When I first started suspecting my hair may not be straight, I thought it might be curly. After all, people had recommended the curly girl method to me. When I followed the curly girl method, people asked me if I curled my hair. Or, they’d say they liked my hair curly.
Naturally, it would be easy to think this meant my hair was curly. Many people don’t really recognize wavy hair, so if hair is clearly not straight, they will just call it curly. Through learning a bit more, I started to realize my hair wasn’t curly, it was wavy.
I know some are confused about the differences between wavy and curly hair. I thought I would try to explain in a way that makes the most sense to me.
The difference between wavy and curly hair
Curly hair makes a full 360-degree spiral around, forming a complete circle where it twists. Wavy hair is more of an S shape, going from side to side. Tighter waves can create loose spirals or corkscrews, but won’t complete a full circle at the same height.
That’s the defining difference between wavy and curly hair. Nothing else! However, there are many traits that tend to be correlated to wavy hair vs curly hair which we’ll discuss more below. But ultimately, whether the curl pattern does a full spin around, or just goes from side to side is the difference between wavy and curly hair.
To see examples of 2a, 2b and 2c waves check out my wavy hair pattern chart blog post.
Is Wavy Hair Curly?
“Curly” is a label that is sometimes used to describe all textured hair (wavy, curly and coily), and sometimes is used to describe a subset of textured hair. Wavy hair is a type of textured hair, but it is a separate subset of textured hair than curly hair.
This difference in how curly hair is used both as a broad umbrella for ‘textured hair’ and how it is also used to describe just type 3 hair, can certainly be confusing. Some people with type 3 hair seem to see it as false or dishonest for people with wavy hair to refer to their hair as curly.
In curly girl method communities and other places online, people with curly hair sometimes get upset with people who have wavy hair calling it curly. I’ve also seen people with curly hair expressing frustration with how curly-related tags on social media are often full of wavy hair.
I can understand this because if you search #wavyhair on Instagram, or try to look up curly hair cuts, you’ll come across almost exclusively heat-style wavy hair.
It’s very trendy for salons to curl and then brush out someone’s hair after cutting it, so those heat-styled waves are all over, and it makes it harder to find content about naturally wavy hair. When people with wavy hair use curly tags, it causes the same difficulty for those looking for curly-specific content.
So, I use #curlygirlmethod sometimes because while my hair is wavy, I do follow the curly girl method for the most part, but I don’t use #curlyhair or similar because my hair is not curly. I find that it feels unnatural to use “waves” or “wavy” in some contexts. For example, I say “curl clump” because “wave clump” just doesn’t sound right to me.
However, when speaking generally about my hair I prefer to specify that it is wavy, not curly, just to show respect to those with curly hair who want that word reserved for them. Of course, this is personal preference.
Are Wavy and Curly Hair The Same?
Wavy hair and curly hair are not strictly synonymous. Wavy hair is a looser texture, and there are some common differences in these hair types. However, wavy and curly hair can also have a lot in common!
Common Differences in Wavy and Curly Hair
- Wavy hair is more likely to be low porosity.
- Wavy hair is more likely to need clarified more often.
- Wavy hair is more likely to have the curl pattern start lower on the head.
- Wavy hair is more likely to be easily weighed down.
- Wavy hair is more likely to be flattened.
- Wavy hair is more likely to lose definition easily.
- Wavy hair tends to have more natural oils or be less dry than curly hair.
- Wavy hair is less likely to need deep conditioning frequently.
- Wavy hair is more likely to need hard hold products to maintain definition.
- Wavy hair is less likely to respond to certain techniques such as finger-coiling, wet styling, or using a Denman brush.
Please note these are all generalizations. Wavy hair properties vary from person to person.
Does The Curly Girl Method Work For Wavy Hair?
Many people with wavy hair prefer to follow the curly girl method but with a few modifications. Very few people with wavy hair will follow the strictest form of the curly girl method. Many core principles of the curly girl method work well for wavy hair, but some do not.
For example, most people with wavy hair will use a sulfate-free shampoo (low poo) instead of cowashing, as the strict curly girl method recommends. I have a detailed blog post about how to modify the curly girl method to work for wavy hair.
I have occasionally seen people online saying that the curly girl method is not designed for wavy hair. I agree and disagree. I do think the curly girl method is better suited for type 3 and type 4 hair than type 2 hair.
However, I think people with wavy hair generally get healthier hair if they treat it closer to how you would treat curly hair, than straight hair. For example, wavy hair typically doesn’t do well with being brushed or combed regularly like you would do for straight hair.
