Curl Pattern: Understanding Your Hair Texture Means Getting Better Results

All of us have one, even if you don't consider your hair "curly."
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Danielle
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All of us have one, even if you don't consider your hair "curly."

It's commonly forgotten by many beauty professionals, companies and publications that hair type and curl pattern are not exclusive to one ethnicity. And if it is commonly forgotten by professionals, then imagine how behind the general public is on this knowledge.

I want everyone to know what makes their hair work and how to get it to look its best--however they want it to ultimately look. Therefore, I want to discuss what curl pattern is and how to identify it so that you can get a little more specific when looking for products or techniques to try, and not get sucked into misleading marketing.

A LITTLE LESSON ON STRUCTURE AND SEBUM

Hair is dead once it has grown out of the hair follicle on the scalp. It is keratinized protein, the same as nails and, in different concentrations, the outer layer of the skin. The outermost layer of hair is called the cuticle, and within this layer is the cortex, where melanin (hair color), and amino acid chains are located. This structure is the same in all mammals--especially humans! There is no structural or chemical difference in any hair whatsoever. Human, puppy, even dolphin--all have hairs with a cuticle, cortex, and sometimes medulla. Just so we are clear: all humans have the same hair structure, whether from Mongolia or Manhattan.

Another thing that all mammals have is sebum. Sebum production occurs all over the body, sans palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Every hair follicle releases sebum, which is an acidic mixture of waxy keratin cells, water, and oil (fat). This substance is the most ideal hair moisturizer, and the body only produces about one ounce per month.

Problems occur when sebum is in excess or lacking. Straight hair is like a slide--the sebum is allowed to travel down the length of the hair. Wavy hair also gets some natural sebum distribution, but curly hair often incurs dryness. The tighter the curl, the more difficult it is for the sebum to travel down the hair strand. This is why many products geared towards curly textures have extra oil listed in the ingredients. Depending on the type of oil, this will either seal your hair or coat it too much, causing product buildup and further problems.

CURL PATTERN

While human hairs can appear very different from person to person, hair texture (width of each strand) is solely determined by the amount of keratinized fiber growing out of the scalp.

Curl pattern is determined by how evenly the two halves of a hair strand grow. When fiber grows faster on one side and not another, a spiral is formed along the cuticle of the hair strand. Depending on genetics, this can be straight, wavy (C-shaped), curly (S-shaped), or kinky/extremely curly (very tight S shape or Z shape).

There is an easy alphanumeric system to identify your type of curl. The numbers 1 through 4 represent the amount of turns formed by hair strands. Number 1 is straight; 4 is extremely curly/kinky.

The lowercase letters a through c determine the texture and sub-group of each curl type. The letter a denotes a finer hair texture; b is medium; c, thick.

  1. Straight
    1a: fine very straight little volume. Photography shot with the Canon SL1.

    1a: fine very straight little volume. Photography shot with the Canon SL1.

    1b: medium lots of volume

    1b: medium lots of volume

    1c: ‘bone straight’ usually the most hair density 

    1c: ‘bone straight’ usually the most hair density 

  2. Wavy
    2a: fine waves, some volume

    2a: fine waves, some volume

    2b: more defined waves, frizzy medium, can be hard to smooth

    2b: more defined waves, frizzy medium, can be hard to smooth

    2c: thick waves, extremely resistant

    2c: thick waves, extremely resistant

  3. Curl
    3a: loose curls

    3a: loose curls

    3b: tight curls, most versatile hair type

    3b: tight curls, most versatile hair type

    3c: extremely thick corkscrew or spiral curls

    3c: extremely thick corkscrew or spiral curls

  4. Extremely Curly
    4a: fragile, tight coils

    4a: fragile, tight coils

    4b: tight coils with lots of natural volume

    4b: tight coils with lots of natural volume

    4c: can be wiry (read:strong and free standing) with a ‘Z’ pattern, usually has second highest density and most volume

    4c: can be wiry (read:strong and free standing) with a ‘Z’ pattern, usually has second highest density and most volume

Just because hair is extremely curly, does not mean that each individual strand is thick. In fact, most people with type-4 curls fall into subgroups a and b, the subcategories of fine or medium hair.

It often surprises people to learn that extremely curly hair is much more fragile than wavy or straight hair, as each acrobatic bend in the hair is a weak point. This is in direct contrast to coarse hair, which is resilient and does not have finer segments.

Another myth: all naturally blonde hair is fine and straight, and also delicate. Blonde is a rare color in nature, spread across the whole world. In fact, many natural true blondes have medium hair strands that are extremely resistant to damage, but very hard to change the existing curl pattern without heat or chemicals.

In cosmetology school, I learned how products work in the hair--what ingredients thicken the hair, what ingredients slim and seal the hair, which are humectant, which are anti-humectant, etc. Knowing which ones to choose means knowing what the hair needs to achieve a desired result. It is important to get to know your curl pattern, hair type, and hair condition, and learn how to take care of it based on your lifestyle.

Many products are suitable for all hair types, others are only suitable for certain textures or curl types. It is essential for you to get the facts about your own hair and learn how to have an easier time getting the style you want, or just getting it to look nice with its own natural texture, no matter what it is.

Two things to remember once you learn what your actual curl type is:

  • Determine hair type as well as hair condition (do you color, heat style, or have any chemical treatments?)
  • Determine your desired end result (are you trying to shape your curls or straighten them, or vice versa?)

Now read up on the products you already use! Try to see what you can keep or use differently to manage your hairstyle, and how to go about it.

Be realistic: if you are going for fast and easy, straightening a head of 2c hair is not going to happen in 10 minutes. Decide how much time you want to spend to achieve your style.

Another pro tip: Determine your ideal washing routine. Washing and styling your hair from wet-to-dry once per week with minimal touch ups daily can work for 80% of ladies. Straight hair is the only one missing out here, as sebum travels down the hair strand faster and can look greasy days before curly or even wavy gals.

Tell us what you use on your hair type, what is working, and what isn’t. Go forth and conquer your hair!