A guide to hair types and how to care for each

Knowing how to best care for your hair starts with understanding what your hair type is.

Written by
Carolina Mateus
Medically reviewed by
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Knowing how to best care for your hair starts with understanding what your hair type is. It helps you choose the best ingredients and products, know what hair care habits to avoid, and build a routine that works for you — the perfect recipe for glowing, strong, healthy hair.

So, how exactly can you determine your hair type? Let's dive into it.

How many hair types are there?

According to the hair typing system — which was developed in the 90s by Oprah's hairstylist, Andre Walker — there are 4 primary hair types: straight, wavy, curly, and coily.

Each hair type is divided into subtypes, all of which have slightly different textures:

Straight hair subtypes

  • 1A: Super straight and fine
  • 1B: Straight but with some bends
  • 1C: Straight, thick and almost wavy

Wavy hair subtypes

  • 2A: Wavy and fine
  • 2B: Thicker hair with slightly more defined waves
  • 2C: Deep and well-defined waves — and maybe even a few loose curls in the mix

Curly hair subtypes

  • 3A: Loose curls with some wavy strands
  • 3B: Tighter, springy curls
  • 3C: Tight, bouncy, corkscrew curls with lots of volume

Coily hair subtypes

  • 4A: Dense and springy S-patterned coils
  • 4B: Densely-packed, zig-zagging coils
  • 4C: Super dense coils with a zig-zag pattern and lots of volume

How to determine your hair type

The best way to determine your hair type is to examine it after washing it, once it is completely dry and in its most natural state.

During this initial examination, you want to find out what your hair texture is, meaning the natural shape of your hair strands.

In other words, if your hair is straight, wavy, curly or coily.

To determine your hair subtype, you may need to do a bit more of a detailed assessment, focusing 3 characteristics:

Hair structure

Hair structure refers to the thickness of your hair strands, and it can be fine, medium or coarse.

To identify your hair structure, grab a strand of hair from your brush and place it next to a piece of stitching thread:

  • If the hair is thinner than the stitching thread, you have fine hair
  • If it's about the same thickness, you have medium hair
  • If it's thicker, you have coarse or thick hair

Hair porosity

Hair porosity refers to the amount of moisture your hair can absorb, which depends on how many gaps or tears there are in the outer layer of each hair strand [1].

Put simply, high-porosity hair can easily absorb moisture, whereas low-porosity hair can't. You may also hear about medium or normal porosity hair, which is somewhere in between.

Though largely determined by genetics, things like blow drying, overwashing and bleaching your hair can damage it, causing your hair cuticles to raise and open up, and making it harder to absorb and retain moisture.

The tricky thing about hair porosity — and perhaps the reason why it isn't as commonly discussed when we talk about types of hair — is that you can't really see it just by looking at your hair as is.

But there is an easy way to test it.

Simply drop one clean hair strand into a glass of room-temperature water and wait for 15 minutes:

  • If the strand has sunk to the bottom, you have high-porosity hair
  • If it's still floating, you have low-porosity hair
  • If it's somewhere in the middle of the glass, you have medium or normal porosity hair

Scalp moisture

Finally, scalp moisture helps you understand how oily or dry your scalp is.

To test your scalp moisture, look at it on the day after you wash your hair:

  • If your roots look greasy and flat, you probably have an oily scalp
  • If you notice any flaking and dandruff, you may have a dry scalp
  • If your hair and scalp look the same as the day before, you have normal scalp moisture

Keeping your hair structure and texture, as well as scalp moisture, in mind will help you pick hair care products that work for you.

For example, if you notice greasy roots and oily hair when you wake up in the morning, a good oil-control shampoo can be your best friend, whereas for those struggling with pesky white flakes, an anti-dandruff shampoo is the way to go.

Or, if you find that you've got high-porosity hair, deep hydrating treatments that address frizz and breakage will do wonders for you. On the other hand, for low-porosity hair, the secret is in applying products to damp hair — not dry — for better absorption.

Now, back to the 4 primary hair types.

What are some tips to keep in mind for each one? What are things you want to avoid and which products should you never skip in your routine?

Type 1: Straight hair

Type 1 hair is usually low maintenance, but that doesn't mean you don't need to take good care of it.

Wash regularly

When straight hair (particularly thin hair) gets oily, the build-up can weigh it down, making it look limp and greasy.

That's why washing it regularly — especially if you have type 1A hair — is so important. We recommend you wash once every 2-3 days, see how your hair reacts to that cadence, and adjust if needed.

Another tip to combat the excess oil is to use a dry shampoo in between wash days. This will help get rid of dirt, product build-up, sweat, and any other residue that might be sitting on your hair and scalp.

Avoid heavy products

Things like heavy serums, butters and creams will weigh down your hair. Instead, opt for spray products that will sit lightly on the hair without pulling it down and making it look flatter.

You also want to steer clear of oil-based hair care and styling products, for all the reasons we mentioned above, as well as leave-in products [2].

Use a paddle brush

Keeping your hair healthy isn't just about the products you apply. It's about the tools you use as well.

For straight hair types, a paddle brush with a flat surface helps smooth and detangle without pulling or breaking the hair — which is particularly relevant if your hair density is on the lower end.

Type 2: Wavy hair

Wavy hair is similar to straight hair, particularly types 2A and B2, but it has a bit more body.

