Once upon a time, a hair stylist wrote a book about how to care for curly hair. The information and guidance in the book were based mostly on her experiences with her own as well as her clients' hair. The book helped a lot of curlies, including me, and I'm forever grateful to have found it.
But let's be clear, people. It is a very big mistake to regard this book as some kind of bible.
I say this because it seems that a lot of people go to great pains to "get CG right." They agonize over whether a product is CG, ask as many CG followers as they can about the "correct" way to apply product, and they think that if they make a mistake, it's like being an alcoholic who takes a drink--and that they must "start over" again.
My view is that it's time to relax about being CG.
What is the CG method?
If you were to distill the Curly Girl book down into a few sentences (and believe me, you can), here are its tenets: 1. Avoid sulfates 2. Avoid silicones 3. Treat curly hair gently (no brushes, no rough towels, no blow-dryers) 4. Gel is your friend 5. A good conditioner contains a blend of moisturizers, protein, emollients, and humectants 5. Don't touch your hair before it's completely dry
There's also a bunch of silliness about "typing" one's hair, none of which is terribly helpful but a delightful little exercise that helps give the book some substance and allows the author to use celebrity photos to demonstrate her points. People love celebrities. So do publishers. Celebrities help make everything sell better.
The book asserts that silicones coat the hair and starve it of moisture. It goes on to say that shampoo (at least the kind that contains sulfates, which is pretty much all that existed when the author wrote the book) is what's needed to remove the silicones, but the sulfates strip hair of its natural moisture, thereby forcing us all to reach for silicones to give us the shine we crave. And hence, a heinous cycle of interdependency ensues.
And that, along with the hair typing and a plethora of curly confessions, is the sum total of the book.
Points of confusion
Sulfates. Not all of these are created equal. What's more, not all shampoos have the same amount of them. And finally, there's not a single silicone in existence that requires the use of sulfates to remove it. Surfactants, no sulfates, are what's required to remove silicones (and most products in general). (So-called harsher sulfates include sodium laurel sulfate, sodium, laureth sulfate, and ammonium laurel sulfate. Milder surfactants that will do the job for you include sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, and sodium cocoyl isethionate. Still milder are non-sulfate anionic surfactants, including sodium laurel sulfate, sodium, laureth sulfate, and ammonium laurel sulfate. Least harsh are the amphoteric surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, and sodium cocoyl isethionate.)
Silicones. These come in many guises and have many names. Some adhere to hair (dimethicone), some evaporate in a few hours (cyclomethicone), and others are extremely mild (dimethicone copolyol). Not all of them evil. In fact, many would argue that none of them are. In 2009, we have many more cleansing options than were available in 2002 when Curly Girl was written. There is no reason to be draconian in your avoidance of any ingredient ending in "cone" unless you have discovered that your hair really despises all silicones. And even if it does hate silicones, maybe if you found a way to remove them that your hair doesn't hate, that peaceful coexistence of cleansing and silicone could work for you. You never know unless you try.
Gel. Have you ever tried using the amount of gel recommended in the book? Fuggedabowdit. I use about five times as much gel as the book would have me using. It took me a few months to figure out that the quantities (of conditioner as well as gel) Curly Girl suggests simply are too skimpy for me. And in case you haven't noticed, amazing advances have been made in the formulation of gels, and now you also need to watch for certain polyquats. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security about a gel just because it doesn't contain any 'cones. What's more, some people's hair doesn't respond at all well to some of the most common (and seemingly harmless) gel ingredients such as propylene glycol, PVP, acrylates, and others. Just because something is technically CG doesn't mean your hair will thrive with it.
Conditioner. Another aspect of CG that required trial and error for me was conditioner selection. First, not everybody likes protein. (The author has done a rather abrupt about-face on this point herself: her products no longer contain protein and she preaches an anti-protein approach to her followers.) I adore protein and need more of it than I ever would have expected, but coarser haired curlies don't need and don't want protein. Humectants are good in theory, too, but depending on your hair's porosity and the climate you live in, you may not need humectants in the same quantities that somebody else would. Excess humectants result in frizz for some of us. So, when you read that a good conditioner must contain all these ingredients, proceed with caution because your hair may not want them all and it may not want them all in equal proportions.
