Last Updated on March 10, 2023 by Verna Meachum
As a curly girl, I know the struggle of having limp curls. It’s frustrating when all you want is bouncy voluminous hair and instead you’re left with locks that look like they could use a good shampooing. But, you tried that and it didn’t work.
So what’s a girl to do? Fear not! I’m here to tell you all about the science behind why your curls are stringy, and more importantly, how to fix limp curls. (Disclaimer: Results may vary.)
There I was, standing in front of the mirror with my arms full of products and tools, trying to get my curls to look alive. I’d been battling limp curls all week and I was determined to find a solution. I’d tried every product and technique I could think of, but nothing seemed to work.
Is this situation familiar to you? If so, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Limp curls are a common issue, and identifying the root cause of the problem is critical to finding a remedy.
There are a few different reasons why limp curls might be an issue, and each one requires a different solution. The key is getting to the root cause and addressing it from there.
Curly hair is often deemed as unruly and difficult to manage, but with the right products and styling techniques, anyone can achieve bouncy and voluminous curls. The curl pattern of each individual is determined by the structural features within the cortex of their hairs. Scientific studies have dissected the different types of hair among people from diverse cultures.1,2,3
Curly-haired individuals often face several challenges when trying to achieve a uniform, bouncy, and natural curl definition. The most common obstacle people face when trying to achieve their desired curly hairstyle is limp curls. If your curl pattern is irregular or not well-defined, it becomes much more difficult to style your hair in a way that looks polished.
What Are Limp Curls?
Limp curls are basically just lifeless curls. It can be frustrating and make you feel like you’re not doing something right.
These stringy, curly strands often look messy and are a nightmare to manage. Once your curls become distorted – they lose their body, volume, and shape. Your once bouncy curls become flat and lifeless.
Curly hairs have a distinct curl circle and curvature. So it’s very noticeable when these circles fall flat and look limp.
Many people are unhappy with their curls because they appear limp, and this can be easily changed with a few small tweaks to your daily routine.4
So, what causes limp curls? More importantly, how can we fix it?
Common Reasons for Limp Curls and How to Fix Them
There are a few different factors that contribute to limp curls, and each one requires a different solution. The key is identifying the root cause of limp curls and finding an effective remedy.
Here are some common reasons why limp curls might be a problem, as well as some tips for how to fix them:
Problem: Too much moisture
One of the most common reasons for limp curls is too much moisture. Although, curly hair is prone to dryness, sometimes we can go overboard with moisture. When your hair becomes excessively wet, it loses its shape and definition.
Worst case scenario, it can lead to over moisturization, which can make limp curls even worse.
Remedy: Clarify! Check out my post, ‘How To Clarify Curly Hair: The Ultimate Guide‘
Also, apply product in small quantities for small sections of hair, go step by step to avoid overloading curls with product. Use a clarifying shampoo to remove any product build up.
Problem: Wrong product
Curly hair is unique and possesses distinct qualities when compared to other types of hair. Curly hair vary significantly in their fiber diameter, higher moisture content, porosity, and ellipticity.
They are fragile, prone to dryness, and highly vulnerable to frizz. They quickly respond to any change in humidity and temperature. To maintain healthy-looking locks, individuals with this type of hair must follow a unique hair care routine.
Remedy: Curly hair care formulations are designed exclusively for curly hair. This means that if you use the wrong products on your curly hair, it will not help you achieve your desired results results.
Experiment with different products to find what works best for your hair. Honestly, trial and error is your best bet. Check out my post on Curly Hair Types. In this blog, I also give product suggestions for each curl type.
Problem: High dosage of synthetic polymers, emollients, and humectants
Products having a high dosage of synthetic polymers, emollients or humectants are not ideal for curly hair. Particularly, products with heavy, greasy, and high molecular weight ingredients will weigh down curls.
Remedy: In order to achieve healthy and bouncy curls, it’s important to opt for lighter-weight products that work with your natural curl pattern. Check out my post, ‘The Stupid Simple Guide To Identifying Heavy And Lightweight Curly Hair Products.’
Problem: Sticking to the same product regimen
Your hair changes with the weather, so make sure to change your hair care routine too. The amount of moisture your hair needs will change depending on the temperature and humidity.
The hair products you use for summertime may not bear the same results during the fall season. Thus it is highly recommended to update your curl care routine.
Applying the same product to your hair throughout the year would not produce the desired results in terms of quality, health, or style.
Remedy: Change your hair products based on the season. Consider finding more lightweight products for summer, and consider using heavier products during winter to provide extra moisture and protection against dryness.
Experiment with different products, try new techniques, and mix up your routine to find what works best for your hair.
Problem: Polymeric build up
The addition of synthetic polymers to curly hair care formulations is common and offers multiple aesthetic or conditioning benefits to the hair fiber.
Most of these polymers are large molecules that have a bigger molecular size and weight, which can have a negative impact on hair. These polymers bind to hair proteins, and because of their larger size, they’re more difficult to rinse off during washing. Additionally, they also stick to hair fiber to deliver their beneficial impact.
The downside of using these polymers is their build up. The repeated applications of polymers form a rigid coating on the hair surface and the overall weight of fiber increases. This makes hair heavy and stiff which eventually leads to limp curls.
Remedy: Regularly wash the curls using a sulfate-free clarifying shampoo to get rid of product build.