Though it can be easy to weigh down the waves, with the right products and hair care habits, you can make them bouncy and well-defined.

Keep your hair well moisturised

When your hair is hydrated, you have less frizz and tangles — two issues that wavy hair types, particularly types 2B and 2C, typically struggle with.

One foolproof way of keeping your hair well moisturised is by using a good, curl-defining conditioner formulated with hydrating ingredients like glycerin, aloe vera or shea butter.

Deep conditioning can also prevent dryness, as well as using a gentle shampoo that doesn't weigh down your waves or strip them of natural oils.

If you have high-porosity hair (or if your hair is quite damaged), applying a deeply hydrating hair mask once a week is another great idea for an extra boost of moisture.

Detangle with your fingers

If there's one thing you want to avoid when it comes to detangling wavy hair, it's brushes. You can use a wide-tooth comb but your fingers will do the job just fine.

When detangling on non-wash days, always start by applying detangling spray (or another conditioning product) to damp hair before combing through any knots.

Just make sure not to detangle your hair while dry, as this will destroy the natural wave pattern.

While we're on the topic of fingers, for extra definition, you can also use the finger coiling technique:

  1. Grab a strand of hair
  2. Twirl it around your finger, going in the natural direction of the first bend in your hair shaft
  3. Scrunch the curl and release it

Do this after washing while your hair is still wet and, if needed, apply a curl cream or gel. Who knew fingers could be such a versatile hair care tool?

Use a diffuser attachment when blow-drying

Air drying is always a good option for wavy hair types, but for extra volume and bounce (and if you've got the time) why not try diffusing?

To avoid heat damage, use your diffuser on the lowest setting and consider applying a heat protectant.

Many wavy (and curly) hair types also swear by the plopping method, where you wrap a large cotton t-shirt or microfibre towel around your hair, leaving it to dry for 30 minutes to an hour.

This prevents gravity from pulling your waves down and humidity/friction from disturbing them. The result? The voluminous, bouncy waves of your dreams.

Type 3: Curly hair

The goal with curly hair is typically to maintain definition while keeping the hair properly moisturised and preventing frizz.

Avoid overwashing

Overwashing, particularly over-shampooing, your hair will strip it of its natural oils.

To avoid this, wash once or twice a week with cold water and a sulphate-free shampoo.

Sulphates are incredibly effective at cleansing hair — so effective that they can sometimes be too harsh for curly hair, eliminating essential oils and proteins, and leading to dryness and dullness. This is especially true if your scalp moisture levels are on the drier end.

Instead, reach for a mild shampoo specifically formulated for curly hair and containing nourishing ingredients like shea butter, aloe vera, or essential oils like jojoba or coconut oil.

Use curl-enhancing products

The right styling products can take your curls from frizzy and limp to springy and well-defined.

Understanding your hair porosity can be really helpful here. If you've got low-porosity hair, lightweight products like a mousse or foam are your best bet. For high-porosity curls, choose a heavier cream or gel.

Ditch the heat tools

Heat is a curly hair's worst enemy, and though heat tools can come in handy to create certain hairstyles, you want to use them sparingly in order to prevent damage, breakage, and split ends.

When you do reach for your straightener or blow dryer, remember to coat your hair with heat protectant before applying any heat.

Use a silk pillowcase or bonnet

Cotton pillowcases can cause friction against your hair, destroying the natural curl pattern and leading to annoying tangles and frizz. Plus, cotton is a very absorbent material and it can often suck moisture out of your curls.

Silk, on the other hand, is a super smooth, non-absorbent surface to sleep on that allows your hair to glide with a lot less friction and, as a result, a lot less damage.

You won't wake up with a frizzy mane, which means that a) yesterday's hair care and styling efforts did not go to waste and b) today's morning hair care routine just became a lot quicker.

If silk is a little bit too expensive, satin is another great option!

Type 4: Coily hair

A lot of the curly hair tips we mentioned before also apply to coily hair. You want to avoid overwashing, protect it from the heat, and use a silk pillowcase or bonnet at night.

However, this hair type is typically the driest and most fragile one and, as such, requires more moisture. So, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Use protective styles

From Bantu knots to box braids, faux locs and more, protective hairstyles do exactly what the name suggests.

They protect your coils by keeping moisture from escaping, preventing tangling and breakage, and shielding your hair against environmental aggressors. They also help retain length, which is perfect if you're hoping to beat the shrinkage that often comes with type 4 hair.

If that's not enough, protective styles are super low maintenance, can last for 6-8 weeks, and work well for any season.

Use the LCO (or LOC) method

LCO and LOC are two common hair care techniques used to keep curly and coily hair hydrated. They both describe the order in which you should apply your products, with the 3 letters standing for liquid (or leave-in conditioner), cream, and oil.

Depending on your hair structure and porosity, you'll want to choose either the LCO or the LOC method.

With LCO, you start with your water-based products, followed by a cream, and then an oil. This order is usually recommended for low-porosity hair and fine or medium hair.

The LOC method also starts with a liquid or leave-in product but is then followed by an oil, and finally a cream. This method is best for high porosity and thin hair.

Knowing which hair type you have is key to maintaining optimal hair health and making every day a good hair day.

Image credit: Getty Images

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