Monday, March 25, 2013

Calming the Product Junkie Part 1: How to Find the Best Hair Products for Your Curly Hair and Save Money!

I think that we all have a tendency to succomb to the "next best thing" in hair care.  Sometimes, you just have to try that new shampoo/conditioner/leave-in/gel/mousse/pomade/goo because you just never know when that product you try is going to be something that is your holy grail hair product, the one thing that transforms your hair to the exact result you want every time.  On, this condition is known as "product junkie" syndrome.

Well, curlies, I'm here to be your loving reality check.  I want to give you some clear, concise tips that will help you resist the urge to buy every new product you read a positive review for.  My hope is that once you read this guide, you will have a way to target your search for hair products so that you're finding what will actually work for you, not just what worked for a stranger on the internet.  My plan is to have a multi-part series so that the info is manageable.

Step 1: Get to know your curls at more than a superficial level
The hair typing system that ranks curls by tightness is of really limited use, but "What is my hair type?!" is one of the most often asked questions on the CurlTalk forums.  This is endlessly frustrating because knowing what your curl tightness is tells you next to nothing about what products will work for your hair.  So, my first piece of advice is to ignore the hair typing system and look deeper.

I will explain to you below how to figure out your hair properties.  However, a curly hair stylist who frequents has actually created an online "hair analysis" for those who want a professional to tell them their hair properties.  For a small fee, you will send in a hair sample, and Tiffany will email you in 3-4 weeks and tell you lots of things about your hair type, including brand-neutral advice on what to look for in hair products.  I don't have any association with this analysis offering other than having read a lot of really positive things about it on, but I felt I would be remiss not to mention it here.

Hair Properties That Matter
1) Porosity.  This property of your hair will tell you so much more about what products will work for you then curl tightness typing will.  Porosity, to put it simply, is how many holes are there in each strand of hair?  Sounds silly, I know.  Hair can be low porosity, normal porosity, or high porosity.  But your hair is made up keratin shingles (called the cuticle) that lay over a cortex.  If the "shingles" of the cuticle lie very flat against the cortex and prevent ingredients from reaching the cortex, that hair strand has low porosity. If the shingles are blown out far from the cortex and ingredients pass through like a sports car on the Autobahn, that hair strand is of high porosity.  Normal porosity is in between.  The pictures below show what I've just described.

Low porosity.  Notice how nothing is getting through
to the core of that hair strand without a fight!
Very high porosity. This cuticle is damaged.
Normal porosity.  Notice how there is definitely some room for
ingredients to reach the center cortex, but the shingles
lie flat on each other.
Hair has its own natural porosity, but we can alter it by doing things to our hair.  For instance, bleaching creates holes in the cuticle, making bleached or frequently color processed hair very likely to be high porosity.

Check your porosity by taking a strand of hair and sliding your thumb and forefinger up the length of the strand (from tip to scalp).  Do your fingers glide along super quickly and easily, maybe even making a squeaking sound? That hair strand is of low porosity. Low porosity hair is resistant to chemical services like coloring, so if you've noticed that your hair doesn't "take" color well, that might be another clue for you.  If your fingers "catch" on their journey, you've got high porosity hair.  Normal porosity lies in between these two extremes.  Most will hair normal porosity hair.

2) Texture.  You probably already have a working familiarity with this property.  We divide hair into three categories of texture: fine, medium, and coarse.  Texture is the diameter of each individual strand of hair on your head.  I find the descriptions at to be particularly helpful.  They are quoted below:
    "Does the hair strand look delicate, a bit insubstantial, somewhat translucent, and seem almost as if it's "barely there"? If any of these characteristics fit, the hair texture is most likely fine.
     Does the hair strand look thick, wiry, and sturdy? Does it seem substantial and strong, with a very definitive presence and a distinctive lack of suppleness? If so, the hair texture is most likely coarse.
     Does the hair strand seem somewhat solid, but not overly thick? Does it have some substance to it, but is still fairly supple? If so, the hair texture is most likely medium.
     Please remember it is quite possible to have hair of varying textures all over your head―texture isn't always a "one size fits all" kind of hair property!"

How Can You Use This Information To Target Hair Product Buying?
First of all, it will help you read reviews more intelligently.  If you read a review from me (low porosity,  fine texture), but you have high porosity and coarse hair, that's a red flag that this product isn't going to work the same on you as it did on me.

