As an inheritor of curly hair from birth, it’s been a lifelong journey learning to manage my tangles, finding the moisturizing methods that work for me, and ultimately, growing to love my curls despite their (sometimes) difficult ways. After many years of exploring and experimenting with different products, I’ve come to discover the tried and true favorites I come back to time and again.
A solid sulfate-free shampoo, a holy-grail conditioner, various defining creams, gels, and moisturizing styling products are the steps every curly hair routine requires. “A healthy routine starts with treating your curls with love and care at every turn, from detangling to washing, and from drying to styling,” says Vernon François, famed celebrity hairdresser (clients include Lupita Nyong’o, Serena Williams, Solange Knowles, and many more), educator, and founder of Vernon François Haircare. And while a well-rounded routine needs multiple products, Pattern Beauty Leave-In Conditioner should be at the top of your list — its multi-tasking capabilities and the deep hydration it provides is unmatched for curls, kinks, and coils.
Below, you will find my absolute must-have hero products, alongside unparalleled advice from François’ years of experience. Read on for the 10 best products you need to create the ultimate curly hair routine.
Pattern Beauty Leave-In Conditioner
What We Love: It’s a multi-tasking product that provides deep hydration plus styling benefits.
What We Don’t Love: Some reviewers note receiving broken bottles (but, not to worry, as Pattern’s customer service team is great!).
I’ve spent years trying a variety of leave-in conditioners, but once I found this one there was no going back — the jumbo tub permanently lives on my counter. A nourishing cocktail of coconut, jojoba, avocado, and sweet almond oils hydrate curls, restoring bounce and locking in all that post-condition moisture. As soon as I’m done washing and conditioning my hair, I’ll lather a layer of this on and let it soak in before moving on to my stronger-hold gel. If you prefer to detangle outside the shower (personally, I’m an in-shower detangler), this leave-in has tons of slip and will get the job done without pulling. Plus, I love the scents in all of Pattern’s products — they’re so fresh, like perfume for your hair (but not too strong).
Price at time of publish: $42
Size: 25 oz. | Key Ingredients: Coconut oil, Jojoba oil, Avocado oil | Best For: Detangling, locking in extra moisture
Vernon François Curl Shampoo
What We Love: It’s a sulfate-free shampoo that conditions while it cleanses.
What We Don’t Love: It has a very strong scent.
Vernon François is the king of curls. After years of experience styling natural-haired celebs, he created his own product line in 2016, and it’s grown to become a mainstay in many curl routines. We’re especially fond of his Curl Shampoo for the way it moisturizes while it cleanses. Most shampoos contain sulfates that remove grime and create the sudsy lather we’ve come to rely on to feel our scalps getting clean, but sulfates also strip necessary natural oils from hair. Sulfate-free shampoos tend to be gentler, albeit more expensive. Not only is the price right with this Vernon François formula, it’s also packed full of nourishing ingredients like tea tree oil, seaweed extract, olive oil, and shea butter that work double time to clarify and hydrate.
Price at time of publish: $14
Size: 8.5 oz. | Key Ingredients: Shea butter, Olive oil, Jojoba seed oil | Best For: Wash days, a cleanser that won’t strip moisture
Olaplex No. 5 Bond Maintenance Conditioner
What We Love: Olaplex has patented ingredient technology that works to repair your hair bonds.
What We Don’t Love: “A little goes a long way” is not my experience here — I use handfuls every time I shower — so I find myself having to repurchase often
Aah, Olaplex — a fan-favorite of the curly universe with major internet hype. We’re here to let you know that, well, it lives up to that reputation. With restorative ingredients like biotin, avocado oil, and sunflower seed oil, plus the Olaplex-patented bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate that is scientifically-proven to repair broken hair bonds, this conditioner is the real deal. I’ve been using it for about a year and have noticed a meaningful difference in the softness of my curls, less frizz, and easier detangling (I loosen my curls with my fingers and then run a wide-tooth comb through my strands before washing the conditioner out). And, an extra plus, it’s even recommended for color treated hair.