Problem: Metal build up
Calcium and magnesium are two major metal ions present in tap water. Their carbonates are responsible for water hardness.5
When there is a higher concentration of metal ions in water, it becomes more likely that these deposits will be left on the hair shaft.
Scientific studies recently have discussed their negative impact on hair quality and styling. To achieve beautiful bouncy curls, it is important to avoid metal build up. These metals will form a resistant layer on the top and hinder the penetration of other active ingredients. This may even lead to the dehydration of curly hair and make them dry and brittle.
Metal – chelant treatment is highly sought to get rid of these metal ions. Metal chelants are organic molecules that can bind to these metal ions and remove them during the rinse-off stage.
Remedy: Once in a while use a chelant shampoo to remove metal deposits. You can find a list of chelating shampoos in my blog, ‘The Curly Hair Survival Guide To Chelating Shampoo.’
Problem: Product Texture
Curly hair is very fine and does not like heavy-loaded formulations. Conditioners or hair masks with heavy textures are more likely to weigh down curly hair.
Fine, naturally curly hair is better suited for a light-textured fluid conditioner or mask. These types of products are slightly more diluted and have moderate viscosity or firmness, making them ideal for uniform and delicate application to fine curly hairs.
Furthermore, this will keep your curl’s from becoming heavy, and keeping the curl’s natural body, and definition intact.
Remedy: Opt for a light-textured conditioner or mask for your curls, and avoid heavy-loaded formulations that can weigh down the curl’s natural body. Try a few different products and techniques to see what works best for your hair. With some experimentation, you’ll find the perfect curl care regimen that leaves your hair soft, bouncy, and beautiful.
You can find a list of curly hair light weight products in my ‘The Stupid Simple Guide To Identifying Heavy And Lightweight Curly Hair Products‘ blog.
Problem: Petrolatum and petroleum-derived waxes
Petrolatum is a high molecular weight long-chain hydrocarbon. It is an occlusive used in skincare and hair care formulations as an emollient. However, its greasy texture and heavy feel do not make it an ideal substance for curly hair.
When you use products with these greasy ingredients, it creates a water-resistant coat on your hair. This is especially true for the roots of your hair. The coating makes the shafts heavy and eliminates any curl shape or natural layering. In other words, it distorts the natural hair’s body.
Remedy: Avoid heavy greasy waxy ingredients. Light texture product is recommended instead of high viscosity solid textured formulation.
Problem: Traditional humectants, high dosage
Glycerin and propylene glycol are traditional humectants added in hydrating and moisturizing formulations. While these molecules excel in attracting water to the hair shaft and scalp surface, too much of them can cause water loading.
As the saying goes, “Excess of everything is bad,” hence, too much water can also be problematic. It can cause frizz making curls difficult to style.
Remedy: Glycerin has a tacky texture making curls a little sticky at its high dosage use. So, keep an eye on ingredient listing, and avoid formulations with glycerin in the top 3-4 ingredients.
Problem: Bad haircut
If you experienced a bad haircut, your limp curls could be due to the lack of volume caused by uneven trimming and hair thinning. Haircuts like this often result in an uneven curl pattern.
Remedy: If you want the job done right, go see a professional. Absolutely nothing can replace a good haircut.
Problem: Lack of protein
Keratin is the primary structural protein in hair, and it plays a critical role in maintaining healthy hair. A lack of proteins can lead to limp curls as weak and damaged hair strands will not be able to hold their shape or spring.
Not only does protein give your strands strength and shine, but it also reduces breakage and keeps hair hydrated. By filling in gaps in the cuticle, protein helps repair damage—at least temporarily. Plus, it prevents water loss so hair stays hydrated longer.
Remedy: Check out my 10 top protein treatments blog, and try incorporating them into your hair care routine to give your limp curls a boost!
Ingredients to Avoid
• High dosage of humectants, glycerin, propylene glycol
• Petrolatum, white oil, mineral oil
• High dosage of waxes, butter, especially synthetic waxes e.g. PEG-150 distearate
• PEG, PPG (polyethylene glycol, polypropylene glycol, ethoxylated ingredients)
• Silicones (Cyclomethicone, dimethicone, amodimethicone, etc.)
• High cationic conditioning agents e.g. polyquaternium 6, 7
Curly hairs are unique in their physical properties and cosmetic features. They are fine and fragile and are highly vulnerable to limping down. Maintaining their natural body, texture, and bouncy definition is highly desirable.
Limp curls are common and pose a challenge to curly hair consumers. Updating the curly care regimen with changing weather conditions and avoiding waxy heavy ingredients can minimize the limp effect. A change in daily curl care routine can also control limp curls and maintain a curl body.
1. Porter, C. E.; Dixon, F.; Khine, C. C.; Pistorio, B.; Bryant, H.; de la Mettrie, R., The behavior of hair from different countries. J. Cosmet. Sci. 2009, 60 (2), 97-109.
2. Syed, A. N.; T, V.; N, S. M., Hair ethnicity and ellipticity: An preliminary study. Cosmetics & Toils. 2013.
3. Bernard, B. A., Hair shape of curly hair. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 2003, 48 (6, Supplement), S120-S126.
4. Marsh, J. M.; Gray, J.; Tosti, A., Healthy Hair. Springer International Publishing: 2015.
5. Evans, A. O.; Marsh, J. M.; Wickett, R. R., The structural implications of water hardness metal uptake by human hair. Inter. J. of Cosmet. Sci 2011, 477-482.