Everything you need to know about curl types

curl type
Everything you need to know about curl typesGetty Images. - Getty Images

Curl type is often lesson number one for someone getting to grips with their hair texture, It's all based on categorising hair by curl pattern. "It helps make it easier for people who are new to curls or just started to embrace curls to find their way" says Pashcan'el Mitchell, afro & textured hair educator at Blue Tit, who poetically described the categorisation system as; "shapes by numbers."

What is curl type and who created it?

The 'curl type' system that's become near-universal was introduced in the early 1990s by celeb stylist Andre Walker, debuted on Oprah no less. But according to Mitchell, it wasn't till around 2018 that it blew up online to the widely known system it is today. It separates hair into four numbered categories: 1 = straight, 2 = wavy, 3 = curly, and 4 = coily. Subcategories A, B and C were lated added within each, referring to where in the category the curl fell, from looser to tighter.

Why do people use the curl type system?

Categorising hair by curl pattern can help give you a ballpark for the type of methods, products and qualities best suited to your hair and its needs. "Being able to describe your curl pattern is the blueprint for figuring out your curly hair routine," says iconic hair dresser and founder Charlotte Mensah, "By doing this, it can be easier to know how to enhance texture with the correct products."

Its widespread adoption makes it a really useful shorthand, way beyond the beginner stages too. While the system is coming under increasing questioning it can't be denied that; "the curl chart has allowed people with textured hair to find texture-specific products by using the general terms on the chart," says Jennie Roberts, Shea Moisture's Trichologist and afro hair specialist, despite her own issues with the system.

What does the curl type system look like?

There are many interpretations in both photo and illustration form, but typically the charts look something like this.

curl types
A classic illustration of the Walker system.abc17 - Getty Images

What are the flaws with curl type?

Having founded Treasure Tress, Europe's first and largest subscription box for textured hair, Jamelia Donaldson fosters and caters to a vast curl community, both online and offline. From that vantage point, issues with the system are obvious to her. "I understand its purpose as a starting point for those new to experimenting with their hair and seeking easy points of comparison. But there is so much more to hair than curl patterns – there's porosity, density, texture and the list goes on."

And it isn't just a question of the hair itself, but its inputs and environment, too; "climate, water quality (soft water vs hard water), diet, lifestyle. It doesn't take into account unique factors which equally impact your hair."

A summary for the Astrology huns out there, your curl pattern is your sun sign, but baby you have a whole birth chart at play.

Roberts says the cuticle is key in how to treat your hair, and factors that have to be considered include genetics, damage, colouring, heat and chemicals; "People should be looking more at the strands’ texture as well as the curl pattern. If you run your fingers down an individual hair the bumpier the hair and the more raised the cuticle is, it’ll likely make the hair more textured, thicker and fuller, which needs more moisture and hydration." And this will affect the pattern your curls or coils will sit in.

Does curl type have a problem with texturism?

Some choose not to use the Walker curl type system due to connotations of hierarchy in the way it categorises from one to four, and A to C, getting progressively tighter; "Given the glorification of straight hair and looser curls, something about those textures being tied to the top of the system makes me grossly uncomfortable," explained Donaldson, whose company Treasure Tress instead sticks to descriptive words.

Roberts feels similarly with particular reference to treatment of 4c hair in the systems origination; "As for the A-C. It really should be A-Z or not at all. Andre Walker was very negative about so-called ‘4C’ hair, that it’s still having traumatic and emotional effects on people with very tight, coily, kinky beautiful hair. For this reason, I don’t pigeonhole. I find the beauty in all textures and find what it needs to look its best based on my client’s expectations and lifestyle."

What if I can't identify my curl type?

While the Walker system is a 'search' fast-track to content tailored to your curl pattern, don't fret if you can't figure out where you sit – it is a human-made classification, after all. Many of us sit between 'types', and most of us exhibit more than two patterns on our head and that's before factoring in how our hair changes through the days between washes. Mitchell says it should be taken "as a reference".

What makes it even more elusive is how widely identification and interpretation vary. You'll find countless photo charts made with some stark contradictions.

So should we throw the whole system away? Despite its flaws, it is useful and you'll likely need to understand the terminology if engaging in curly discourse. Plus, you didn't come here to not find out yours.

