The Curly Hair Glossary: Terms You Need to Know

Embracing your curly hair – especially if you’re new to wearing your natural texture – can have a pretty steep learning curve. At times, it feels like there are endless tutorials to watch, products to try, and ingredients to mull over. But no matter where you are in your curly hair journey, learning the lingo is an essential step for any aspiring curl expert. That’s why we created this glossary of curly hair terms to test your knowledge.

Our founder Ouidad once said, “Curls have a language of their own.” Here’s everything you need to be fluent.

Big chop A haircut to remove chemically straightened or otherwise permanently damaged ends in order to transition to naturally curly hair. A big chop is often a big deal because it results in a much shorter style –but on the plus side, allows healthy new hair growth.

Breakage When hair sheds from the mid-shaft. The tighter the curl, the more fragile the hair can be. Damage from friction, heat, and color or chemical processing can all cause breakage in curly hair.

Carving & Slicing A.K.A. the Ouidad cut. Developed by our founder and world-renowned hair stylist Ouidad, this technique involves cutting curly hair at the curvature of the curl pattern to allow curls to fit gently into each other like puzzle pieces. This cutting method encourages curl definition and creates more manageable hair.

Ceramide A naturally occurring lipid that helps hold hair’s cuticle together. When hair is dry and damaged, it lacks ceramides. Using hair products with ceramides can help to reduce breakage and restore hair’s strength.

Clarify Using a deep cleansing shampoo to remove buildup from the hair. A clarifying shampoo helps to restore shine and bounce to curls by removing residue, but should not be used more than once every week or two, since it is more intense than regular shampoos.

Co-wash To co-wash is to use conditioner to cleanse the hair, instead of a shampoo that lathers. For curl types that are more prone to dryness, such as kinky curls, co-washing with a cleansing conditioner helps hair to better retain moisture and prevents the stripping of natural scalp oils.

Clumping The act of coaxing curls to stick together to form fuller, defined sections. Curls that haven’t “clumped” can have a stringy look.

Curl type Every curl pattern is unique, and has different haircare needs. Ouidad classifies curls into four types: Loose, Classic, Tight, and Kinky curls. Find out your curl type here.

Cuticle The outermost protective layer of the hair, the cuticle resembles overlapping shingles on a roof and helps to seal moisture inside of the hair shaft. In curly hair, the scales of the cuticle are naturally lifted, which is why curls can experience dryness and frizz.
Deep condition To use a treatment to restore moisture and nutrients to the hair. Deep conditioners are richer than daily conditioners and meant to be left on the hair longer.

Density The amount of hair strands per inch on the scalp. (Not to be confused with texture, which is the thickness of the individual strands.) Low-density hair appears thin and the scalp can be visible; high-density hair is often tricky to part.
Diffuser An attachment that spreads the airflow from a blow dryer over a wider area so as not to disturb the curl pattern.

Elongate To use specific products and styling methods to stretch curls that are prone to shrinkage.

Frizz The state of curls looking undefined and dull, due to humidity, damage, and other factors. (See the top 5 causes of frizz here.)

Gel cast The stiff outer layer that styling gel creates as it dries. With high-quality gels, this cast can be broken by smoothing closed palms over the hair to leave soft, flake-free curls.

Humectant A class of ingredients that promotes moisture retention by attracting water molecules to the hair.

pH Short for “potential of hydrogen” – a measure of how acidic or alkaline a substance is. Typical shampoo has an alkaline pH of 8, which strips hair’s natural oils. Always choose  low-pH shampoos that range from 4.5-6 to help curls maintain a healthy pH.

Pineapple A high curly ponytail on top of the head, named because of its resemblance to a pineapple’s leaves. A popular style for preserving curls while sleeping.

Porosity Refers to hair’s ability to absorb and retain moisture. Hair can have low-, medium-, or high-porosity; to find out yours, read more about porosity here.

Protein The “building block” material that hair is primarily made of (e.g. keratin), or a class of ingredients used to strengthen hair. Curly hair is constantly losing moisture and nutrients thanks to its open cuticle, which is why regular protein treatments are a must.

Rake and Shake Ouidad’s signature styling method for defined curls: rake a styling gel or cream through wet curls from roots to ends in sections, then grip the ends of the section and shake back and forth to allow curls to reform.

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Sebum The oily, waxy substance secreted naturally by the scalp. In straight hair, sebum is able to travel from the roots downward to moisturize hair through to the ends. Curly hair’s shape prevents natural oils from traveling down the hair shaft, which is why moisturizing products are so important for curls.

Slip Describes a product’s ability to glide through hair and detangle. A conditioner that makes hair feel slippery is said to have good slip.

Sulfate A class of foaming cleansers that are typically used in shampoos. There are different types of sulfates, ranging from deeply cleansing (sodium lauryl sulfate) to quite gentle (ammonium laureth sulfate). Sulfates help to remove buildup from hair, but sulfate-free shampoos can be a good option if you feel like sulfates are too harsh on your curls.

Silicone A class of ingredients that give hair a silky feel and help to create shine, detangle, and seal the cuticle. Silicone comes in many forms and is used in more than 50 percent of hair products. Look for lightweight or water-soluble silicones that can easily be washed out to prevent buildup.

Transition The name for the journey from chemically straightened (or severely heat damaged) hair to naturally textured curls. Transitioning to natural hair often takes many months (or years!) as new, healthy hair grows in at the scalp.

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