If you’ve got curly hair, you’re already veeeery aware of how deeply personal and subjective curly hair products can be. Like, what works for my ultra-fine 3a curls most definitely won’t work for my BFF’s thick, coarse 3a curls, you know? And it gets even trickier when you’ve got a mix of curl types, like a smattering of 2c waves (hi, me), or some tighter 3b curls. Basically, curly hair can be hard to decode—which is where I come in.
As someone who has spent a lifetime (or, like, a lifetime since 6th grade) trying to figure out what my sometimes-super-curly-but-sometimes-super-wavy hair really wants from me, I’ve essentially read, tested, and researched all things surrounding curly hair, including the best products to try first. Keep reading for a crash-course on your 3a curls so you, too, can live your best hair life.
What is a 3a hair type?
If you’ve got 3a hair—check this hair-typing chart if you’re not sure—your curls tend to be easily pulled-out, blown-out, and super reactive to the elements (like, a humid day or a windy day is mess your sh*t up). Basically, they’re the shapeshifters of the curl types: They can usually be diffused and encouraged to spring up extra tight and curly, or they can be loosened into tight waves or soft curls with a bun or a twist (my usual M.O. out of laziness). Though 3a hair can have a mix of tight waves or even tighter curls, its overall curl shape tends to be big and loopy, like the size of a cork.
What products are good for 3a hair?
Tbh, this is a tricky question, because the answer isn’t really about the best product for your curl shape—it’s about the best product for your curl porosity. Your porosity is your hair strand’s ability to absorb and retain moisture, kinda like a sponge.
- If you have naturally low-porosity hair (think: a sponge with no holes), products have a hard time penetrating your hair strand, so they end up building up on the surface and weighing down your curls.
- If you have high-porosity hair (think: a sponge that’s all holes), products absorb really easily…but also evaporate even easier, leaving your hair perpetually dry.
Basically, low-porosity hair needs lightweight products; high-porosity hair needs rich, thick moisturizing products. See why porosity matters more than curl shape? The quickest way to find out your type is with a porosity quiz, and then come back here to find your best product lineup.
Are these 3a hair products Curly Girl Method–approved?
If you live your life according to The Curly Girl Method (CGM)—and, not gonna lie, it’s genuinely the best thing I ever tried for my 3a curls—you already know that the products you use need to be free of sulfates, waxes, alcohol, and silicones. Most of the products on this list are CGM-approved, but just to be safe, always make sure to run the ingredients list through a formula checker before using.
Got all that? Good. Now, for what you really came for: the 10 best products to try for 3a hair.
Shampoo for 3a Hair
Not Your Mother’s Sicilian Blood Orange & Black Currant Shampoo
There’s a reason why the entire Reddit curly-hair community is obsessed with Not Your Mother’s Naturals shampoos: They tend to be CGM-approved (meaning free of sulfates, silicones, waxes, etc.), they’re super affordable, and they have a range of heavy-to-light moisture levels. My fav for 3a hair? This mid-weight formula, which gently breaks down scalp oils while softening curls with sunflower and black currant oils.
Lightweight Conditioner for 3a Hair
Kinky-Curly Knot Today Leave In Detangler
Meet the all-in-one conditioning product for 3a curls. Though it’s technically meant to be used as a leave-in conditioner or a moisturizing detangler, it can also be used as a regular rinse-out conditioner for curls that are super fine and easily weighed down (like mine; I legit have three bottles of this in my bathroom at all times).
Deep Conditioner Mask for 3a Hair
The Mane Choice Heavenly Halo Deep Hydration Mask
When your curls are feeling maaajorly dry and tangled, try this deep-conditioning hair mask, which uses a combo of moisturizing oils, honey, and humectants (i.e., ingredients that pull water from the air and into your hair) to hardcore hydrate 3a curls leaving them feeling greasy after rinsing (IYKYK—looking’ at you, coconut oil).
Curl Cream for 3a Hair
Ouai Fragrance Free Curl Creme
This new curl cream is basically the only good thing that’s come out of 2020 for me. It’s not only free of fragrance (sensitive/allergic folks, I see you), but also free of silicones, waxes, and heavy proteins. So what does it have? A mix of linseed, soybean, babassu, and coconut oils that would usually leave my fine curls greasy, but instead leaves them defined, smooth, and bouncy. I squish a dime-size dollop through sopping-wet hair (use more if your hair is thicker or coarser), layer on a mousse or gel if I’m feelin’ fancy, or let air-dry if I’m not.
Curls Creme Brule Whipped Curl Cream
If you’ve got a mix of 3a/3b hair, or your curls are extra coarse and dry, you need a curl cream that does more than just lightly hydrate. This one uses aloe, glycerin, and shea butter to moisturize your curls, along with a mix of almond, sunflower, and jojoba oils to seal in all the hydration while keeping curls defined all day. Use it on top of your favorite leave-in for extra moisture, and add a gel or custard on top for even more definition.
Curl Gel for 3a Hair
Jessicurl Spiralicious Styling Gel
Listen, if you still think of hair gel as the crunchy, flaky, ramen-noodle stuff of junior high, you’re severely missing out on a potential BFF for your hair (seriously, curly hair + gel = true love). This lightweight gel defines and clumps 3a curls without making them feel stiff. Try raking and scrunching a palmful through your sopping-wet hair, either by itself or layered over a leave-in and/or curl cream.
Curl Custard for 3a Hair
Kinky-Curly Curling Custard
You truly cannot talk about curly hair without talking about this cult-favorite curl custard (which, FYI, is essentially a thicker, richer, more moisturizing hair gel). It lightly clumps and defines hair without the flakes or crunch, so you can layer it over your leave-in for some extra hold and frizz smoothing, use it underneath a stronger-hold gel for major definition and hydration, or rake and scrunch it through your wet hair all on its own.
Mousse for 3a Hair
Herbal Essences Totally Twisted Curl-Boosting Mousse
I’ve tried virtually every mousse that exists (for real—beauty editor perks), and I still have not found a better mousse for fine, 2c/3a curls than this drugstore MVP from Herbal Essences. This stuff is a freakin’ dream at keeping your curls voluminous and softly defined, especially when layered over a curl cream, while helping guard against frizz. Rake and squish a golfball-size puff through your damp hair, then plop or air-dry.
Curl Milk for 3a Hair
Shea Moisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl & Style Milk
This of this ~milk~ as a cross between a leave-in conditioner and a curl cream. You can use it on its own to moisturize and smooth your curls, or layer it under another curl cream, mousse, and/or gel for even more definition and hold. Basically, it’s the perfect base regardless of your hair type, whether you’re working with fine or coarse curls.
Dry Shampoo for 3a Curls
Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal + Biotin Dry Shampoo
If your 3a hair tends to fall flat and greasy at the roots by day two or three (hi, me), try this alcohol-free dry shampoo, which soaks up excess oils and volumizes your roots without drying out your curls. Just squeeze the bottle along your scalp, section by section, massage the powder into your roots, let it sit for a 5-10 mins, then flip your hair over and shake it out.
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