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The Key to Finding the Perfect Leave In? Shop by Hair Width

By January 27th, 202141 Comments

The Key to Finding the Perfect Leave In? Shop by Hair Width
by Nicole Harmon author of Coils & Curls: The Hair Product Handbook

It takes just the right blend of water (for moisture) and emollients (for smoothing) to tame coils and curls. The emollients are the tricky part. Too heavy and they’ll weigh your hair down, too light and you’ll end up with frizz.

To find the right leave-ins for your hair, it’s important that you understand your “strand thickness,” otherwise known as “hair width“, which can be categorized as “fine to medium” or “medium to thick”. When you see those words on a product label, they’re not referring to how much hair you have; they’re describing the thickness of each individual strand on your head.

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The words “coarse” and “thick” are used interchangeably, but they both refer to the size of individual strands of hair.
Your “strand thickness” isn’t determined by your ethnic background. Two women may have similar looking coils, but one woman’s strands might be twice the size of the others. The only way to know exactly where your hair falls would be to visit a trichologist or dermatologist who has a special microscope that measures strand size.

Fine hairs are around 60 micrometers in diameter; thick hairs are around 100 micrometers. However, you don’t need to be that exact. The tell-tale sign of fine hair is thick-looking roots with a thin-looking ponytail. If you have fine hair, you’re likely to have a lot of strands. Those strands look nice and dense near the roots, but as the hair grows longer, the relative thinness of the strands becomes more noticeable.

The strand thickness slightly varies on different parts of your head, so it can still be difficult to decide how to categorize your hair. Don’t worry about getting too specific, you just need a general idea, so you can find products that make your hair look and feel the way you want. Choose your leave-in conditioners and stylers based on the emollients that you see in the top 5. If you think your strands are fine to medium, choose products that contain lightweight emollients. If you think your strands are on the thicker side, look for products that contain heavier emollients. Whether you’re using a leave-in conditioner or styler, you need to be able to distribute the product evenly, from root to tip, without worrying that it will leave your hair looking greasy.

Lighter Emollients for Fine to Medium Thickness

  • Argan Oil
  • C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate
  • Dimethicone
  • Grape Seed Oil
  • Mango Butter
  • Phenyl Trimethicone
  • Soybean Oil
  • Sunflower Oil
  • Sweet Almond Oil

Heavier Emollients for Medium to Coarse Thickness:

  • Avocado Oil
  • Castor Oil
  • Cetyl Esters
  • Cocoa Butter
  • Coconut Oil
  • Jojoba Oil
  • Olive Oil
  • Mineral Oil
  • Shea Butter
  • Sorbitol Esters

It will take some trial and error to find leave-ins that you love. Many products contain a combination of light and heavy emollients. This is a good time to read the rest of the product label, not just the ingredients list. The descriptions on leave-in products usually mention “fine” or “thick/coarse” hair.


Have you figured out your strand thickness? What helped you decide?


Nicole Harmon, Cosmetic Chemist and author of Coils & Curls: The Hair Product Handbook”, is the founder of HairLiberty.org. She has received rave reviews for her seminars on ethnic hair education and science. She’s on a mission to help the Product Junkies of the world save MONEY, sort through marketing HYPE and buy SMARTER! 
Hair Liberty (def.): The freedom to rock whatever style you want, whenever you want. Curly, straight, natural, relaxed, whatever! Free yourself!




This article was originally published on May 2012 and has been updated for grammar and clarity. 

41 Comments

  • bridal makeup says:

    awesome really great looks can be gained through hair http://www.aboutfaces.co.in

  • Anonymous says:

    how often are u suppose to use leave in conditioners when u are natural? i am not sure this is my first time goin natural. please help me someone…

  • Anonymous says:

    It seems that all the stuff I have and want to try I shouldn't …lol…smh

  • Deadre B says:

    i started my natural journey feb 2010 i been dealing with breakage, splitting, and gels, sprays, and flat irons !!! yikes, right? well now im using the "no poo", leave ins, and sealants correctly and im seeing a difference. it feels wonderful to visit such a blog that can truly help me in figuring out how to take the best care of my natural 3c hair!!! thanks for the leave-in post !!!

