The 4 Rules of Using Curly Hair Products to Get the Best Definition

Forget what you thought about gel in the ‘90s

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culry hair styling tips
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My parents still laugh about the time I dumped a glass of water on my head while we were at a nice dinner. Even at the age of seven, I knew I wanted to get rid of my frizz somehow and this seemed like a logical fix! See, my hair had just changed from being baby-fine and straight to coarse and wild seemingly overnight.

People with curly, wavy or simply not-straight, poofy, frizzy or otherwise shapely hair, know that our hair journeys really are that: a long and winding journey, which is why I appreciated my appointment with Emily Katz, a hairstylist of 13 years and owner of Chicago’s Goldust Studios, so much. She took time to talk about my hair, my relationship with my hair, its history and my goals before giving me a cut that would work for me and my hair. She also spent a good amount of time re-educating me on how to style my hair curly, which I’ve found truly game-changing, so I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

Presenting: the four rules of curly hair styling—plus, a step-by-step post-wash process.

The 4 Rules of Curly Hair Styling Products

1. Know Your Hair Goals

“Marketing is so good these days,” Katz says. “It makes you think that ‘this’ product will change your life. People often have so many products at home that don't match what they want in their hair goals.” Katz suggests using a visual for zeroing in on which products you should buy: “Find a photo of your dream hair and home in on what you love about it. Is it volume, definition, airiness or perfectly [messed] up bedhead vibes?” That chic ad for a leave-in product targeting you on Instagram might look like it will solve all your hair problems, but if you’re looking for volume and it’s formulated to give definition, you’re flushing dollars down the toilet.

2. Want Definition? Don’t Be Afraid of Using Gel…And Lots of It

“Gels are so different from the ‘90s—I promise!” jokes Katz. Typically, gels are going to give you the most definition, and they range in how strong the hold is, so you may want to try out a few different kinds to see what works for you. And if you still harbor fear of “crunchy” curls, Katz assures that you can prevent this from happening by shaking your hair at the roots right after applying the gel.

3. Use Foams or Creams for Less Definition

“Foams are amazing for people who want more volume on day one. They still provide hold, but it’s typically much softer,” explains Katz. As for creams, they’re not usually the top choice for her curly-hair clients, but they still have a time and place: “Most curl creams won't offer a lot of hold. But they can add softness to your style.” Another hot tip from the stylist: “I love to mix these products, starting with foam and finishing with a gel. Or combining both a creme and a gel for soft finish and definition! It all goes back to what you're wanting to achieve in your hair goals.”

4. Apply Products to Soaking-Wet Hair

If you’ve been air- or towel-drying your hair before applying your product, you could be missing out on an essential hydrating step. Katz loves applying product to soaking-wet hair, so that it “locks in the water and holds the hair in place while it dries” Think about flappers from the Roaring ‘20s, she says. “They would load up their bobs with so much gel while their hair was wet, finger wave it, let it dry in that shape, and then break it up. The shape would last until your next wash.”  Essentially, applying your styling products to wet hair helps lock in moisture and coaxes it to dry in the shape that you want it. Once dry, break your curls up with your fingers, if desired.

A 10-Step Guide to Styling Curly Hair

Wanna put the rules to use? Katz shared her step-by-step guide for post-wash curly hair styling.

  1. Before washing, gently massage your roots using your fingertips.
  2. Wash, condition and detangle. (If you've got build-up, reach for the shampoo; if you don't, co-wash could be great for you.)
  3. After the shower, while your hair is still very wet, set your part or push your bangs forward if you have them.
  4. Apply your styling products on very wet hair.
  5. Lightly scrunch the product throughout your hair. 3 to 4 solid scrunches are usually enough. This brings the product from the ends up to the roots.
  6. Repeat the light scrunching using a microfiber towel to soak up any excess moisture that’s remaining.
  7. With your head flipped upside down, shake your head “yes” and “no” to create lift at the roots.
  8. Stand up, repeat the light towel scrunching, while tipping your head to each shoulder and backwards.
  9. 15 to 30 minutes later, after the products have had a chance to set, air dry or diffuse your curls.
  10. When your hair is fully dry, shake out your curls at the roots.

Emily’s Favorite Clean Curly Hair Products

Best Gels for Definition & Hold

Best Foams for Volume & Lift

Best Cream for Moisture


Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...