If the last time you used hair gel on your curls was before you had a driver’s license/a real sense of self, then hi, yeah, same. Despite being a beauty editor, I spent the majority of my adult life thinking of hair gels as the quickest way to leave my curls crunchy, flakey, and stiff…just like 13-year-old me liked it. But after getting deep into the Curly Girl Method last year (a technique—nay, a way of life—of getting truly excellent curls) and finding that a main component of said perfect curls was hair gel, I decided to revisit the nemesis of my past. And, folks, I truly cannot emphasize this revelation enough: Hair gel is the freaking key to perfect curls and coils.
If you already knew this, then wow, very rude of you not to TELL ME SOONER?! But you may also keep scrolling to find what you really came here for: the best curly hair gels of 2020 (like, actually. As in I read reviews and studied ingredients and consulted with stylists). But if you’re still skeptical, or if you’ve tried curl gels in the past with meh results, allow me to crack open the world for you, starting with…
What does gel do for curly hair?
So it depends on what type of hair type and hairstyle you’re working with (FYI: You’ll wanna figure out your hair type for this). It’s not an exact science, but gels made for protective styles, wash and gos, and twist/braid-outs are usually high in moisture and soft or medium in hold, making them excellent choices for drier, type 4 hair. Gels made for waves and curls (think type 2c-4a hair) are usually super-high in hold and lower in moisture, giving curls that crunchy, ramen-noodle finish. AND THAT CRUNCH IS A GOOD THING. That thing we all hated is actually called a “gel cast,” and it’s the magic behind traditional curly hair gels.
What’s a gel cast and why is it good?
It’s the stiff, hardened coating that stronger-hold gels often leave behind on curly hair. As your hair dries, the gel forms a crunchy shell around each of your curls/waves, defining it while protecting it from humidity and frizz. In junior high, we called this a ~lewk~. In 2020, we call this step one. Step two is to “scrunch out the crunch” or “break the cast.”
How do you “scrunch out the crunch”?
Breaking the gel cast is pretty self-explanatory and simple. Once your hair is 100 percent dry (whether that’s via diffusing, air-drying, or using a hooded dryer), gently scrunch your hair up toward your scalp with your hands, scrunching section after section until the crunch is gone and the cast is broken (check out this tutorial for a visual). To prevent frizz and add shine, you can rub a few drops of a lightweight hair oil between your hands before scrunching out the crunch (finer hair types might want to skip this and just use clean hands).
Some curly folks like to use a diffuser to break their cast, or find that sleeping on their gel cast naturally breaks it by morning. Regardless of your method, there is only one rule: Your hair must be totally, completely, 120 percent dry or you’ll be left with a frizzy, undefined mess. Do it correctly, and you’ll be left with this before-and-after magic).
How do you apply hair gel?
It fully depends on your hair type, texture, and the look you’re going for (e.g., a protective style doesn’t require a gel cast and won’t necessarily use the same application method as a wash and go or). But if you’re going for the gel cast, you’ll need a lot of gel—like a huge handful of gel for fine, shoulder-length hair. Coat your hands with gel then rake and scrunch it through your soaking-wet hair section by section (here’s a gel cast tutorial I love, if you need a visual).
If you’re using gel for a protective style, twist/braid-out, or literally any other style that’s not a gel cast, you’ll have to experiment with which application works best for your texture, whether that’s praying-hands, shingling, finger-raking, or Denman-brushing. Play around with using your gel alone, or on top of a leave-in conditioner and an oil. Like all hair products, it’s a trial-and-error situation.
Cool, so now that we’ve thoroughly got your junior-high brain up to speed on today’s world of gels, please keep reading to find the 15 best (but actually) curly hair gels for types 3 and 4 hair.
Best Curl Gel for Fine Hair
Jessicurl Spiralicious Styling Gel
Behold! The gel heard ’round the world! This lightweight, formula was actually my first step back into the 2020 world of hair gels, and I was really, truly shocked by how well it defined and clumped my super-fine 2c/3a curls without making them greasy. On clean, sopping-wet hair, I just rake and scrunch a quarter-size squeeze through my flipped-over, sopping-wet hair, then immediately plop for 20 minutes and air-dry.
Best Hair Gel for Wash and Gos
Adwoa Baomint Moisturizing Curl Defining Gel
This cream-gel hybrid is pure moisturizing goodness in a jar, and basically every reviewer swears by its wash-and-go powers. It’s incredibly thick and rich (thanks to the zillion different oils in the formula), so a little goes a long way, but even if you go overboard, your coils won’t be left with any crunch or flakes. Rake it through your sopping-wet hair in sections, re-wetting each section as you work (trust the process), then air-dry or diffuse. The result? Definition, shine, volume, joy, etc.
Best Curly Hair Gel Overall
Kinky-Curly Original Curling Custard
There’s a reason why this this hair gel is one of the most popular recs for curly and coily hair: It lightly clumps, moisturizes, and defines, without leaving behind flakes. If this is your first custard encounter, think of it as a thicker, heavier, way-more-moisturizing gel (so less is more if you have super-fine or low-porosity hair). Try layering it over your leave-in conditioner on sopping-wet hair in sections, then plop and dry your curls, or smooth on a curl cream or butter for more moisture before twisting, braiding, or drying your hair.
