How I Learned to Style My Frizzy Asian Hair
Growing up, I hated my hair. I came of age in the early 2000’s, which was when stick straight strands were in, and I had a head full of coarse, uneven waves that were prone to puffing up no matter how much Frizz Ease I drenched them in. (Living in New Orleans, which is known for its high heat and year-round humidity, did not help.)
I found it especially frustrating that all of the Asian women in my life (including my mom and best friend) had the sleek, glossy hair that was generally expected from my people.
And so, instead of wearing my hair down, my go-to look from fifth to eighth grade was a severely slicked back bun that wouldn’t move if a hurricane hit it. I also wore braces and a mouth expander, and refused to smile in any photo, so yeah, it was a cute time.
Just as I was about to enter high school, our family moved out to southern California. Here, I was introduced to all things K-beauty—most notably, the “magic straight perm,” which basically breaks down your hair bonds and re-shapes them with heat to lie straight. We’re talking ruler straight here, y’all, without any styling. You shower, towel off, and your hair dries this way. Hence, the magical moniker.
The process takes hours, is smelly, and is extremely labor intensive for the stylist, but the results are impressive and last up to six months or longer, until your roots start to come in and there’s a line of demarcation between your natural texture and the straightened ends.
Still, the magic straight perm gave me the type of hair that I always wanted, so I continued to get them regularly through the rest of high school.
Sometime in college, I discovered the “digital perm,” which gave me smooth, cascading curls a la Zooey Deschanel in New Girl. After years of rocking super straight hair, this was a welcome change—and the grow in was less noticeable. The biggest downside was that it cost several hundred dollars so I would save my waitressing tips and Foot Locker wages to get my yearly perm. This was another wash-and-go style and I loved not having to do anything to my hair on a daily basis.
In my 20s, I moved to New York, and grew out my hair. I stopped getting perms and started to experiment with color instead. The biggest change came in my mid-20s, when I decided to bleach my hair silver, then blonde (see below), and every shade of the rainbow thereafter.
As anyone who has ever bleached their hair knows, that amount of chemical processing alters the texture. More specifically, it roughs up the cuticle (which can be a welcome change for people with fine, flat strands looking for volume).
You would think that this wouldn’t bode well for my already coarse hair, but the bleach seemed to weaken, and in turn, soften my strands into submission.
This was also when I stopped using traditional shampoos for co-washes and started using heavier creams to style my hair. By this point, I was a budding beauty editor and suddenly had access to hair stylists and products, so I made it my job to know and try everything. (It helps that it was actually my job.)
Fast forward to 30, when I was diagnosed with cancer and lost all of my hair from chemotherapy. When my hair came back in, it was curlier than before. This is apparently so common that there’s a term for it: chemo curls. Styling my new crop of curls was an entirely different process. I started using mousse and wave spray to bring out my new ringlets. I also got to rock a pixie cut, which is something I always wanted to try, but was too scared to commit to. C’est la vie.
Nearly three years later, my hair has grown so long it’s grazing my back, and the curls have loosened to more of a wave, similar to what they were like when I was a kid. Only now, after trying hundreds of shampoos and styling creams, I have found the perfect combination of products and tricks that enhance my still coarse, but far less frizzy Asian hair.
It’s been a long and winding journey to get to this place of accepting the very hair I was born with. Looking back, I think that a lot of those early experiences of struggling with my hair and experimenting with various products and perms laid the groundwork for what would become a career in beauty reporting. And the best part about this job, IMO, is being able to share what I’ve learned. With that, I present to you my tool kit for styling thick, wavy hair.
1. Gentle Shampoo
When my hair was bleached and later when it was curly, I used a rich co-wash. Now that my hair is back to black and less curly, I’ve switched to a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner and only wash once every two to three days. I've been using this Act+Acre duo since January because it leaves my hair clean, but not squeakily so. Though I usually prefer a morning shower, I switch to the afternoon or early evening when I have to shampoo so my hair has plenty of time to dry and I can sleep on it, which helps tame the puffiness.
2. Microfiber Towel
A microfiber towel is definitely one of the best beauty inventions of the last decade. This one by Aquis wraps your hair up into a neat little turban and soaks up excess water so fast that by the time you get dressed and finish your skincare routine, it’s over halfway dry (game-changing for thick hair). Given the highly absorbent nature of this towel, I’d recommend hanging it up to dry after each use so it doesn’t get mildew-y.
3. Styling Cream
I find that it’s best to apply styling cream to damp, towel-dried hair because it spreads more evenly. This French favorite was recommended to me many years ago by Jen Atkin (before she launched her own haircare line) and though it's pricey, I always go back to it because it's the rare cream that tames my unruly waves. Depending on the length of your hair, you’re going to want to use a nickel- to- quarter-sized amount. Rake it through from mid-lengths to ends before twisting your strands into smaller, two-inch sections. Most importantly, try not to touch your hair while it dries.
4. Hair Oil
Full disclosure: I’m not particularly loyal to one oil over another. Right now, I’m using this one from Sun Bum and really enjoy the way it makes my hair smell like a tropical vacation. I use a pump of oil as a finishing touch to seal in shine and moisture, which helps keep frizz in check. I’ve found that applying the oil after the cream on mostly dry hair works best.
5. Flat Iron
For special occasions or those days when I wake up and my hair is sticking out every which way, I’ll use a 1” flat iron to add some bends where needed. It’s also helpful for quickly re-styling, ah, shall we say, stale hair that’s due for a wash.