Updated June 2022
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We recommend these products based on an intensive research process that's designed to cut through the noise and find the top products in this space. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter, to bring you these selections.

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Buying guide for best curl activators

There’s nothing like the look of fresh, bouncy, revitalized curls, but taming those ringlets is no easy feat. Although gorgeous, curly hair is often are affected by dehydration and weather conditions, requiring specific formulas that cater to its unique structure. While other products may dry out curls and make your spiral shape go haywire, a curl activator can help enhance and define your natural curl pattern while hydrating your hair.

A curl activator is essential to every curl routine, but finding the right one for your hair can be tricky. Although typically used for type 3 curls (springy curls with a variety of textures), people with waves and other types of curls can benefit from a curl activator, as well. That said, finding the right blend of curl definition and moisture can be a head-scratcher.

We’re here to take the guesswork out of your shopping experience. Keep your temperamental curls happy and check out our shopping guide to swiftly avoid the frizz, flake, and crunch.

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If you need to use a heated device on your curls, try to find a high-quality one that is coated with ceramic or tourmaline. These materials generally cause less damage to hair than metal.

Benefits of using a curl activator

It prevents dryness.

There’s nothing that curly hair appreciates more than a hearty dose of moisture. For this reason, plant oils and extracts in curl activators go the extra mile to hydrate and nourish strands.

It prevents breakage and tangles.

Curly hair is prone to breakage. Moisturizing it helps strengthen elasticity, preventing split ends and unruly knots.

It keeps frizz at bay.

Curly hair has cuticles that are more raised, which can cause your mop to look dull and frizzy. A curl activator works to smooth the cuticle and reduce flyaways.

It adds softness and shine.

A curl activator conditions the cuticle to create a sleek and glossy look that leaves your hair looking as healthy as it feels.

It protects against harsh environmental conditions.

If you live in a city, daily factors like pollution and weather can affect your hair health. Curl activator seals in vital hydration and protects the hair shaft.

It can be used daily with an existing routine.

It can be frustrating to switch up all your current hair products in order to make room for something new. Luckily, most curl activators can be used in conjunction with most conditioners and styling products without negative effects.

How to apply curl activator

Apply from root to tip, slowly going through your hair section by section. Define your curls with your fingers and allow them to air dry. Depending on the product, this may be repeated with dry hair to refresh the look.

Choosing by hair type

Remember that not all curls are the same. Some products work better with waves. Others are designed for only the kinkiest of curls. Read up on each curl activator to learn its unique benefits, and most importantly, know your curl type before you shop. Here’s a little more information.

Type 2 (wavy) hair is usually more wavy than curly, but a light curl activator can be used. 2A hair is rather fine and thin, while 2B hair has somewhat defined waves that can form a loose S shape close to the head. 2C hair is often prone to frizz and has a coarser texture with defined waves.

Type 3 (curly) hair usually has an S shape throughout, and it may not have as much shine as straight or wavy hair due to the angled cuticle. 3A curls are big and loose with more sheen, while 3B and 3C curls can range from bouncy or springy spirals to compact corkscrews.

Type 4 (coily) hair is usually signified by a high volume of tight coils packed densely together. This type of hair is also the most fragile with either a coarse, wiry texture or a fine, thin texture. A curl pattern signifies type 4A, but if a pattern can’t be defined, it’s most likely 4B.

Common ingredients used in curl activators

Curly hair grows at an angle, which can make it harder for your hair to distribute its natural oils. While this translates to fewer washes, it also increases the chances of frizz and dandruff. Here are some soothing and nourishing ingredients to look for in curl activators.

Glycerine: A powerful humectant, this common ingredient attracts and binds water to itself while coating the hair in a moisture-retaining oil layer.

Aloe vera: Aloe contains soothing properties. It can help improve the condition of the scalp and promote hair growth.

Coconut: All aspects of the coconut can be used in curl activator, from the milk to the oil. It is a decadent moisturizer and emollient.

Shea butter: This emollient is high in fatty acids and often used to seal the hair cuticle.

Honey: A precious resource, honey has antibacterial benefits and is a light, natural humectant that nourishes hair.

Avocado oil: This fruit oil is naturally filled with high levels of potassium and vitamins E, A, and D.

Jojoba oil: Jojoba mimics your natural hair oils, making it a non-greasy treatment for damaged ends.



