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When you're styling hair that's naturally curly, starting with a serum is an essential step. "Serums act as a coating to protect your hair and scalp," celebrity hairstylist Felicia Leatherwood explains to Elite Daily, adding that they can also help defend hair against damage caused by styling tools and environmental stressors. The best serums for curly hair will give you other hair-enhancing benefits in addition to providing protection. "You want a serum that can stimulate the scalp, promote stronger hair, give you a great shine on your hair without clogging your pores, and support the coarseness and thickness of your hair as well as [growth]," Leatherwood says. To manage all of this, Leatherwood recommends looking for ingredients like vitamin E, biotin, amino acids, and plant or nut extracts like castor seed, argan, coconut, and sweet almond oils.
Felicia Leatherwood is a celebrity hairstylist and natural hair expert. In addition to regularly doing hair for editorial shoots, red carpet events, and TV shows, she also conducts global hair workshops and has her own line of brushes.
In addition to certain ingredients you want to look for, there are also a few ingredients that Leatherwood recommends steering clear of. "Serums that have parabens, mineral oils, petroleum, or silicones, you should consider avoiding all of the time," she says. You may have already heard that parabens, mineral oil, and petroleum are potential irritants, but seeing silicones on the list of ingredients to avoid may come as a bit of a surprise. While it's true that silicones can help with everything from detangling knots to reducing frizz to adding shine, they're also hard to wash out, and continuously using products with silicones can lead to buildup on the hair, which can weigh your curls down.
As for when you apply your serum, it really depends on how you plan to style your hair and how you personally prefer to use it. "You can apply your serum after your shampoo and deep conditioning treatments, or right before blow drying your hair as a heat protectant," Leatherwood says, adding that if you're using hot styling tools, you'll want to double-check the label on the serum to be sure that it serves as a heat protectant. "You can also apply your serum at the end of your styling [routine] or if your hair looks frizzy, dry, or dull," Leatherwood adds.
In a hurry? Here are the best serums for curly hair:
This serum is one of Leatherwood's top picks because it doubles as a styling aid and a product that provides protection against environmental stressors. Though the Eden BodyWorks Almond Marshmallow Hydration Serum is lightweight, it's loaded with moisturizing, shine-enhancing, and curl-defining ingredients like sweet almond oil, marshmallow root extract, aloe vera, and vitamin E. Because the line is dedicated to creating effective products for curly hair, every product from Eden BodyWorks is sulfate-free, silicone-free, and paraben-free (in addition to being cruelty-free).
Relevant Review: "My hair has found its new best friend - This serum is sooo amazing! I have been trying to find the right products to moisturize my dry natural hair - which when properly moisturized - can look great. But it rarely retains the moisture. [...] This light serum is the secret. I apply it after using Eden’s cleansing co-wash - and a little goes a long way - and my hair retains moisture and is softer and so easy to manage. Highly recommend!!”
Beneficial Ingredients: Sweet Almond Oil, Marshmallow Root Extract, Aloe Vera, Vitamin E, Black Seed Oil Size: 8 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
This serum from actress Tracee Ellis Ross' hair care line is packed with many of the multi-tasking ingredients Leatherwood recommends looking for. Argan oil is the star ingredient in here for adding lightweight moisture while helping to improve hair elasticity and reduce breakage. But you'll also find other nourishing ingredients, like apricot kernel oil, sunflower seed oil, and sweet almond oil, in the Pattern Beauty Argan Oil Hair Serum to help promote stronger, shinier hair. The brand is also dedicated to giving back to the community, lending support to organizations that include Black Lives Matter, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Planned Parenthood.
Relevant Review: "I have tightly curled hair, and this serum gives it the perfect amount of shine without weighing it down."
Beneficial Ingredients: Argan Oil, Sunflower Seed Oil, Castor Seed Oil, Sweet Almond Oil, Apricot Kernel Oil, Shea Oil Size: 3.9 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
Soapbox’s Argan Oil Anti-Frizz Smoothing Serum works much like the other serums on this list, with moisturizing and shine-enhancing ingredients like argan oil, sunflower seed oil, and meadowfoam seed oil, but you can spray it directly onto your hair or into your hands before scrunching it through your curls. (Another bonus? It costs just $10 on Amazon.) You can mist this through your hair while it's still wet to help with detangling, or add a few light spritzes once your hair is dry to help reduce unwanted flyaways.
Relevant Review: "Gives my course hair lots of shine and body. I am a hair stylist and this ranks right up there with salon products without the price.”
Beneficial Ingredients: Glycerin, Sunflower Seed Extract, Rice Bran Extract, Panthenol, Argan Kernel Oil, Shea Butter, Meadowfoam Seed Oil, Vitamin E Size: 5 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
For a serum that's geared toward scalp health, DevaCurl's Scalp D(pH)ense was co-developed by a trichologist to moisturize and nourish the scalp without disrupting its pH level or leaving behind any buildup or grease. Ingredients like panthenol and castor oil help to keep curls flexible, while allantoin, oat bran extract, and green tea leaf extract offer soothing benefits, making this a great choice for those wearing extensions or protective styles, too.
Relevant Review: "I have patches of dry skin on my scalp that come and go with the seasons. This serum works perfectly to keep the itchiness at bay and leaves my scalp feeling hydrated but not greasy. A little guess a long way on this, start with a pump and dip your finger tips in to gently scrub or tap it in. It does have a flowery scent that I like, but if you're sensitive you scents, avoid this.”
Beneficial Ingredients: Allantoin, Oat Bran Extract, Green Tea Leaf Extract, Panthenol, Hydrogenated Castor Oil Size: 1.7 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
If your scalp is prone to irritation like dryness, breakouts, or eczema, this SEEN Magical Serum is as gentle as they come. Created by Harvard-trained dermatologist Iris Rubin, the serum is non-comedogenic and fragrance-free, and has even been given the National Eczema Association Seal of Acceptance. Instead of using potential irritants, the serum is formulated with squalane and a plant-derived alternative to silicone called hemisqualane, which helps to smooth hair, add shine, and provide heat protection from styling up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. It's also safe for color-treated and keratin-treated hair, and it's PETA and Leaping Bunny-certified cruelty-free.
Relevant Review: "This SEEN Magic Serum works just like magic to add a natural sheen to my curly hair. It's fragrance-free and easy to use with the included dropper. A little goes a long way, so this 1 oz. [bottle] should last me for quite some time. After shampooing my curly hair, I use this serum to help restore moisture and shine to my otherwise dull hair. […]"
Beneficial Ingredients: Squalane, Hemisqualane Size: 1 oz. Cruelty-Free: Yes
Felicia Leatherwood, celebrity natural hairstylist and creator of the Felicia Leatherwood Detangler Brush.
Pro and Contra of Cleansing Conditioners, by Maria Fernanda Reis Gavazzoni Dias; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6489037/
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