  • Unknown says:

    a previous blog post

  • EandJ says:

    I never knew their were so many factors to healthy hair

  • Anonymous says:

    Healthy hair comes from internal factors as well as external ones. Using supplements like biotin, fish oils, multi-vitamins and natural shampoos help. Iherb has a lot of these and natural foods, including coconut oil. I have been using the site for years because it is s much cheaper than health food stores. You can use code SAZ980 to save $5 off of your first order at iherb.com

  • Faith says:

    This is REALLY helpful! Thanks!:)

  • Anonymous says:

    Nicole – the compatibility view worked! Thanks!

  • l1lcat says:

    How do you know if the conditioner works for your hair? I BC'd 5/2/12, so i'm so new to this…What is the right feeling of happy hair?

  • Unknown says:

    Thanks for this – my thick strands desperately needed attention in this summer heat! I was getting frustrated by the lack of penetration I thought my strands had from products !

  • Anonymous says:

    I've tried Giovani Leave in. Im not sure if my hair really likes it. This is informative so ill try some of these and see how it goes.

    Ashley L.

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    Hi Anon 9:55 🙂

    The roots look thick *in comparison* to the ponytail/ends. I think this photos sums it up and I love that sock buns have gone mainstream, lol. http://sayyestohoboken.com/2011/09/diy-sock-bun.html Does that help you?

  • Anonymous says:

    "The tell-tale sign of fine hair is thick-looking roots with a thin-looking ponytail."

    I understand this concept but how can I look at my roots and determine if they are thick-looking?

    Btw, this is a very helpful article! Thank you

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    I appreciate all of the comments. I'm so happy I could help you guys!

    Anon 8:31 – Are you using an older version of Internet Explorer? If so, please try clicking the "compatibility view" icon at the end of the address bar. It looks like a sheet of paper. If you're not using Internet Explorer, please email me at nicole@hairliberty.org.

    Caramelcurls – Thank you for sharing your experience. I know exactly what you mean by "shiny hands", lol.

  • Anonymous says:

    My 4A/4B hair strands range from fine, medium, to course. What works for me is a simple mix of whipped shea butter infused with oils and water. Any more, and my strands are weighed down. This mix keeps my hair fluffy and light, yet moisturized.

    And when using shea butter, you only need a small amount. I do NOT apply oils directly on my hair except for wash day. I found that oils tend to weigh my hair down and I hated touching my hair and having "shiny hands."lol

    ~caramelcurls

  • watkinsabob says:

    was just looking for some info for my mom who has very fine hair. Thanks!!

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Nicole – is the Hair Liberty Hair ID quiz broken?

    It will only go as far as "FINISH", and won't reveal the recommended products 🙁

    For example, I selected "FINE-NONE-MEDIUM-NATURALLY CURLY-FINISH", and nothing happens!

    Thanks for your advice!

  • natural wonder says:

    i still have no idea when i was still getting relaxers my hair was really thick until i was put on this medication around 2000 and it thinned it out horribly some thickness came back but i really cant tell now because it didnt come back like it was my natural hair looks really thick and it loves shea butter, coconut oil , olive oil the lighter oils do nothing to tame the frizz so i really have no idea

  • Wedding Hair and Makeup says:

    This is really superb information. Thanks for this.

  • Wedding Photographers in NJ says:

    This is really superb information. Thanks for this.

  • marianela says:

    This is so informative. I did not know that the product labels were talking about hair strand thickness. I am so happy to find this out because I use the same product as my daughter but we have very different types of curl hence we had different results because it has been working for her but not for me. It stands that not all curly products are made for all curlies lol.

  • sugarthesky says:

    Super informative. I really need to get a better leave-in, and this has really helped!