Best Curly Hair Gel for Twist-Outs
The Mane Choice Ancient Egyptian 24 Karat Gold Twisting Gel
The ~key~ to a ridiculously good twist-out? A moisturizing, medium-hold gel that’ll still give you body and movement without flakes or stiffness. This rich, cult-favorite twisting gel brings out your curls and keeps them defined and shiny (shout out to the itty-bitty flecks of gold shimmer in the gel).
Best Hair Gel for Wavy Hair
Briogeo Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Quinoa Frizz Control Gel
Waves and loose curls fall into a very finicky territory where the right products can magically enhance their texture…while the wrong products can fully straighten them out. This protein-rich gel, however, is one of the good guys. It’s lightweight, non-sticky, and silicone-free, so it’ll help define your wavy hair without weighing it down. Rub a squeeze of gel between your palms, flip your sopping-wet hair over, and gently scrunch the gel to encourage your wave/curl pattern.
Best Moisturizing Curly Hair Gel
MopTop Curly Hair Custard Gel
This custard is on the lighter end of the custard spectrum, so it won’t feel as heavy on finer hair types (hi!). It has a bit of hold and a bit of hydration, which actually makes it killer for either adding a moisturizing layer to protective styles (try it in place of cream in the LOC method) or for helping 2c to 3c curls clump together without weighing them down.
Best Curly Hair Gel for Gel Casts
Aussie Instant Freeze 20-Hour Hold Hair Gel
If you legit cannot get a gel cast to save your life (it’s an art! I still struggle! Help!) try this strong-hold gel. It’ll clump your curls to help protect them against frizz and humidity while you diffuse or air-dry. Remember to wait until your hair is 100 percent dry, though, before breaking the cast or “scrunching out the crunch,” lest you awaken the frizz demons.
Best Curly Hair Gel for Protective Styles
Curls Smooth Curl Butter Gel
If you’ve ever used a gel that’s pure hold and nothin’ else in your protective style, you already know that too much structure can be a drying nightmare. But this castor oil-based gel has enough slip and hydration to keep your braids, knots, and twists moisturized and held without drying them out or feeling stiff.
Best Natural Curly Hair Gel
Innersense Organic Beauty I Create Hold Styling Gel
This gel is basically all aloe, water, and honey, making it a hydrating, lightweight, defining dream for low-porosity curls (not sure WTF your hair porosity is? Uh, take this quiz immediately pls). It’s best for medium-to-thick curls, so if your hair is easily weighed down like mine, don’t go overboard on the application.
Best Elongating Curly Hair Gel
Aunt Jackie’s Flaxseed Don’t Shrink Curling Gel
Not all hair gels are created equal. Or, like, even remotely equal. While some gels will give you all the hold (and all the dryness and accidental shrinkage), other gels, like this protein-spiked formula from Aunt Jackie’s, will keep your hair defined and moisturized, and—when paired with a good curl cream and/or oil—stretched and healthy, even in your wash and go.
Best Strong Hair Gel for Fine Curls
Giovanni L.A. Natural Styling Gel Strong Hold
Usually, strong-hold gels can just weigh down fine curls. But this formula uses aloe and mallow extract to define thinner, drier curls and create a strong gel cast—all without weighing them down. It’s Curly Girl Method-approved (as are most of these gels on this list), safe for low-porosity hair, and under $10. Yes, to all of this.
Best Curl-Enhancing Gel
MopTop Salon Anti-Frizz Medium Hold Gel
If you’ve got fluffy waves or loose curls that need a little extra help in the curling and clumping department, try this medium-hold hair gel. It’s more moisturizing than it is defining, so it’ll add softness and shine while helping to encourage your natural curl pattern without a crunchy finish.
Best Glycerin-Free Curly Hair Gel
Alikay Naturals Aloe Berry Style Gel
This styling gel is natural, organic, and fully edible (JK, please don’t eat it, despite how yummy it smells). It’s also packed with coconut, almond, and avocado oils to keep 3c to 4c hair moisturized and lightly held all day without feeling stiff or crunchy. And, because it’s glycerin free (a rarity in hair gels), it won’t cause intense frizzing if you live in humid areas.
Best Flaxseed Gel for Curly Hair
CurlMix Pure Flaxseed Gel
You can’t spend a minute (a second? Millisecond?!) on a curly hair website/forum without someone raving about their recipe for homemade flaxseed gel. Flaxseed gels + curly hair = BFFs. They add the perfect amount of definition, shine, protein, and hold to type 2, 3, and 4 hair…but they’re usually annoying to DIY. Enter: this flaxseed gel that uses a touch of glycerin and oil (the type of oil depends on which of the five fragrances you choose) to amp up hydration and shine without the crunch.
As I Am Curling Jelly
This curl gel (or ~jelly~ if we’re gettin’ fancy) has a super-thin consistency, making it easy to spread throughout your type 3 to type 4 hair. The lightweight formula is filled with aloe vera and sugar beet root to keep curls hydrated and softly defined—this definitely isn’t a strong- or even medium-hold gel—though drier hair types will want to layer this one over your leave-in or oil.
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