Price at time of publish: $30
Size: 8.5 oz. | Key Ingredients: Bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate (patented bond-repair technology) | Best For: Conditioning dry hair, repairing breakage, taming frizz
Best Hair Mask
SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Hair Masque
What We Love: It will transform the shine and vitality of your curls after a single use.
What We Don’t Love: I don’t love having to open a jar with slippery fingers in the shower, but alas, most hair masks come in these types of containers.
Everyone needs a reliable hair mask in their wash day rotation. If I were more diligent, I’d use this once a week (do it — it’ll pay off!). But, when I have extra time on a Sunday or feel my hair looking a little worse for wear, this SheaMoisture mask is my go-to. The deeply moisturizing formula utilizes shea butter, coconut oil, and hibiscus flower extract to smooth out each hair cuticle and protect against breakage; not to mention it smells incredible. Immediately after one use, you’ll notice less dullness and more shine (hello, fast results!).
The key with a hair mask is to leave it on for some time — no less than five minutes. Usually, I’ll apply the mask with my fingers (making sure to hit everywhere from my roots to my ends) and throw it up with a plastic claw clip while I shave or exfoliate, before rinsing it out. When I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I’ll wash my hair, apply the mask, and then exit the shower, getting into my robe to pad around the house for thirty minutes or so, letting it really sink in before hopping back in to rinse — trust me, it’ll work miracles.
Price at time of publish: $15
Size: 12 oz. | Key Ingredients: Shea butter, Coconut oil, Hibiscus flower extract | Best For: Restoring hydration and shine to frizzy, damaged curls
Best for Scalp Care
Act + Acre Cold Processed® Scalp Detox
What We Love: It soothes the scalp while simultaneously stimulating hair growth.
What We Don’t Love: You won’t want to use this if you’re in a rush — it needs to sit for twenty minutes to activate.
Unfortunately, the creams and gels used to de-frizz curly hair can cause massive product build-up on the scalp. For years, I struggled with flaking dandruff and itchiness before realizing the life-changing wonders of scalp detoxing. This Act + Acre product is my current fave — its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredients cleanse the scalp of excess oil residue without over-stripping necessary moisture. Use it weekly on dry hair before shampoo and let it sit for no less than twenty minutes (though, it’s totally safe to leave it in for longer, even overnight) before moving on to your regular wash routine. For bonus points, massage the product into your scalp with a scalp massager.
Price at time of publish: $36 (originally $48)
Size: 3 oz. | Key Ingredients: Baobab and basil leaf, Moringa extract, Aloe | Best For: Irritated scalp, product build-up
Best Hair Oil
Aquage SeaExtend Silkening Oil Treatment
What We Love: Your curls will soak this silkening oil right up for added moisture and shine.
What We Don’t Love: The bottle isn’t large and I go through this product quickly.
I never used to be a fan of hair oils — I thought they were just an extra step that made your hands hard to wash and turned the sink into a pile of grease — until I found Aquage Silkening Oil. This product is light and feels silky smooth on your fingers (and more importantly, hair). With nourishing ingredients like argan oil and almond oil, it restores brilliance and shine to dehydrated curls. After washing and air-drying my hair, I like to use this as step one in my styling routine. Since it’s an oil, my hair will soak it right up, and it works as a nice hydrating primer to be followed by your curl cream or defining gel. That said, if you have drier hair (like I do) you’ll probably blow through a bottle pretty quickly. So expect to restock often (I promise it’s worth it).
Price at time of publish: $38
Size: 4.5 oz. | Key Ingredients: Argan oil, Almond oil | Best For: Dryness, dullness
Best Styling Gel
Briogeo Curl Charisma Frizz Control Gel
What We Love: On top of defining your curls, this cream does double duty to strengthen your strands and protect against damage.