Second of all READ INGREDIENT LABELS!  I know they look like mumbo jumbo to you right now, but it gets easier.  Here are some guidelines for what kinds of ingredients to look for your hair types.

Low porosity hair needs help getting products to truly penetrate the hair.  Avoid oils that seal the hair cuticle, since your whole issue is that ingredients can't reach the core of your hair strands.  These oils include almond, grapeseed, avocado, flaxseed, and sunflower oils.  Oils that moisturize are OK though, especially coconut oil, which can get inside the hair cuticle. Your hair is probably dry because moisture has a hard time getting inside the cuticle.  When you do a moisturizing deep treatment, use heat, because that will lift up your "shingles" and allow more penetration.  Avoid products with low pH  as they will further seal the cuticle.  Your hair can handle things like baking soda washes.  Some will say that you should avoid protein treatments, as the whole point of the protein treatment is to fill holes in the cuticle.  I personally disagree, because I have fine hair, and my fine (but low porosity) hair loves every protein I can throw at it.  Try to achieve a balance of moisture and protein, erring on the side of moisture.

High porosity needs help filling the holes in the cuticles, which will ultimately help the hair retain moisture and beneficial ingredients.  Sealing oils (see paragraph above) are your friend, as are protein treatments (unless your hair is also coarse; see below).  Your hair can also handle very rich emollients like shea butter.  Use an apple cider vinegar rinse to help close your cuticle once every week or every couple of weeks.  Products that have low pH are your friend.

Normal porosity hair needs balance.  You need to try to balance moisture and protein.  Look for conditioners that contain ingredients like keratin or collagen (or anything called an "amino acid").  Rotate that conditioner with one that has moisturizing ingredients like oils or emollients.

Fine hair needs help not being weighed down, and it needs protein.  Fine hair loves protein.  Use frequent (1x week) protein treatments.  Be careful with using oils in conditioners and styling products because they may weigh you down.  Look for products that are more like milks than creams.  You want products that are water-based (look for water high on the ingredients list).

Coarse hair needs moisture.  Coarse hair loves humectants and emollients.  Look for ingredients like fatty alcohols (cetearyl alcohol, for instance), glycerin, and shea butter.  Avoid protein (appears in ingredients lists as keratin, silk amino acids, collagen, wheat and soy based ingredients, hydrolyzed ingredients).  Protein often makes coarse hair feel like straw.

Medium hair needs balance.  You have pretty much free reign over ingredients.  You'll have to do a bit more guesswork when it comes to figuring out what your hair likes and doesn't like.

Once you know your hair on more than a superficial level, you can start to read ingredient labels intelligently and scrutinize product reviews so that you can know if a product is likely to work for you!

Check out Calming the Product Junkie Part 2!


Lindsey said...

Very interesting information, thanks! It is a little conflicting for me, since I think I have normal porosity and medium-to-coarse hair (I have hair strands of both types). The former needs keratin but you said to avoid keratins for the latter. So, I don't really know what to do about that, though I feel my hair is getting drier and definitely less "oily" (how it appeared between washes) than when I was using SLS shampoo and silicone conditioners. I have taken both out of my wash routine and my hair seems totally different. I am glad to know your suggestion of balancing (by rotating 2 different) conditioners. Great idea. Thanks!

Laura said...

I know it gets tough when there is conflicting advice! I have often wondered what it must be like to be a high porosity fine haired curly, for example. What I would recommend doing is trying out protein and seeing how you like it. Even if your hair doesn't like protein, the dryness it would give you would definitely be reversible. There's no harm to trying, in other words. I'm glad that you're noticing positive changes with cutting out SLS!

Michaela said...

This has been so helpful! I have low porosity hair with medium texture. I recently got a sample of a conditioner that was reviewed really well for being moisturizing on boards (because my hair is so frustratingly dry...), and it didn't really seem to do that much for my hair. I didn't know why... but I just read the ingredients, and flaxseed is one of the main ones! It makes sense now, it's probably sealing off my cuticle! Thanks for the great articles, and by the way, I just love your hair!

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BlondeUncensored said...

I know this is a really old blog, but I'm pretty sure I have low porosity, fine texture like you do. What kind of protein treatments do you use? Thanks!