How to find your curl type

In my experience, one single chart won't tell you your curl type. My biggest piece of advice for identifying your curl type(s) is to YouTube, TikTok and Instagram search away, looking at where others place theirs, seeing their hair in motion, and hearing them talk about its qualities. But... here's a one-line run-through to give you a benchmark.

Prep: To get your hair ready for analysis, BaByliss Pro Ambassador Michelle Sultan advises; "Start by washing your hair and letting it dry naturally with a small amount of leave-in conditioner. Don't manipulate the hair, so it can dry in its natural state; this will give you a clearer idea of the s-shaped waves, curls, coils or kinks throughout your hair."

Wavy Hair Types

  • 2A - You just want to feel involved, and that's ok. There's a light tousled wave to your possibly frizz-prone hair.

  • 2B - Your tresses fall from straight roots into beachy loose S-shapes that are also likely familiar with frizz, and are blasted away when rough blow-dried.

  • 2C - TikTok gworlies with your volume and pattern call those swirling defined S waves 'curly', and they aren't wrong as such, your ends are likely looser ringlets, but here you fall into wavy.

Caring for Wavy Hair - 'Type 2'

Wavy hair doesn't need heavy leave-in products as these will weigh it down. Products like gels, serums and mousses will bring out their best. Combine with hydrating shampoos and conditioners for the moisture boost you need to minimise frizz, and silk pillowcases to keep them defined overnight. Very wavy hair is typically dryer, so may benefit from products like styling milk and lightweight leave-in conditioners. Cutting out heat, if you use it, will likely see your pattern become stronger.

Curly Hair Types

  • 3A - It's giving Shirley Temple but you're working it, babe. These large loose spiral curls are big and shiny. They have a fair share of out, but grow down, loosening considerably with length.

  • 3B - Please see 3A, but with more loop-the-loop spiral. You're able to poke a finger into the curl, but this could range from thumb to pinky (hey, I said it was no science).

  • 3C - Your hair grows in tight corkscrews, often with occasional waves or zigzags just to keep you guessing; growing out, down and occasionally up.

Caring for Curly Hair - 'Type 3'

Again hydrating shampoos and conditioners are key, as well as regular deep conditioning (weekly or fortnightly). Looser curls should stick to lightweight leave-ins, creams and styling products in general, to maintain volume. Tighter curls tend to be drier and may need more rich, hydrating, leave-ins and creams, and less frequent shampooing.

It's important to refresh your hair with more hydration between washes. Rather than shop-bought refresher sprays, from experience, I recommend using a spray leave-in on dampened hair or mixing your favourite leave-in with water in a spray bottle. Detangling your hair isn't a total mission, but will need to be done on wet hair with plenty of product, and always from the bottom up.

Coily Hair Types

  • 4A - Your curly coils are small-ish, with separated s-shaped spirals that are often quite uniform in size through the length. Your defined pattern straddles curly and coily, you're quite the all-rounder.

  • 4B - Unlike the uniformity of curly coil, your tight and full hair instead chooses to zigzag in sharper bends with considerable variation, giving a fluffy volume but still with some visible pattern.

  • 4C - The tightest zigzags and coils, often barely visible, your hair says gravity who? Grow it an inch and it will stretch a mile, by which I mean you likely have a lot of shrinkage.

Caring for Coily Hair - 'Type 4'

"Type four hair is often mistaken for being the most robust," says Sultan; "but actually it is the most fragile of all hair types." All textured hair needs hydration, but coily hair needs the most, it typically struggles to retain moisture but is the most fragile when dehydrated. Deeply hydrating shampoos and conditioners should be paired with regular deep conditioning, as well as intensely hydrating leave-in conditioners, butters and creams, plus oils to help lock in the moisture.

Your hair is unlikely to need washing more than once a week, and co-washes will be less stripping than traditional shampoo. It's also important to find a product, be it your conditioner or leave-in, that provides a good slip for detangling, a process which cannot be rushed with your pattern. Sleeping in a silk head wrap or bonnet is essential to protect and preserve overnight.

Follow Elena on Instagram

You Might Also Like