Can Hair Be Both Wavy And Curly?
Yes, some people have both wavy and curly hair. Many people have a mixture of hair patterns. If someone has a mixture of 2c and 3a hair patterns (among others) they can have both wavy and curly hair.
My wave clumps stick together – are these curls?
I commonly see people posting asking if curl clumps like the one pictured above is a wave or a curl. Or sometimes I see wavies posting that they are so excited that they got a curl, and post a photo like this.
At a glance, this does look like a curl because you can’t see through it, it appears to be making a full circle around, like a true curl. However, what this actually is, is two (or more than two?) 2b or 2c waves that are cuddled up together sort of like a double helix. If you look at the bottom of the clump, you can see the ends of the double helix. So if separated, these would be two waves, not a true curl.
Sometimes when my hair does this I leave them, other times I try to pull them apart. Whatever you like the look of is fine. But for those who are curious, if a hair is a ‘true’ curl you can separate it into an individual clump and it would still do a full spiral around.
Can wavy hair become curly?
Sometimes wavy hair does become curly naturally. Especially if your hair is wavy but damaged from heat tools, perming or dyeing. If you’re curious about this, I have an in depth blog post about ways to make wavy hair curlier.
Does Wavy Hair Pattern Start At The Ears?
Sometimes wavy hair starts at the ears, and sometimes it starts closer to the root. Sometimes curly hair starts at the root, and sometimes it starts lower. Where on your head your texture starts is not a defining characteristic of wavy or curly hair.
I’ve frequently seen people say that the difference between wavy and curly hair is how high up on your head your textured pattern starts. Some say that wavy hair starts at the ears, while curly hair starts at the root.
I agree that it is more common for wavy hair to start at the ears than it is for curly hair to do the same. However, wavy hair can start at the root, and curly hair can start lower on the head.
For me, it depends on what routine I use. Some days I get textured hair above my ears, and sometimes I don’t. On the days when my hair starts higher on my head, it is still wavy, not curly. I have a post sharing how I get my waves to start higher on my head if you want to get your waves to start higher, too!
If you’ve got wavy hair and are looking for more wavy hair care info, check out my blog post directory. It lists all my articles by title.
THANK YOU!!! <3 I've had so much trouble determining my hair… shape? …because of things like "wavy hair is a loose S that starts halfway down the length-of and isn't as prone to frizz" and "curls are corkscrews start at the crown and are prone to frizz" yadda yadda. My waves are fine low density; very prone to frizz; start between my ears and crown; form tighter curls when randomly clumped, shorter in length or moisturized, and looser waves when dry, longer in length, or just because my hair feels like it (but never as loose as the +1000 pics of styled waves!); waves more on one side of my head and curls more on the other; loses definition in two blinks of an eye…
And I could never find pics that looked like my hair! Tight waves do not exist, apparently, according to the internet. And all the pics of waves and half those of curls are always styled instead of natural so they're uniform and perfectly shaped to match whatever definition the poster is going by. So major thanks for your pics of your natural wavy hair, and your clear explanations that do not confuse hair's tress shape with thickness, volume, porosity, absolute starting point, and so on.
I grew up with really defined spiral curls and I wanted them to be looser. Over the years, I started straightening my hair – Japanese straightening, keratin – and though I missed my curls – even after I did the journey back I never got them back. At this point, it can also be hormones and other factors along with all the messing around I did to them for so long – but I have a much looser wave that struggles to hold a defined curl. I’m learning to just love it and let go. But I look back at my pictures when I was younger and wish I had been able to embrace what I had. I do know that if I’d had the resources (curlygirl community, Instagram) I would have probably known how to actually manage that mane of hair!
It is a distinction and the challenges are pretty different so glad you clarified.
Perfect! I am a wavy, but it really looks curly if I use product and scrunch it in. But, there is a difference. I appreciate your article here.
I really appreciate this article! Thank you, so much!! It’s very hard to find pictures online of NATURALLY wavy hair. My hair was always thick, with a very slight wave. Then, I lost over 3/4 of my hair after an illness. Now, that most of it has grown back, it has grown back extremely wavy, bordering on curly in a couple of areas. I still have long hair that is thin, and the new, short wavy hair. Because the long hair is so thin, I need to cut my hair into a style that will blend in more with my short wavy hair, without chopping my hair too short. I have been searching for styles for naturally wavy hair, but all the styles are obviously manually manipulated to appear wavy. Your website with pictures was so refreshing! My hair will take a while to grow back out so that it will look more uniform like yours, but seeing your locks gives me hope, finally! Thank you for being natural!