Should you go with a cream, a custard, a spray, or a gel? Gels should usually be avoided unless the product is exceptional, as gel can be drying to the hair and leave behind a sticky, white residue.

Cream is the most common kind of curl activator. It is normally applied with the fingers. Curl activator cream is generally thick with heavy moisturizers and can be used in dime-sized amounts.

Custard is like a blend of gel and cream. It has also been described as pudding. Custard is applied with the fingers; it is lighter than cream but not as drying as gel, and it can be used in slightly larger quantities than cream.

Spray has the most watery consistency of all curl activators. It may be fortified with vitamins or act as a primer for other products, allowing for easy layering without a greasy buildup. Curl-activating spray is ideal for fine or thin hair.

Dispenser type

Most curl activators come in a pump bottle, a squeeze tube, a jar with a screw-on lid, or a spray bottle. Notably, spray bottles are generally reserved for products with a thinner consistency.


Many scents in curl activators are naturally derived from their humectants or oils. Coconut and shea are two common examples; they provide a subtle aroma that may be considered fruity or clean. Some curl activators come in a tropical, botanical scent; others are fragrance-free, which is ideal for those with allergies. Note that products with artificial fragrance may be drying to the hair.

Curl activator prices

Curl activator prices generally range from $5 to $35 and come in vessels that contain between 5 and 20 ounces.

Inexpensive: Inexpensive curl activators often have a greasy texture or leave behind white particles due to their high filler content. However, there are some inexpensive products from tried-and-tried brands that have been around for years. Low-range options generally cost less than $15.

Mid-range: Mid-range curl activators tend to be more versatile for different curl types and are offered by several top-selling brands. Notably, these high-quality products may come packaged in smaller bottles. If a curl activator contains little or no synthetic ingredients, you may not have to apply as much as you would a different product. The price range here is $10 to $20.

High-end: High-end curl activators may target more specific issues, such as scalp dryness. They may contain less-common fruit or herbal extracts. They may also have a cleaner ingredient list, free of parabens or drying alcohols. Salon-quality curl activators rarely suffer from issues of flakiness or residue. While a salon brand might run you up to $35, premium brands offer similar products for around $20.


  • Don’t brush your curly hair with a bristle brush. This can cause static. Instead, use your fingers or a wide-toothed comb before you wash your hair.
  • Never dry your hair with the same towel you dry your body with. Instead, lightly squeeze it with an old t-shirt or a special towel made of microfiber.
  • When pairing items with your curl activator, don’t overdo it with mousse and hair spray, which contain high amounts of alcohol and can dry out hair excessively, damaging it and giving it a crunchy texture.
  • If you want to enhance looser curls, try applying your curl activator with your head flipped upside down, scrunching the product into your hair so your natural curl shape is preserved.

Other products we considered

If you’re looking for a lightweight but hydrating activator that’s ideal for thicker curls, consider this creme by London-based brand Twisted Sista. Its most notable quality is the level of definition and bounce it provides without getting sticky or crunchy. This curl cream is filled with avocado, coconut, and almond oils in a weightless shea butter base.

Those seeking a bargain might prefer this curl activator by Luster’s, which comes in a generous 16-ounce spray bottle with a scent users rave about.  Easy application and the addition of vitamin B5 make this sculpting hair moisturizer a must.

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Try going to a hair salon that will cut your hair when it’s dry. Many curlies find they’re not satisfied with their haircut because it’s cut when their hair is wet (and looks completely different). A dry cut helps you emphasize each curl, which frames your face better.


Q. Why does curly hair require a curl activator?
The shape of the hair follicle and the shaft contribute to curliness. The shaft is the part that we can see, while the follicle is on the inside, holding the hair in place like an anchor. Oval-shaped follicles give hair a wave or curl, while round follicles usually indicate straight hair.

Q. Can a curl activator make my hair curlier?
A curl activator may increase definition, but your hair type cannot become more curly, nor can it make straight hair magically transform into ringlets.

Q. What’s the difference between styling gel and curl activator gel?
Curl activator usually contains a humectant such as glycerin. Humectants attract water but don’t give any hold, simply providing softness. Styling gel is meant to provide hold and defy gravity.

Q. Can I combine a curl activator with a relaxer?
While a curl activator is technically for curls, if you’re looking to further define the curl shape that a relaxer has left you with, an activator may help you accomplish that goal.

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