How to Keep Your Natural Curls Moisturized Between Washes

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Curly hair is glorious — but ask anyone with loose or tight curls, and they'll likely tell you that it can be quite daunting to manage. Aside from figuring out your curl cocktail, which in all honesty is an ever-evolving process, the simple nature of how curls are formed makes it difficult to keep curly hair moisturized. Curly hair tends to be the driest of all textures for the simple fact that the way a curly strand spirals makes it difficult for the natural oils produced by our scalp to work its way down the hair shaft. “A strand of hair receives sebum on its exterior from the secretion of the sebaceous gland. Sebum is not evenly distributed along curly hair resulting in drier hair,” says New York City dermatologist Francesca Fusco.

Fusco further explains that these oils can be more evenly distributed by brushing or combing hair, but out of fear of disrupting the curl pattern, people with curly hair usually skip this step. Because curly hair is generally drier, those with this texture typically don't wash their hair as often. The downside is that washing less can leave hair brittle and curls prone to frizz. On one hand, washing less means less frequent water replenishment to hair. On the other, using the wrong types of cleansers when you actually do wash can strip the oils that our scalp produces, leaving hair dry. Hair still needs constant moisture and proper cleansing. Especially if your wash days are spread out to seven days or more.

Moisture leaves a strand of hair when it's not rehydrated in between washes. Curly hair in particular needs constant moisture replenishment. “When pushing moisture back into the hair strands, not only are you rehydrating the hair but it also helps reduce frizz,” says hairstylist Yessenia Reyes. What it all comes down to is balance. These expert tips can help you figure out the ideal middle ground between getting rid of dry hair and not disrupting your styling habits.

Of the many things hair needs to thrive, moisture is probably number one. With sudden changes, like going from months of indoor air to more regular sun exposure, your hair may be feeling drier and more brittle than usual. Also, not being able to go to the salon for regular trims may have your ends looking unkempt and split. Everyone's hair may need something different, so it's important to start by narrowing down what may be causing your particular case of dryness so that you can reverse the dehydration.

Hairstylist and Carol's Daughter ambassador Takisha Sturdivant-Drew says that “the sun also tends to put a toll on and dry hair out.” However, year-round things like over-washing, not using heat protecting products with hot tools, and temperature shifts from indoor and outdoor air are all contributing factors for dry out. Heat styling is a big one, and it doesn't just mean a full blowout or frequent flat ironing. Even diffusing curls or sitting under a hooded dryer to set a protective style can also zap too much moisture from hair. While diffusers help spread the heat out. "Heat is heat, and if it is too hot, then it can blast moisture out of the hair faster causing the strands to dry out,” says beauty chemist Ni'Kita Wilson.

Fusco agrees and also notes that it's the temperature at which hair is blown dry or diffused that has the biggest impact. One study showed that temperatures over 203 degrees damage hair; blow dryers can reach temperatures over 400 degrees. “It might be tempting to dry on the highest heat to be finished earlier, but it’s best to go with a moderate heat setting,” says Fusco. "Diffusing hair can cause just as much dry out as blow-drying without a diffuser. Keeping the blow dryer or diffuser in motion and about 15 cm from hair is best,” she adds.

How you dry your hair post-wash also contributes to dry out. Using a regular terry cloth towel to dry hair soaks up a ton of the moisture, but it also causes friction on the hair cuticle that leaves it frizzy and vulnerable to damage. Hairstylist and Mizani Global Artistic Director Tippi Shorter says that certain scarves and high neck clothing made of porous, fabric-like cotton also have the same potentially damaging effect.

Use a t-shirt or the Aquis Rapid Dry Lisse Hair Turban, which has a waffle weave, to absorb moisture without rubbing. Wring hair with your hands first and then place the dry cloth over top. Don't rub back and forth — instead, pat and squeeze until the moisture is absorbed.

