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How to Activate Curls 8 Ways | Step-by-Step Guide

Curly hair is always in style, and it is a symbol of youth and vitality. Curls are complex hairstyles that require special attention and products for maximum bounce and coil.

Learn about the fundamental steps in achieving a luscious head of curls and what you must avoid to ensure that your curls are activated.

How to Activate Curls: A Summary

Woman showing us how to activate curls by giving us twin peace signs


Many people have a natural curl pattern and don’t even know it! When curls are activated, they are vibrant, bouncy, and full of life. A head full of curls is attainable by anyone if they just follow a few key steps:

  1.  Wash Hair With a Sulfate-free Shampoo
  2.  Use Curl-Defining Conditioner
  3.  Apply Leave-in Conditioner
  4.  Comb Hair with Fingers
  5.  Scrunch it Up!
  6.  Allow Hair to Air-dry
  7.  Use a Diffuser
  8. Don’t Touch!

Hair is highly personal, and each routine should optimize your curls based on your preferences and needs. Between shampooing products and drying techniques, there are several options from which to choose. 

How to Activate Curls 8 Easy Ways

Smiling woman activating her curls with a diffuser


Whether you opt for co-washing or shampoo, diffusing, or air drying, there is a step that you can take to promote maximum curl and body. Some steps will come in handy if you are in a rush to get out the door.

Other steps are more helpful in those with wavy hair, where flatness is a risk. These steps will activate and bring to life wavy bohemian curls, coily vibrant curls, and every curl pattern in between. 

1. Wash Hair With a Sulfate-free Shampoo

Your hair should be clean to start the curl-activation process. Dry curls are not bouncy or full of life, so those with curly hair should avoid sulfate in shampoo. Other ingredients to be mindful of are any alcohol and silicones.

Alcohol is a drying ingredient; use it sparingly. Silicone causes a layer of film to form on the hair, resulting in dull hair with build-up. Wash your hair with sulfate-free shampoo paying special attention to the scalp and roots.

Some curly-haired people swear off shampoo altogether. Instead, these folks use conditioner for washing their hair– this is called co-washing.

You can even buy co-wash conditioners that have the purpose of washing and conditioning hair simultaneously. Because curly hair gets conditioned multiple times to maintain moisture levels, a lot more build-up occurs.

Whether you use traditional shampooing or co-washing, you should rinse your hair of the build-up that accrues over time. After you scrub your scalp with a co-wash or shampoo, you can move to the next step. 

2. Use Curl-Defining Conditioner

Conditioner is the most critical step of the curl activation routine because conditioning adds moisture to the hair. The most vibrant curls are those with hydration and moisture. Because your hair is freshly clean, it will be able to absorb the moisturizing qualities of your conditioner. 

Specially-formulated curl conditioners close the cuticle, locking in moisture and preventing unwanted frizz. Let the conditioner sit in the hair for a few minutes in the shower while you continue your morning routine.

You can leave the conditioner in the hair overnight and put it in braids for deep conditioning. When you rinse your hair in the morning, it will be extra moisturized.

Read Next: How to Deep Condition Hair

3. Apply Leave-in Conditioner

Apply a light, water-based leave-in conditioner when you get out of the shower. One of the first ingredients on the leave-in conditioner bottle should be water.

Water-based leave-in conditioners can penetrate the hair’s cuticle more easily than silicone-based leave-in conditioners.

A leave-in conditioner will protect your hair from heat and sun damage while ensuring your hair stays moisturized. Leave-in conditioner also gives your hair a “slip” for the detangling process; this prevents breakage and tearing.

When it comes to curly hair, there is no such thing as too much moisture. Leave in conditioner will make your hair more manageable as you comb through your hair, section by section.

4. Comb Hair With Fingers

Do not use a brush or a comb on curly hair for best results. If you need to use a wide-tooth comb, do so sparingly and start at the ends, working up to the roots. Finger combing is a key step in any curly girl’s repertoire.

Brushes and combs can disrupt the curl pattern, cause frizz and breakage. Separate your hair into sections and use your fingers to comb through your luscious locks. You can spray your hair with water during the finger-combing process if the hair dries out.

Never detangle curly hair in a dry state; this is a recipe for hair breakage. It is essential that you completely detangle your hair so that the curl pattern can thrive. 

5. Scrunch it Up

The scrunching step is especially important for those with wavy and loose curls that are less defined. Flip your finger-combed hair over and separate the curls. Water weighs down wavy hair, and scrunching counteracts this flattening effect.

The separation of curls before air drying allows them to form and dry in a defined manner rather than in one large clump. Apply a curl-defining lotion or cream as you scrunch your curls.

