curly Hair Types 

There are many different types of curly hair, each with a unique structural behavior. The physical characteristics of human hair vary considerably among different racial groups.  

Caucasian, European, Afro, African-American, Latino, Hispanic, and Asian hair are the most commonly known groups of hair characterized. Their types are based on their different hair features. 

Curly hair types differ depending on diameter, curliness, mechanical strength, color, and even hair porosity and density.

They vary in curl pattern and style, particularly regarding appearance and how they sit naturally after a wash. 

Curly hair has been classified/divided into categories or degrees of curliness based on the extent of curliness it holds.

The curly nature of human hair has been a topic of great interest to hair experts and customers, especially recently since the increasing acceptance of natural hair types.

Over the previous two decades, hair scientists have been studying the science behind curly hair to understand why curly hair behaves differently from other types. 

Historical Background of Curly Hair Types 

Historically, the fundamental physical and chemical analysis was the only tool to examine a hair fiber, and the focus had only been on European Caucasian hair. 

Research later isolated the distinctions among ethnic hair fibers, mainly highlighting the hair diameter, breakage, mechanical strength, and amino acid analysis to determine the chemical nature of Caucasian and Afro hair.

No attempt was made to broaden the study and examine the curl pattern. 

In 2003, the first research report was published titled “Hair Shape of Curly Hair” in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

The paper discusses the biological aspects of the hair follicles and the chemical processing inside them that leads to different curl types or patterns.1 

Later, prominent dermatological and cosmetic science journals published papers describing the latest efforts to explore the reasons for curliness.  

In 2003, French scientists, led by Geneviève Loussouarn, first described a classification technique for human hair.

The author published his findings in Human Biology and International Journal of Dermatology in 2007.23 

They developed a method to measure the curve diameter of curls. Hair samples worldwide were collected, examined, and then compared for the curling degree among different hair origins and ethnic groups. 

As time progressed, multiple studies have been published, focusing on determining the structural reasons for curly hair. 

Structural Features of Curly Hair 

Understanding the basic anatomy and physiology will make it easier to learn about curly hair, why it behaves the way it does, and what causes other factors like frizz, easy breakage, and tangles. Natural oils often have a harder time navigating the bends and twists in curly hair, which can contribute to these challenges.

Asian, Afro-textured hair, Caucasian hair curly hair type with elliptical shapes of hair fiber.

The hair has three distinct layers: 

Cuticles – the outermost 

Cortex – the middle region 

Medulla – the innermost region 

Hair is generally considered cylindrical; however, this is not true. Hair is elliptical. The ellipticity is related to its degree of curliness and is due to different cellular arrangements within it. 

Microscopic studies show the site at which curly hair originates is in the cortex. The hair cortex is not uniform for curly hair, as demonstrated by a transmission electron microscope.

In the cortex, there are two types of specialized cells, ortho-cortical and para-cortical cells. The different ratios of ortho-cortical and para-cortical cells determine the curl of hair.

The hair is curly due to the varying ratios between the ortho and paracortical cells. 

Hair with a high ratio of ortho-cortical cells to para-cortical cells is rounder and straight, while a high ratio of para-cortical cells makes hair elliptical and curly.

These variations in cellular ratio define the actual curl pattern, definition, and number of curls per unit length.5,6,

Curly Hair Porosity, Elasticity, and Moisture Content 

Scientific literature has widely discussed the fundamental parameters of how curly hair behaves. For example, the porosity, elasticity, and moisture content. 

As described above, curly hairs are elliptical (oval), and mechanical studies have shown that curly hair is weaker than straight Asian or Caucasian hair. 

Furthermore, hair porosity may increase with an increasing degree of curliness. This means straight hair is less porous, while curly, wavy, and African coily hair is more porous and vulnerable to breaking easily. 

When comparing curly hair to straight hair, curly hair was found to have a lower moisture level, and this was also correlated to the scalp moisture level.8-9 

This data from structural studies and physio-chemical information highlights that curly hair significantly differs from straight hair. It has different needs and therefore demands specially crafted and customized formulations for curly hair. 

The special needs of curly require a certain level of moisturizing and polymeric materials to achieve its desired curl definition, body, and volume.

As a result, the trend to increase curly hair care products in the market has flourished. 

Scalp Health Of Curly Hair 

Most consumers focus only on curly hair type to determine a hair care treatment or product. While this is a good starting point, it’s not the only factor to consider when selecting products for curly hair. 

One important factor that consumers often overlook is the condition of their hair and scalp. Ever heard the saying that a healthy scalp equals healthy hair?