What We Don’t Love: This gel offers “light to medium hold,” which is great because it doesn’t leave your curls sticky or weighed down, but it may not keep you completely frizz-free in more humid climates.
All curly hair routines need a trusty styling gel and trust me, I’ve tried plenty over the years. Recently, Briogeo Frizz Control Gel has been my product of choice — its clean ingredients like rice amino acids and quinoa extract work to lock out frizz, enhance moisture, and seal the hair cuticles for future protection, all while providing flexible curl definition that doesn’t leave you with a dreaded sticky feel or that early-2000’s wet look. I like to apply this from my roots to my ends, while scrunching the hair throughout to create extra definition and volume around the crown. After applying, go ahead and diffuse if you’re looking for a quick dry and extra hold, but in my experience, air-drying works just fine for everyday outings.
Price at time of publish: $24
Size: 5.5 oz. | Key Ingredients: Glycerin, Rice amino acids, Quinoa extract | Best For: Creating definition and minimizing frizz
Best Curl Creme
Amika Curl Corps Defining Cream
What We Love: No matter your hair texture, this cream will leave your strands feeling silky soft and bouncy.
What We Don’t Love: If you’re sensitive to scent, this one is a bit strong.
I love defining creams because they give you the styling benefits of gel, but with a softer hold for more organic looking curls. This one from Amika is a fan-favorite, earning placements among many a beauty editor’s top-shelf recommendations. Formulated with sea buckthorn berry, a highly-researched ingredient that contains over 190 biologically-active compounds (including Vitamins A, C, and E), it distributes deep moisture and nourishing protection. Applied alone, it’ll give your curls a loose, natural bounce, but it can also be coupled with a gel for added definition and longer-lasting frizz-control. This product has a thick consistency, so a little goes a long way. Plus, who doesn’t find joy in Amika’s signature printed packaging? It instantly brightens up your bathroom counter. Just be wary if you’re sensitive to scent because this one is pretty strong.
Price at time of publish: $26
Size: 6.7 oz. | Key Ingredients: Sea buckthorn berry, Oat peptide | Best For: Dryness and defining curls with a looser, softer hold
Best Hair Ties
L. Erickson Grab & Go Hair Tie Tube
What We Love: These are hefty enough to accommodate the thickest of hair and come in a rainbow of fun colors.
What We Don’t Love: They can stretch out over time.
The L. Erickson Hair Ties are my absolute favorite; I’ve been using them for years and never leave the house without one around my wrist. They come in an array of bright colors, metallics, and neutrals for all your style needs, and they even blend right into the bracelet stack I wear daily, disguising themselves as just another cute accessory. Because they’re extra thick, stretchy, and comfy I never experience headaches, hair dents, or tangling. I even recently gifted them to a few friends on a bachelorette trip and everyone was so obsessed they wore them for the rest of the weekend.
Price at time of publish: $22 for 15
Size: One size | Material: Elastic | Best For: Hair ties for thick hair
Best Silk Pillowcase
Slip Pure Silk Pillowcase
What We Love: This pillow case creates a luxurious sleep experience and promotes frizz-free curls.
What We Don’t Love: Slip’s pillowcases only come as single products, so you’ll have to purchase two if you want a set.
A silk pillowcase is a must-have for any curly hair routine. When you’re only washing your hair every few days, you’ve got to make your style last — and sleeping on a silk pillowcase will help extend the life of your curls. Silk, as a fabric, is far less absorbent than cottons, allowing the natural oils in your hair (and in your skincare routine, for that matter) remain atop the surface of your strands. “Using a silk pillowcase or a silk cap will reduce friction and tangling while you sleep,” says François. Instead, your hair (and skin) will glide right across the pillow. Slip’s silk is extra soft, and the pillowcases come in a variety of pretty colors, but we do wish they were sold in pairs instead of single cases.
