While the terms curly and wavy are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Different hair types, much like different skin types, require different care regimens. And what works for one type may not work as well, or may not even be good for another.
This is why it’s important to understand the difference between curly vs wavy so you make sure you’re taking care of your hair properly.
In this article, we are going to go over curly vs wavy hair and how to tell the difference between them. We’ll also talk about the different subcategories of wavy and curly hair.
Most people aren’t even aware that there are even different kinds of curly and wavy hair, depending on the texture and structure. Although it may all sound a bit overwhelming, not to worry, we’re going to explain everything.
Curly Vs Wavy – What’s Your Hair Type?
Hair in general can be broken down into 4 main hair types: straight, wavy, curly, and coily.
The best way to see which of these categories your hair falls into if you’re not sure is to wash it, leave it free of product and let it air dry.
- If it dries straight without a bend or curl, then you have straight hair (or type 1 hair).
- If it dries with a curve or “S” shape, then it’s considered wavy hair (type 2).
- If your hair dries with a defined curl or loop pattern, you have curly hair (type 3).
- If your hair shortens significantly as it dries, has dense spirals or a zig-zag pattern, you have coily hair (type 4).
Although there are 3 different sub-categories for straight hair and coily hair, because we are focusing on curly vs wavy hair, we won’t get into the other different sub-categories for straight and coily hair in this article.
Type 2 Hair – Wavy Hair
There are three different sub-categories of wavy hair, referred to as Types 2a, 2b, and 2c.
Type 2a wavy hair is typically flat at the roots and breaks into a gentle wave, usually starting at eye or ear level. When wet, it will look straight. Think of the classic beachy wave – more of a tousled look rather than a distinct wave pattern.
Type 2a usually tends to lack volume and fullness and is the flattest of the wavy types. It is easily weighed down by styling products.
Type 2a wavy hair can be easily straightened using a flat iron, but has the most trouble of the wavy hair types of holding curl definition.
For this type of wavy hair, it’s important to use very lightweight styling products, and avoid layering several products on top of each other.
Type 2b hair features curlier waves in a more pronounced “S” shape than type 2a hair. It generally lies flat at the crown before rippling from the midpoint to the hair ends.
Type 2b is easier to style into waves and ringlets, holding a curl from a curling iron much better than type 2a hair.
And likewise, it’s harder to straighten using a flat iron. Those with type 2b hair tend to have more of a problem with frizzy hair and flyaways.
Type 2c hair is the waviest with the most clearly defined S-bends. It’s usually this type of wavy hair that is most often mistaken for curly hair.
Though type 2c hair does look a lot like curly hair, it does not have distinctive kinks or ringlets, making it wavy, not curly.
Unlike the other wavy hair types, type 2c has a lot more volume because of its coarser texture and tighter waves.
These attributes are also what make Type 2c waves the most prone to frizz, so it’s important to combine both moisture and hold when it comes to styling products.
Type 3 Hair – Curly Hair
There are three different sub-categories of curly hair, referred to as Types 3a, 3b, and 3c.
Type 3a curls have more of an S pattern as they tend to be looser and larger in size than other curl types, but unlike wavy hair, the ‘S’ forms a loop.
The size of each curl tends to be about an inch in width. Those with 3a curls tend to have finer hair and less volume than those with tighter curls, making it much softer and easier to style.
Type 3a curls are much closer to wavy hair texture than another type 3 hair curls.
Because of its finer, softer texture, avoid heavy styling products meant for other types of curly or coily hair as it will weigh down your curls and they’ll lose their shape.
Those with type 3a hair should use a simple, lightweight leave-in conditioner for hydrating and smoothing. Look for natural ingredients like chia seed and linseed extract to enhance and define your natural curls.
Type 3b curls are tighter and thicker than 3a curls. Unlike the looser 3a curls, 3b curls take on more of a ringlet shape. Due to the tighter curl, 3b curls have more volume than 3a curls.
Each curl is about as wide as a tapered candlestick. Because 3b curls are fairly tight and springy, this hair type will be a lot longer when wet, as compared to when dried.
Though not the most difficult to style of the curly textures, type 3b hair can be hard to manage.
If you have a 3b hair type, then good luck if you’re trying to change your curl pattern! Trying to brush them out or using a flat iron will just make your hair frizzy and poof right out.
It’s best to embrace your natural curl and work with nature as opposed to against it.
Lose the blow dryer and heat styling tools as this coarser hair texture is prone to dryness and damage. Opt for sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners to avoid build-up and tangling. If you must use a blow dryer, always select the lowest setting and use a diffuser.
Definition is key to enhancing this curly hair pattern. The good news is this more rigid texture will hold up well to heavier styling products.
Type 3c curls are the tightest, coarsest and stiffest of all curl types. The curl size is about the width of a pencil.
With type 3c curls, nothing short of chemically straightening your hair is going to make your hair flat and straight. And like with type 3b curls, brushing and heat styling tools will do you no favors, and will lead to damage and a world of frizzy hair.
Look for products that give you the moisture and curl definition you need. 3c hair tends to be low porosity and that, coupled with the shape of the hair, makes it difficult for the natural oils from the scalp to get to the tips. This leads to type 3c curly hair often being dry. This is why it’s essential to lock in moisture by deep conditioning regularly and using a leave-in conditioner before applying your styling products.
Waves and curls are definitely different and even within those two groups, there are sub-categories of waves and curls. In a nutshell… waves produce an ‘S’ shape, whereas curls create a loop or a spiral.
Don’t be fooled by clumps of wavy hair coming together to form a double helix, it’s still just wavy.
And now you know how to tell the difference and can figure out your own hair type.