The state of the hair is directly affected by scalp surface roughness, sebum production or secretion, and pH level. 

Healthy hair growth and production of shine and gloss require protein, minerals, and lipids (oil) nourishment. Hair extracts all these vital nutrients from scalp tissues.

Healthy blood circulation is critical to healthy hair follicles and regular follicular activity. 

Dandruff, product residue, and pollution particles can accumulate on the scalp surface, forming an undesired layer that inhibits normal biological function. All hair types are affected by these factors, including curly hair. 

Examining hair and scalp health, in addition to hair classification and type, before starting a hair care regimen is essential. 

How To Test Your Curly Hair  

You may think you know your hair by just looking in the mirror and cross-checking the standard hair type classification table by Andre Walker, but a lot goes into truly knowing your strands and learning your hair’s love language. 

Think of the structure of what makes up a hair. There’s the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla.

Depending on the status of each layer, you can begin to determine how your hair reacts and what that means in terms of best care solutions. 

A simple and easy way to test your hair is by checking the porosity levels. The porosity affects how well the hair absorbs oils and retains moisture. 

Knowing curly hair’s porosity is especially important to understand curly hair types because you want to ensure the products chosen are compatible.

Even if it seems like the most incredible product for curls, it’s a possibility that your hair won’t react the same as others. 

There are three different porosity levels ranging from low to high. 

While a particular conditioner, mask, or serum may be known for quenching your best friend’s dry curls, there’s a chance your hair’s porosity levels won’t match up well for absorption. 

Low: Hair cuticles are close together. 

Medium: Hair cuticles are less tightly bound.

High: Hair cuticles are widely spaced. 

Testing for porosity can be done with a quick experiment using a glass of water, placing a few strands of clean and dry hair into the glass of water, and observing how they react. 

Image of float test.

There are 3 possible outcomes: 

Low Porosity: Hair strands float on top of the water. 

Medium Porosity: Hair strands float somewhere in the middle. 

High Porosity: Hair strands quickly sink to the bottom of the glass. 

Once you’ve identified the porosity level, you will feel more confident in your chosen hair regimen.

Although there is no perfect guide when caring for various curly hair types, this discovery gets you one step closer to healthier and more manageable curls. 

Conclusion 

Identifying your curl type can significantly impact the hair care practices you choose. While there are so many different textures in the curling world, once you know the category your hair best identifies with, you become a part of a special curl community.


References

  1. Bernard, B. A., Hair shape of curly hair. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 2003, 48 (6, Supplement), S120-S126.
  2. De La Mettrie, R.; Saint-Léger, D.; Loussouarn, G.; Garcel, A.; Porter, C.; Langaney, A., Shape variability and classification of human hair: a worldwide approach. Human biology 2007, 79 (3), 265-281.
  3. Loussouarn, G.; Garcel, A. L.; Lozano, I.; Collaudin, C.; Porter, C.; Panhard, S.; Saint‐Léger, D.; de La Mettrie, R., Worldwide diversity of hair curliness: a new method of assessment. Int. J. Dermatol. 2007, 46, 2-6.
  4. Nagase, S.; Tsuchiya, M.; Matsui, T.; Shibuichi, S.; Tsujimura, H.; Masukawa, Y.; Satoh, N.; Itou, T.; Koike, K.; Tsujii, K., Characterization of curved hair of Japanese women with reference to internal structures and amino acid composition. J. Cosmet. Sci. 2008, 59 (4), 317-332.
  5. Bryson, W. G.; Harland, D. P.; Caldwell, J. P.; Vernon, J. A.; Walls, R. J.; Woods, J. L.; Nagase, S.; Itou, T.; Koike, K., Cortical cell types and intermediate filament arrangements correlate with fiber curvature in Japanese human hair. Journal of structural biology 2009, 166 (1), 46-58.
  6. Cloete, E.; Khumalo, N. P.; Ngoepe, M. N., The what, why and how of curly hair: a review. Proceedings of the Royal Society A 2019, 475 (2231), 20190516.
  7. Ezawa, Y.; Nagase, S.; Mamada, A.; Inoue, S.; Koike, K.; Itou, T., Stiffness of human hair correlates with the fractions of cortical cell types. Cosmetics 2019, 6 (2), 24.
  8. Syed, A. N.; Syed, M. In Curly Hair: Structure, Properties, and Care, Society of Cosmetics Chemists, 75th, NY, USA, NY, USA, 2021.
  9. Camacho‐Bragado, G.; Balooch, G.; Dixon‐Parks, F.; Porter, C.; Bryant, H., Understanding breakage in curly hair. British Journal of Dermatology 2015,173, 10-16.

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