Price at time of publish: $89
Size: Standard / Queen | Material: 100% silk | Best For: Extending the life of frizz-free curls between washes
What to Keep in Mind
Your Curl Pattern
Whether you have loose waves or ultra tight coils, your personal hair texture will dictate the kinds of products you should be using, and the hold you’ll require for certain styles. Get to know the curl chart and discover your own curl type. Personally, my hair falls around the 3B level and the products listed above work great for me. But, if your texture is more in the 4C category, you might require even more moisture-rich products.
Your Styling Needs
How you wear your hair, where you part it, how much volume you prefer, and if you opt for protective styles will all determine varying needs from your styling products. A cream, like Amika Curl Corps Defining Cream, will provide a looser hold for softer curls, while a gel, like Briogeo Curl Charisma Frizz Control Gel, will give you greater definition and tighter frizz-control. For best practice no matter your styling preferences, François advises treating your hair to a deep conditioning treatment (our favorite is SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Hair Masque) every week or two, while seeking out a trim from your trusted (curl-specializing!) hairdresser every three to six months.
For a quick pro styling tip, François recommends finger coiling. “Do this when hair is 80 percent dry, then leave it be [to finish drying]. This helps encourage curl definition,” he says. “When it’s fully dry, gently separate the twisted sections, then slide fingers up the back of the head and fluff up from the roots. Finally, flip mid to long length hair from side to side, forward and back to boost volume, and part at the highest point of your eyebrow arch.”
Your Questions, Answered
What are the best ingredients for curly hair?
When it comes to selecting a shampoo, François recommends looking for a sulfate-free option. For thin, grease-prone hair, sulfates can help to cleanse and clarify. But, with dry, textured hair, they are often overly stripping, removing too many of the natural oils our scalps need to thrive. We love the Vernon François Curl Shampoo for this reason.
In general, François advises looking for hydrating ingredients like argan oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and shea butter. Though, he notes that formulas as a whole are more important to consider than individual ingredients. “Curls behave differently on different days depending on factors like when you last washed your hair, how you’ve been wearing it, how much water, vitamins, minerals, and healthy oils you consume, your genetics, and more,” he says. “Getting to know your hair and what it responds to best can be a lifelong journey.”
How do I detangle curly hair?
“My method for hair detangling is to use the pads of my fingertips, thumbs, and palms on dry hair, working from the ends upwards towards the roots, stopping to massage out any knots or tangles along the way,” explains François. He advises to section the hair first. Personally, I detangle while in the shower with conditioner in my hair, using my fingers and a gentle wide-tooth comb. “Give yourself plenty of time. There is no need to pull. It can be pain-free and even enjoyable,” he says. Check out videos of how he demonstrates the technique on his young daughter.
What do curly hair products do?
Different product categories achieve various goals, but generally, the idea is to add moisture, regardless of the formula. Whether you’re detoxing the scalp with Act + Acre Cold Processed Scalp Detox or restoring shine to your strands with Aquage SeaExtend Silkening Oil Treatment, the more hydration you add into your routine, the healthier, shinier, and bouncier your curls will be.
Can you use curly hair products on straight hair?
Technically, sure, especially if your straight hair tends to be extra thick or moisture-deprived, or if you live in a particularly dry climate. But, using curly hair specific products on most standard straight hair textures can actually be too moisturizing, resulting in a greasy effect. Plus, curly hair products are often quite thick consistencies and require a curl to hold the product without weighing down the hair.
Why Trust InStyle
Linne Halpern is a freelance beauty, fashion, and lifestyle writer. She is a member of InStyle’s evergreen commerce team where she extensively tests and reviews countless products. For this story, she interviewed Vernon François, famed celebrity hair stylist, curl expert, and educator, to discover his tips and tricks for achieving your healthiest, most hydrated curls yet. Furthermore, Linne’s years of experimenting with her own curly hair routine (3B texture!) inform her favorite products, countless learnings, and best practices.