  • Nicole T. says:

    My hair confuses me. I believe I have fine hair. Oils weigh my hair down sooo much, but then, my hair LOVES shea butter!

    I just work with what my hair does&doesn't like, lol. Mostly through trial&error.

  • h3avensent08 says:

    Almond Oil works great for hair. i wish more products used it

  • Sunflowergurl says:

    My hair like the simple pleasures of water mixed with EVOO to combat the dryness.

  • Miss Jay says:

    Hmm I never thought of which oils were best for my fine hair and so bought about 6 different oils from the 2 categories at the start of my journey.
    I've found that my hair loves argan oil the most. I get so much shine and smoothness from it. I often alternate with jojoba oil (cos I use the cone heavy moroccan oil brand) but the results aren't the same. So ya, thanks for the article. great stuff.

    www.thegoodhairblog.blogspot.com

  • Dana says:

    I definitely have the fine hair thing going on. When relaxed I used to have nice roots but the longer my hair grew past my shoulders the thinner it would look; same with a ponytail. I've experienced the same situation while natural so I sacrifice length for volume.

    My fine hair loves sweet almond, grapeseed, jojoba, castor oils, and certain products with dimethicone but the shea, cocoa butter, and coconut oils not so much.

    Interesting.

    Thanks for sharing

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    Ashes – So true, live and learn! Thank you for commenting.

    Tchanielle – Thanks for sharing your routine! "Prayer hands", I like that 🙂

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    @Anon 4:54 – LOL, glad you figured it out!

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    Thank you, An Aspiring Natural 318! 🙂

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    @Anon 4:46 – Thank you for sharing your routine!

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    Hi B – Thanks! I'm glad I could help. You can find lots of product recommendations at hairliberty.org/shop 🙂

  • Tchanielle says:

    I must say that Kimmaytube's (youtube) leave recipe has worked wonders for my hair. I have been using it for almost two months now and I am amazed. The recipe is: 2 tbs Kinky Kurly Knot Today, 2 tbs aloe vera juice, 2 tsp jbco, 2 tsp of jojoba. Shake and apply to wet hair in downward motion (Like prayer hands). HTH somebody!!

  • Nicole Harmon says:

    Hi iveyluve3 – Thank you! That style looks like "cinnabuns" on loose hair. Here's a tutorial: http://www.curlynikki.com/2012/03/cinnabun-tutorial.html. I hope that helps!

  • Unknown says:

    I just spritz my hair in the morning with a mixture of water and aloe vera juice and then seal with a nickel to quarter size amount of a jojoba/olive oil mixture. it took me ten years and a second big chop to learn that my hair likes to get by on very, very little. ah, well, ya live and ya learn!

  • Anonymous says:

    Have you figured out your strand thickness? What helped you decide?

    What helped me decide? I compared the drapes to the carpet – LOL!

    All these years I believed that my hair was coarse because it was tightly kinky (4c).

    I was putting SUPER relaxer on my hair y'all, and wondered why I was walking around looking like a 'perm victim' instead of like the girl on the box. LOL!

    I saw Cassidy's post on hair density and that opened my eyes about my natural hair. It was a good series. HTH!

    http://www.curlynikki.com/2011/01/so-fine-natural-hair.html

  • An Aspiring Natural 318 says:

    As usual great info.

  • Anonymous says:

    I've been battling dry hair for years, but a natural stylists gave me great product advice. A little bit of coconut oil (too much will weigh my hair down and any other oil just sits there) and Taliah Waajid Protective Mist Bodifier have been my absolute savior. I use the mist daily as a refresher and my hair absolutely loves it. Before my hair was a dry frizzy mess and now my coils are moisturized, frizz free and best of all non greasy!

  • Anonymous says:

    GReat info. WAs actually looking for this info today! Could you also include a list of products on the market that contain/illustrate ?
    Thanks!
    B

  • iveyluv3 says:

    Great info, but would. tutorial on the hairdo.

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