Scrunching your hair means grabbing your hair at the ends and making a claw-like shape with your hands as you grab the curls, section by section. Repeat the scrunching process from the hair ends to the root. As a bonus, scrunching prevents the crunchy curl effect from occurring.

6. Allow Hair to Air-dry

Blow drying is another no-no for curly hair; the technique causes frizz and disrupts the curl pattern. Allow hair to air-dry for as much time as possible. Some curly hair enthusiasts wait for hair to dry 80 percent before completing the look.

As a rule of thumb, the more time you allocate to air-drying, the better. Air-drying allows natural curl patterns to become apparent. You can remove excess moisture from the hair using special methods. Terry cloth towels cause friction, and friction causes frizz.

You can blot your hair dry with a microfiber towel. If you don’t have a microfiber towel, a cotton t-shirt will do the trick. Allow hair to air-dry so that the natural curl pattern can form. 

7. Use a Diffuser

Once the hair is 90 percent dry, you can use a hair diffuser. A diffuser is an attachment to the blow dryer that spreads and slows the air that comes from the heating tool. You should set your blow dryer on a cool and low setting for best results. 

A diffuser is not necessary, but it can be helpful for those in a rush. A diffuser is also a useful tool for those with wavy hair who are trying to maintain a curl pattern. Use the diffuser at the root of the hair to finish off the curly look. 

8. Don’t Touch!

This step is probably the hardest of them all. It can be tempting to play with your hair, but keeping your hands off is essential. Once you detangle your hair and put products in it, keep your hands away. Hands in the hair cause friction and frizz.

Unnecessarily touching hair can also displace the oils from the leave-in conditioner and curling cream. The same is true for admirers who will inevitably ask to touch your curls. People enjoying your hair can do so from afar, no touching!

Activating Curls Frequently Asked Questions

Before and after of someone who's activated their curls

Irina Bg/Shutterstock

People with curly hair know that maintaining curls is a lot of work but comes with a high reward. There are many things to remember to keep your hair in top condition.

The answers to questions from the first step of moisturizing to the final step of maintenance will keep curls looking stylish:

How do You Bring Out Natural Curls After the Shower?

Be careful how you dry your hair, to bring out natural curls after the shower. Air-drying is the best method for bringing out natural curls, it allows curl patterns to emerge.

If you are in a rush, choose your hair drying methods wisely, not all hair drying methods are equal.

Do not rub your hair with a terry-cloth towel. Instead, use a microfiber cloth or a cotton t-shirt. Press the towel against the hair follicles and twist to preserve curls. 

How Do You Keep Your Curly Hair Moisturized?

To keep curly hair moisturized, be sure to use a leave-in conditioner. Curly hair enthusiasts swear by the leave-in, oil, cream (LOC) method.

The LOC method refers to the order in which products should go in the hair to ensure maximum moisture: first leave-in conditioner, then a light oil, and finally cream.

Clarify hair with co-washing or shampoo once a week to remove build-up and residue from leave-in conditioners. Use a leave-in conditioner each morning to give thirsty hair the moisture that it needs. 

How Can You Restore Natural Curl Pattern to Heat Damaged Hair?

If your heat-damaged hair has lost its curl, it is time to take a break from using heat on the hair. Heat dries out the hair and causes hair to lose its curl pattern. Your hair has a memory which means that you can train your curls to be bouncy.

Consistently straightening the hair removes the curl pattern as hair adjusts to being straight. To restore the natural curl pattern, use protein and deep conditioning treatments. When your hair is re-moisturized, you restore the curl pattern.

How Can You Enhance Natural Curls Overnight?

Overnight is a great time to enhance curls. Many people do not know that sleeping on the wrong material can cause frizzy hair and disrupt the curl pattern.

Splurge on a silk or satin pillowcase if you can afford one and put a protective bonnet over the hair when sleeping. As you toss and turn in your sleep, you cause friction between your hair and the bed; this causes frizz!

How Should You Sleep With Curls?

Anyone with curls knows that if you sleep with your hair unsecured, then you will wake up with a frizzy mess. Securing hair during sleep can promote bouncy, moisturized curls the next day.

Experiment with different types of braids; a French braid is a popular hairstyle for bedtime that maintains and protects curl patterns. Put your hair in a protective hairstyle and place a scarf, bonnet, or t-shirt over the hair to prevent frizz.

So, How Do You Activate Curls?

The first step in activating curls and maintaining the curly pattern is to moisturize the hair. The next thing to remember is to be mindful of the tools you use with curly hair; say no to blow dryers, terry cloth towels, and brushes.

Instead, use hair styling products and methods that promote curl formation, like microfiber towels and finger-curling.

When you choose methods and products that promote healthy curls, you will not have to worry about fly-aways and frizz. A combination of maintenance and moisture is the key to activating curls.

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