The relentless quest for the “perfect curl” is very real (shout out to Elle!). As a naturally curly chick myself, my journey has involved a plethora of products and methods that I have tested to achieve my desired curly look. I have even gone as far as developing my own products to help me to reach my end goal. But no matter how much experience any of us have at styling and training our curls, it seems like they often have a mind of their own. It is as if all of the stars must align with Jupiter to reach hair nirvana sometimes. What’s up with that? The scientist in me struggles to accept this, so I have started to take a scientific approach to achieving the look that want.
Why your hair looks so good wet
Hair is the most pliable when it is wet due to the water entering the cortex of the hair and weakening hydrogen and salt bonds that attribute to approximately 30% of hair’s strength. Hydrogen bonds contribute to the structural backbone that helps to hold together the protein matrix hair, which ultimately determines its geometric shape. When these bonds are readily broken with water, the molecules that were once attracted to the solid protein structure become more attracted to the hydrogen in the water molecules, weakening the protein structure of the hair. Be careful! This is the reason hair is most sensitive and prone to breakage while it is wet. As the hair absorbs more water, the hair becomes heavier and the protein structure becomes more “fluid,” creating elongated curls! This is why so many curl obsessed fanatics claim to love their curls the most when their hair is drenching wet.
Then you get out of the shower…
Then…you walk out of the shower and the dream slowly fades. Gradually each strand of hair starts to take on a life of its own and you go from having curls like Tracee Ellis Ross to a fuzz ball looking situation. Why is this? Well we must turn back to those pesky hydrogen bonds. As water evaporates from the strands, more hydrogen bonds are readily available to lock back in place with the protein matrix of the hair and the hair regains its rigidity.
It is like musical chairs. The hydrogen bonds just stop and bond to wherever they can as quickly as possible, which usually leads to frizz
“It is like musical chairs. The hydrogen bonds just stop and bond to wherever they can as quickly as possible, which usually leads to frizz city if the strands are not being held in place. This is where alignment comes into play.”
How to tame frizz
How do you eliminate those rogue strands of hair that are ultimately the culprits of frizz? One of the biggest secrets to eliminating frizz is to focus on curl alignment.
Every strand of hair has its own geometric pattern, but by using curl defining products we have the ability help manipulate the curl pattern of the strands using our fingers, comb, rods, etc. to ensure that every twist and coil from one strand to the next align to create beautiful, frizz free curls.
Relying on the fixative properties in these products help the alignment of the strands to stay in place.
And do not simply rub product onto a huge patch of hair, take the time to carefully pull product through smaller sections to better align the strands, further defining and training the hair to stay where you want it to stay (e.g. shingling and the rake and smooth). This way, as hydrogen bonds start to form as the hair dries, they lock the hair in alignment with the surrounding strands of hair, leading to fewer frizzes.
Also, sealing the hair with oil based products or natural butters can help to further lock the hair in place by preventing moisture/humidity from disturbing the careful formed curls.
The strand test
As stated earlier, every strand of hair has its own curl geometry that desperately tries to return to its natural state whenever possible. Knowing the geometrical shape of your hair will help you to understand what you need to do to achieve the shape that you want. Take a strand of your hair and drop it into a glass of water. Look closely at the strand to understand what your natural curl pattern is. This exercise will allow you to see how tight or loose your curl pattern is, and whether your curls have more of an S- or Z-shape. For example, the only way to turn a Z-shaped curl into an S-shaped curl is through the mechanical manipulation of curl using rods or manual twists (i.e. twist-out or braid-out). Without a little extra help, the Z-shape hair will always return to back to its natural shape, especially when moisture is re-introduced to the hair.
You have now achieved your perfect curl! But before you can step out to show off your new, vivacious curls, you start to experience the next struggle…shrinkage. Why are our curls always trying to defy gravity? This relates back to the hair always seeking to return to its natural geometric shape, especially if your hair is extremely elastic. (Elasticity: the ability for your hair to return to its natural resting state.) In order to stretch the curl beyond its natural resting state, you have to manipulate the curl using weight or force. Think of your favorite headband or elastic hair tie. It is the perfect length for the first few weeks, but after stretching it over your head and around your hair so many times, it starts to elongate, losing its natural shape. The hair is very similar.
“In order to stretch the curl beyond its natural resting state, you have to manipulate the curl using weight or force.“
You want to exert enough force or apply enough weight on the curls to achieve more length without stretching it beyond the point of no return. This can be done a few different ways:
- reshaping the curls with tools like curlers or rods, or a twist-out
- stretching the natural curls by gentling pulling the hair from the root using a headband or scarf (i.e. pineapple method)
- applying heavy products that add weight directly to the strands, making it hard for the strands to revert back to their natural state
How to find the perfect curl
Unfortunately, after carefully executing all of these steps, I still cannot guarantee that you will achieve the “perfect curl” because you will never have 100% control over all of these factors, especially environmental factors. However, what is great about curly hair is that the standard of perfect is in the eye of beholder. The diversity and versatility of curly hair allows every curl to be perfect in its own way. Voluminous, frizzy curls are just as beautiful as tight, Z-shaped coils, so there is no need for natural beauties like us to be so critical of each and every curl. At the end of the day, the most important aspect of achieving the perfect curl is to just embrace and love your curls as is, because you are already perfect just the way you are.
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Robbins, Clarence R., and Clarence R. Robbins. Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. Vol. 3. New York: Springer, 1994, 305.