The ultimate Curly Girl Method guide—everything to know before you get started

If you're considering trying out the Curly Girl Method, here's what you'll need to get started on your journey

Back view of curly hair
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For those with naturally curly hair, the Curly Girl Method is often described as the route to amazing curls. Whether you have straightened your curls for most of your life, or you have a bathroom cabinet bulging with tried (and failed) products from curly hair experiments, the Curly Girl Method could be the perfect route for you. 

And the results often speak for themselves! Those with flourishing, styled, gorgeous curls often put this down to trialing the method for the first time. We’re now seeing more people than ever experimenting with their curls, coils, and waves, especially after not having access to hairdressers during various lockdowns. You could say that it's gained something of a cult following.

The method is more of a set of rules than a simple method, which was created by hairstylist Lorraine Massey to help people with curly hair achieve the bounciest, healthiest curls possible. Here’s everything you need to know about how it works—and if you feel a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of a brand new hair routine, why not take a look at our guide to the Curly Girl Method for beginners?

Meet the experts on the Curly Girl Method

  • Michelle Sultan is creative director for Imbue Curls, a vegan haircare brand dedicated to coils and curls. She's explained to My Imperfect Life what exactly the Curly Girl Method is, how to follow it, and the products to use and avoid when doing so.
  • Melissa Timperley is the owner of the award-winning Melissa Timperley Hair Salon, based in Manchester, UK. She herself is an international award-winning hair stylist, and has shared with My Imperfect Life readers when exactly you should begin the Curly Girl Method.

What is the Curly Girl Method?

Put simply, the Curly Girl Method is a set of rules, dos, don’ts and products that, when applied consistently, gives curly hairstyles the best definition possible.

“It’s a system guaranteed to get your curls popping,” says Michelle Sultan, creative director of Imbue Curls. "The Curly Girl Method makes sure that your natural curl pattern shines through every day. It’s designed to encourage the best kinks, curls, and coils, and helps to work with your natural texture, using products that have the perfect balance of moisture and protein."

The Curly Girl Method step-by-step: which products to use, when

As intimidating as the thought of starting the Curly Girl Method can be, both the method itself and product line-up are actually quite simple.

"This method is all about technique," Sultan says. "Thinking of it as a simplified routine that is easy to stick to and cuts out confusion is the best way to achieve success with the Curly Girl Method." The steps below are the best jumping-off point, leaving out any non-approved curly girl method products.

1. Reset/clarifying wash

Before you apply anything else to your hair, you first need to do a final "reset" wash. This is essentially a clarifying cleanse that rids your hair of any residual non-CGM-approved products that you have used, so your hair is taken back to square one. Use a suitable clarifying shampoo for this step.

2. Cleanse

Each wash day, wash your hair with a CGM-approved cleanser, focusing on your scalp and then working it down the lengths. Do this for at least a minute to really dislodge any dirt and grime. 

As for what cleanser you should use? "Sulfate-free cleansers help to maintain natural moisture levels in the hair without stripping away natural oils," Sultan confirms. “Curly hair tends to be drier because of the way that it grows out of the scalp from an oval-shaped follicle.” Read our guide on what sulfates to do hair for a more in-depth explanation.

3. Conditioner

As a curly girl convert, be prepared to use a lot of conditioner if you want to achieve good definition. The CGM advocates a method called "squishing", whereby you take a heaped handful of conditioner, apply it to soaking wet hair post-cleansing, and detangle it before squishing it in water to start to form your curls.

“Using a moisturizing conditioner is key,” notes Sultan. “Frizz is just a dehydrated curl waiting to happen, so using a mask or rich conditioner regularly will help keep the hair moisturized.”

4. Gel

As part of the Curly Girl Method you layer gel on top of your wet, conditioned hair and then you dry—and you need a lot more than feels normal. It may feel a bit unnatural at first, but it’s what’s going to create the cast that sets your curls in place.

5. Dedicated hair towel

Use one of the best microfiber hair towels to "plop" your curls, or gently scrunch out water, without disrupting your curl formation. These towels are also designed to be gentler on the hair and reduce friction. Once your hair is 100% dry, you then simply scrunch your curls with your hands to break the gel cast, revealing bouncy and defined curls. 

Which products and techniques should you avoid when following the Curly Girl Method?

Over the years, there have been many variations on the Curly Girl Method, but the fundamentals are to avoid any ingredients that are harsh, stripping, or overly coating of the hair.

For a product to be "curly girl compliant" it cannot include sulfates, silicones, waxes and mineral oils, and most alcohols—if it’s in a can, it’s not CGM-approved. If you’re thinking: "hang on, this is most of the hair care aisle!" In previous years, that may have been true—but the haircare industry has come a long way in terms of offering products that are both effective and free from ingredients that hinder your curly hair dreams.

Rough-drying your hair and heated tools are also banned with the method. So, if you normally reach for the best hair dryer for curly hair for a quicker wash day, think again. Hot tools have the potential to damage hair in general, but for curly hair, overuse will change the texture of your hair and the pattern of your curls—so it’s best to avoid.

As for rough towel drying, the rubbing can really disrupt the formation of your curls and cause frizz, so it’s time to get used to drip-drying if you don't use a microfibre to soak up the excess water. Brushing your hair is generally best avoided too—though it's worth checking out the best brushes for curly hair if you really want to use one.

Does the Curly Girl Method work for coily hair?

While there are some elements of the CGM that won’t work for tightly-coiled hair (plopping and breaking the cast, for example), the outline of the method and the products to avoid are super relevant for coils too.

“The Curly Girl Method is for those with a wave, curl, coil or kinks… the difference is understanding what products work best for your hair type and in which order to use them,” says Sultan.

How long does it take for the Curly Girl Method to work?

This entirely depends on where your curls are when you start the method, and how often you've had to search how to repair damaged hair. Curly hair that has been manipulated a lot with heat is likely to take longer to see a difference with the Curly Girl Method than hair that is worn curly all or most of the time.

"The truth is that every single person’s hair is different and grows at different rates and is styled differently,” Sultan confirms. "Trust the process and try to stick with the method as much as possible, and enjoy discovering your curls, coils or kinks in the best way possible."

How do you start the Curly Girl Method?

As daunting as it can be, there is no perfect time to start—it simply has to be when you're ready and able to stick to it. "Commit to the curls and avoid chopping and changing between wearing it curly for a day, then straightening it for a day," says Melissa Timperley, owner of Melissa Timperley Hair Salon. "This is because curls have a memory, so the more you wear it curly, the more defined the curls will be.”

So, all that's left to do is pick a day and go ahead and get started with your new curly hair routine. You likely won't regret it!

Keeks is an award-winning digital & social content specialist a hair & beauty writer and a brand consultant. You can find her work in Cosmopolitan (in print and online), Refinery29, Harper’s Bazaar, Woman and Home, Women’s Health, My Imperfect Life, OK! Online and Hairdressers Journal