How much conditioner you leave in your hair is also a huge variable among curly-headed people. Some people like to just not rinse it all out. Others like to rinse it all out and then add a bit more so they have more control. Still others use a curl creme instead of a conditioner. Some like no conditioner left in at all. You are the best judge of what your hair likes. The guidance in the book should only be used as a general suggestion about the need for curly hair to have some moisture left on it somehow. You can figure out for yourself what that moisture should look like for your hair. (And yes, figuring that out can take a while. But it's better to experiment than to blindly follow the advice of one stylist who has never seen your hair.)
Touching and being gentle. This is some of the best advice ever. Make sure your hair is totally dry before you scrunch out your crunch. It does make a world of difference! I have also found that towels with no nap make the best choices (I avoid terrycloth and even microfiber towels, which act like velcro on my hair, even when it's wet).
The Curly Girl book is a great introduction to the needs of curly hair. After you read it, loiter at the naturallycurly.com discussion boards (do NOT believe everything that's posted there, however!) to get some new insights, and read some of the blogs I've got listed in my favorites. Acquire information.
If there were one right way to handle curly hair, everybody's curly hair would be perfect and beautiful. But the sad truth is that there is no surefire way that applies to everyone's hair. All you can do is learn what you can, talk to people, and experiment. And when you experiment, you may discover a trick or two that will help someone else.
Curly Nikki just posted about her Holy Grail products, and that prompted me to disclose mine here. What's interesting is how few I really have. I've been CG for more than two years now and this list -- a finely honed assortment that doesn't reveal any inkling of how many products I went through to find them -- is all I've got. Maybe some of yours are on this list, too?
Shampoo(s): never touch the stuff (well, okay, sometimes I reach for Jessicurl's Hair Cleansing Cream, but normally I just scrub with a palmful of Suave Naturals Coconut Conditioner)
Conditioner(s): I'm on my last bottle of Activate Hydrating Conditioner (pictured here among some companion products as a kind of memorial), which has yet to be replaced by anything else as my No. 1 favorite. The company no longer makes the stuff (or maybe the company is out of business; I don't know) and I will have to turn instead to any of these very nice conditioners: Mop Top Daily Conditioner, Aloeba, Aubrey Organics Island Naturals as well as GPB Conditioner, Karen's Body Beautiful Hair Nectar and the old version of EO's Rose and Chamomile (of which I have only two more bottles left).
Leave-in/Styler (s):I always use my regular conditioners as leave-ins and you already know what those are, so I'll just list stylers: Kinky-Curly Curling Custard is my absolute Holy Grail product, and yet I cannot use it by itself. In rainy weather, I mix it with Biosilk Rock Hard Gelee and for nice, normal dew points (35 to 55), I mix the KCCC with Max Green Alchemy Sculpting Gel. Sometimes Aubrey's B5 Design Gel alone or mixed with Mandarin Magic is nice. I've also been discovering Joico JoiWhip mousse lately -- it's not consistently great but when it's good, it's very very good.
Deep Conditioner (s): Several months ago, I decided that these are just silly. For me, anyway. My hair (3a, fine) doesn't need deep conditioning as much as it needs protein, so I combine the two in my daily conditioners and my hair is much happier.
My curls inspire some dark thoughts. The kind that should never see the light of day.
Like, every morning, when I step carefully into my shower, I think about how I should have cleaned the tub better. I think about how the tile's slick surface is an amalgam of conditioners gone before. And I think about slipping, and falling, and breaking my neck in the pursuit of curls.
When I lean forward to scrunch out all the water and my back creaks its objections, I think about how I easily I tolerate this pain. I wonder how old I will be before it becomes impossible to assume this position for very long, and I think about what on earth I will do if I cannot scrunch water out and product in when I am in my seventies.
Stooped over to allow my hair to fall neatly into my diffuser, I'm aware of my neck's distaste for this position. I think about a woman I worked with who suffered from a pinched nerve and I think about what a foul mood she was always in. She didn't have curls, though, I reason, so no wonder she was bitchy.
On the train to work, I imagine myself slugging the idiot behind me who can't control his newspaper. Each time it disturbs the damp curls on the back of my head, I think about another way to make him resort to a Kindle in the future.
After discovering that curls can be nurtured into fabulousness instead of frizz, I began my quest to cultivate healthy, moisturized hair. I don't use anything with sulfates or silicones, and like my hair at last! This blog is one way I am indulging my obsession.