How To Style Your Wet Curls Without Damaging Them

If you’ve ever ordered four margaritas at 5:57, then you know you have to work fast to capitalize on that limited happy hour. And we like to think the same concept applies to styling wet hair — especially if you’ve got curls. When your hair is wet, you have to hustle to get your product distributed evenly, so your curls dry nice and defined for the day ahead.

Some stylists think that wet styling causes damage, as the hair is in its most vulnerable state. But according to hairstylist Ursula Stephen — who works with Zendaya and Laverne Cox — constant wet styling actually gives your hair the love that it needs. “Co-washing and wash-and-gos are most ideal for summer,” she says. “In the winter, your hair can freeze and will snap off. When your hair is tangled, it’s not good. But co-washing and detangling takes care of that.”

Ahead, Stephen and hairstylist Kendall Dorsey provide a few techniques to give you a summer’s worth of popping — and most importantly, healthy — curls and coils. We’ll drink to that.

Race The Clock

The minute you turn off the faucet, time is ticking. “Once the cuticle closes, that’s it. You’ve got to add product in while it’s sopping wet,” Stephens says.

Dorsey, who works with Yara Shahidi and Cardi B, likes to section off the hair with clips, which allows for even distribution. “You can get to the root, and really create the pattern you’re looking for,” he notes. “Really get up there and distribute the conditioner and styling agents from root to tip.”

After that, the products and techniques you use really depends on your hair type. More on that, ahead.

Oribe, $46, available at Oribe

If You Have Fine Curls…

“Wet styling can be a little detrimental if you have fine hair,” Dorsey warns. “It’s easier to break. You’ve got to have your hair lubricated with a serum, polish, oil, or cream at all times while using any kind of comb or brush. Detangling and combing it out too much will give you a totally new haircut that you don’t want.”

To give the illusion of fuller, thicker curls, Dorsey recommends co-washing with a lighter conditioner like Oribe Antidote. “Something light gives the hair lots of spring,” he says. “But if you’re cleansing, add some oil to the formula for slip. Just a drop or two — even in your shampoo.” We like SheaMoisture’s BeautyHack 100% Pure Avocado Oil, which does wonders for both hair and volume.

From there, Dorsey recommends scrunching an alcohol-free mousse from root to tip. Create finger coils by wrapping sections around your index finger. Hold for a beat, then slide your finger out. It’s a time-consuming process, yes — but you get to control the way your curls form.

Photographed by Winnie Au.

If You Have Medium Curls…

“When you have really clean, curly hair, it expands,” Dorsey notes. “So co-washing can be your best friend. The moisture adds an amount of texture that you need for styling.” He recommends using a Wet Brush to detangle while your hair is still damp with conditioner, which helps the tangles slip out easier.

Once you’re ready to style, shingling is a great way to give your curls life. Use your fingers to work a gel (we like Ouidad’s Advanced Climate Control Heat and Humidity Gel) from roots to ends once your product is evenly distributed. “You’re going in to make sure there are no kinks in your sections, and also making sure that your curls come together properly. The more moisture they get, the more they come alive,” says Dorsey.

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.

If You Have Thick And Coarse Curls…

“Wet hair styling benefits thick hair the most, because it’s dense. You need that moisture to loosen up your curl pattern,” Dorsey says. “Again, look for a product with slip so you can detangle as you style.” We love Mizani’s True Textures Perfect Coil Oil Gel, because it has the consistency of a light cream.

In order to retain moisture, leave-in conditioning is crucial, especially in the summer. It makes detangling so much easier, and helps lift and separate your hair so you can see all of that glorious definition. Your leave-in also acts as a heat protectant, Stephens says — because if you’re air-drying, too much sun can also lead to heat damage.

You could opt for a twist or braid-out… but Dorsey likes shingling with his palms. While your hand is covered in product, work it in from root to tip — one hand in front of the other while tugging downwards. Then, “Let it be free!” he says. “I think of shingling as a roller set. You have your hair in these two-inch sections for a little bit. But as soon as you open them up, it’s beautiful. Your hair will have memory, you see wave, and you see shape. And once your hair does get drier by day two, you can change the shape even more.”

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.

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