Once you've narrowed down the one, or many, causes of dryness, you can start replenishing the moisture loss. The best time to do this is at the shower phase by conditioning correctly. “Only put conditioners, masks, or creme stylers at the ends of the hair, where the dryness happens,” says hairstylist and ambassador for Color Wow, Chris Appleton. “This will prevent the scalp from becoming oily and getting weighed down.” He also suggests adding a leave-in treatment like Color Wow’s One Minute Transformation, which has avocado oil to intensely moisturize any hair texture in minutes. Apply this or a mask like Briogeo’s Be Gentle, Be Kind Avocado + Kiwi Mega Moisture Superfood Mask to the ends of hair before bed, and twist your hair up to sleep. This pre-snooze hair prep will do for hair what a sleep mask does for skin, so that in the morning hair is rehydrated and potential frizz is smoothed down while you sleep.

Appleton also says that how you contain your hair overnight is equally as important as what you put in it. “The more you flip the hair around on a pillow with your hair rubbing against it, the more breakage, dryness and frizziness will occur,” he says. To combat this you can either twist, braid, bantu-knot, or do a flexi-rod set in hair after applying your product to keep curls in order. Top it with a satin scarf or bonnet for even more protection.

According to Shorter, oil-based products that have refined oils — meaning it's been processed to make it more stable and remove impurities — or a cream with refined oils are your best bet for in-between moisture replenishment. If your hair is on the finer side (curly hair can be fine too!) you should still use the oil product daily, but more sparingly to keep hair from getting weighed down.

Certain hair oils are better for rehydrating than others. Wilson says that coconut oil, olive oil, and ucuuba butter are all ideal moisturizers. “It comes down to different factors such as what percentage of smaller fats in the oil can seep underneath the cuticle,” says Wilson. Coconut, avocado, and olive oil can actually penetrate the hair shaft to hydrate from within, while others, like castor oil, seal moisture in from the outside. “Each oil has a different function: moisture, protein, and circulation. I use Mizani 25 Miracle Oil," says Shorter, who works with the brand. “It has a combo of 25 refined oils that hit all of the needs to keep hair hydrated and healthy. It's also incredibly lightweight.” An ishonest favorite and Best of Beauty winner for moisture without the weight is Oribe's Gold Lust Nourishing Hair Oil. "This doesn't leave you greasy–just super glossy, healthy hair that looks like you spent a lot of time styling," says ishonest editor, Jihan Forbes.

In some cases, the cuticle itself is damaged due to dryness. “You must repair the cuticle by using the right products that have oil in it and that’s going to moisturize the hair,” says Sturdivant-Drew. Wilson agrees. She says that if the cuticle is damaged then moisture rushes into the hair strands and just as quickly rushes out. Using an oil to create a seal over the cuticle will keep moisture in.

In addition to regular deep conditioning, Sturdivant-Drew's tip is to use either Carol's Daughter Monoi Intense Repair Inner Strength System — a lightweight cream that you can leave in or rinse out — or Carol's Daughter Monoi Repair Styling Milk. Both have monoi oil, which absorbs into hair since coconut oil is the base. “It transforms the hair from the inside out and goes deep into the cuticle to moisturize it within a minute,” says Sturdivant-Drew. We also like the Olaplex No. 7 Bonding Oil, which has a similar reparative effect from the inside out.

Oils are especially great for thick, coarse hair. “For my hair, which is coarse and thick, I love Playa’s Ritual Hair Oil, which contains oils of kukui, apricot, and sunflower," says hairstylist Adriana Tesler, nothing that it leaves her hair feeling hydrated and rejuvenated. It also has lycopene, which is a natural UV protectant extracted from tomatoes. “Although coconut oil tends to be good for all types of hair, argan and macadamia oils are some of the best for dry, damaged, or frizzy hair," Tesler adds.

Refresher sprays can be tricky to use on curly hair. According to Reyes, refresher sprays really work best on slightly looser, wavy curl patterns in the 3s, rather than tighter curls in the 4s. Look for ingredients like glycerin, oils that sink into hair in the same way that coconut or jojoba oils do, and water, which will get moisture inside the hair shaft while refreshing and smoothing curls on the outside. TGIN's Rose Water Curl Refresher infuses both coconut oil and rose water into hair to rehydrate and plump up dry, limp curls.

How you apply one of these stylers also makes a difference. It's easy to apply too much or not enough product, plus over-handling the hair as you work could make it frizzy. Shorter suggests applying a refresher directly only to the areas that need refreshing and working in small sections at a time, as opposed to spraying all over your hair and scalp. Tesler says that if you have finer hair, you should spray the product into your hands and apply it to just the ends, then scrunch curls upward to help bring them back to life.

Even though this is a product meant to be used between wash days, you'll still need to wet your hair before using it. “You need to spray [a curl refresher] on when hair is wet and not fuss with the hair too much. Let it dry and do not keep touching, scrunching, or flipping, which will aggravate the curl and cause frizziness,” says Appleton.

Even though the LOC (leave-in, oil, cream) layering technique is typically used as the initial curl styling stage, it can also be useful for a moisture refresh. You can always tweak which product goes on at which point during the process based on your hair texture and density, but generally starting with the lightest product — like a liquid leave-in — and building up to the heaviest product — like a curl cream or butter — is going to structure your products for the greatest moisture retention.

After oils, look to leave-in conditioners as your primary rehydrator. “I recommend using a leave-in conditioner and applying it higher up on the hair, instead of the ends, but staying away from the scalp," says Tesler. Her choice for a leave-in is the Davines OI All In One Milk Spray, which she suggests applying right after a shower, since the steam from your bathroom may have opened up your hair cuticle a bit. The formula has both antioxidants, thanks to roucou oil, and heat protection from panthenol, so it keeps hair healthy whether you're headed outside or if you decide to diffuse your curls with a blow dryer.

ishonest editor Gabi Thorne recommends Cake Beauty's The Curl Friend specifically for her low-porosity hair. She applies it as the second step, so L-C-O. “The moisture it gave me lasted most of the week. And I didn't feel as if I had to use half the bottle to feel a difference in my hair,” she says.

After the leave-in, Tesler suggests coating the hair with a pure penetrating oil (a single, refined oil like the ones mentioned above that are refined and can actually get beneath the cuticle,) or a light oil blend. Here at ishonest, we like the Best of Beauty crowned Oribe Gold Lust Hair Oil.

Lastly, Appleton says he always recommends finishing off hair with a smoothing cream, which also happens to be the last step in the LOC method. Working a cream through curls, while simultaneously reshaping the coils with your fingers as you work in it, will help seal it all in and rebuild any definition that's been lost. Stick with a cream that's not too heavy. Since you'll be doing this ritual frequently, a lighter-textured sealer and smoother like ishonest's Readers' Choice Award winner, SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie, is your best bet.

Even if you don't feel like you need it, try to keep up a regular cadence with curl moisturizing. This will help cut down on the lengths you'll have to go if curls completely dry out. Shorter says that tighter curl types are going to have to rehydrate in some way daily, whereas looser curls can do every other day or a couple of days a week.

“How often you rehydrate depends on the hair's texture and characteristics, as well as also how you wear your hair,” says Shorter. Since straight hair maintains oil longer than curly hair, this texture can be hydrated just at the ends every other day. For curly hair, hydrate all of the hair daily.

Be mindful of your hair porosity; it will also help determine how you moisturize. “When [the cuticle] lies flat and tight a hair strand is less porous. When they are lifted or loose they are more porous,” Fusco explains. An easy test is to float a strand of hair in a glass of water. Lower porosity hairs float. The higher the porosity the quicker it sinks. Low porosity hair takes longer to absorb moisture. High porosity hair is like a sponge and absorbs more quickly. “Higher porosity hair may be associated with damage that might be chemical (bleaching and coloring,) UV damage, or excessive heat damage from styling,” says Fusco. Changing your styling and hair care habits can also alter your hair porosity for the better. Either way, don't be afraid of rewetting your hair in between washes, even with product. Moisture is your friend and your curls will thank you for it.

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