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Hair: The stuff that covers our heads can have a profound impact on everything from the way we see ourselves to what kind of day we have. It can express our personality while showcasing our ethnic backgrounds and cultural styling practices.
Knowing the differences between the various types of hair is essential for properly caring for your mane — and knowing when something is off (like hair loss).
We all have a type — whether it’s dark, thick, curly or straight. When you know what makes your hair unique, you can find better ways to style it, pick the right products and really understand what’s going on with your strands.
In this article, we’ll cover the different hair types and how to care for them. Consider this your crash course in hair types — class is in session!
Hair is complex, but whether yours is voluminous and curly or fine and wavy, there are a couple of things all hair types have in common.
When it comes to human hair, there are three main parts to the hair shaft: the cuticle, the cortex and the medulla. In terms of how the hair shaft can look is a different story.
Hair typically falls into 4 different hair types.
Type 1: straight
Type 2: wavy
Type 3: curly
Type 4: kinky
When you think about different types of hair, you probably think in simple terms like curly or straight.
When it comes to hair shape, there may be some commonalities by race. But in some cases, hair textures fall outside typical norms.
European hair is mostly wavy (about 47 percent) or straight (roughly 41 percent), with less frequent instances of curly hair (around 13 percent). Asian hair is primarily straight or wavy (47 percent), with fewer occurrences of curly hair (12 percent). African hair, on the other hand, is mostly curly (95 percent), with some incidences of wavy hair (5 percent).
What you may not realize is that there are actually a dozen subcategories of hair types, each fitting a very specific description.
Knowing your hair type is the key to caring for it properly. So let’s take a closer look at the main hair types and the subcategories for each.
Straight hair usually lays totally flat without any bends or waves and has a tendency to become greasy and shiny. Straight hair becomes greasy faster than curly hair because oil from your scalp travels down the hair shaft more quickly.
There are three subcategories of straight hair:
Type 1A. Most common in women of Asian descent, type 1A hair is very straight and fine.
Type 1B. Still very straight, type 1B hair is thicker, with medium texture and more volume.
Type 1C. While still straight, this type of hair is very thick, coarse and shiny.
Since straight hair can transport oils from the scalp well, moisture shouldn’t be a big issue. Avoid leave-on products if you have straight virgin hair, as they could actually cause your hair to look dull or oily.
Instead, dry shampoo may be a haircare product you’ll want to add to your regimen, as it’ll help soak up excess oil. But try not to be a dry shampoo devotee — you’ll still want to fully cleanse away sebum and buildup every couple of days to keep your scalp in optimal condition.
Look for a volumizing shampoo and conditioner if your straight hair tends to fall flat.
Ah, wavy hair — whether it’s beachy waves or a glam wavy bombshell ’do, there’s just something about waves. If you have naturally wavy hair, we might be slightly jealous.
Here are the types of wavy hair you might see:
Type 2A. This type of hair is very fine and thin, with S-shaped waves. It’s also generally easy to style.
Type 2B. A little frizzier than type 2A, this type of hair is wavy with medium thickness.
Type 2C. This hair type is wavy, thick and coarse. It’s more prone to frizz than types 2A and 2B and can be difficult to style.
The main issue with wavy hair is that sometimes, people don’t realize they have wavy hair. They might think it’s straight or curly and may not have the right haircare products for their wavy hair type.
Part of successfully caring for wavy hair is to control frizz without weighing down your natural curl. Your primary concerns are adding moisture and volume without losing that wave.
Look for lightweight shampoos and conditioners designed to hydrate and moisturize the hair shaft. To help lock in hydration and reduce frizz, try using a moisturizing hair mask once a week.
To keep your natural waves from becoming frizzy, apply a little styling mousse from root to tip while your hair is still damp. To lock in moisture and control frizz, apply hair oil, starting at the middle of the shaft and working it to the ends (avoid the scalp, or your hair might end up looking greasy).
When drying your hair, use a diffuser and rest the ends of your hair on the attachment to dry it. For added frizz control, turn off the heat when your hair is 90 percent dry and apply a finishing cream.
We’re often obsessed with those sweet curls that are naturally frizz-free on little babies and kids. As we get older, curly hair can be harder to care for if you don’t know how to style it (which really is the issue — not that curly hair is inherently tough to style).
Cool fact: Your follicle shape is what influences your hair’s curl (or lack thereof). Curly hair tends to have a curved follicle contour.
The bulb, inner root sheath, outer root sheath and connective tissue sheath of curly hair strands also display an asymmetric shape. Curly hair has clearly defined, springy curls, whether it’s corkscrews or looser ringlets — think of hair with bounce.
The three subcategories for curl types include:
Type 3A. This hair type has defined curls with a thick texture and lots of shine, but it can be frizzy.
Type 3B. Hair of this type has tighter curls and may feature a combination of textures.
Type 3C. This type of hair has very tight curls or kinks (think about the width of a pen) and is generally easy to style. Type 3C hair also tends to be very dense and full of volume.
Moisture, moisture and more moisture. Curly hair types can be thirstier than an Instagram model. Look for hair products with hydrating ingredients to prevent your curls from looking frizzy and give them that healthy, bouncy look.
Oh, and your shampoo and conditioner really matter. Sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners with oils and silicones will help reduce friction on the cuticle. You may also want to experiment with styling products, like mousse or curl jelly, to control frizz and define your spirals.
Hair of the very curly or kinky variety has very tight, sometimes well-defined curls. It tends to be fairly coarse in texture but is also sensitive and prone to damage by heat and certain styling products.
There are three subcategories for kinky hair:
Type 4A. This hair is soft in texture with tight, well-defined curls or kinks.
Type 4B. Hair of this type has very tight curls, but they’re less defined, soft and often fragile.
Type 4C. This type of hair has such tight curls that it may not even look curly at all.
Like type 3 curly hair, kinky or very curly hair also requires lots of moisture. Use a moisturizing shampoo and conditioner. Sebum doesn’t travel as easily down a coily hair strand, so dryness is a major issue.
You can even go au naturale and apply a weekly coconut oil mask to the ends for extra hydration. Follow up with a leave-in conditioner to help prevent tangles and really penetrate your parched strands. Certain brands, like DevaCurl, are known for making curl-friendly hair products.
Other products like hair oils and moisture-rich curl creams and serums can lock in hydration and add definition to tight coils. And a light pomade can help with styling.
Be careful with heat styling and frequent blow drying with this hair type, as it may be more prone to damage. Air-drying may be your best for very curly hair.
Very curly hair tends to be common among those with African ancestry, and research has shown that this hair type can show surface damage and breakage more easily.
Keep in mind, natural hair curl shrinkage is also a thing with very tightly coiled hair types. This isn’t a reflection of your curl pattern but rather moisture coming out of the curl, causing it to contract even further.
Just like fabrics, hair comes in various textures. From thin to thick, you’ll find silky, fine strands and more resilient hair strands that are strong like long-staple cotton fibers.
While genetics may influence hair texture, external factors can also change your natural hair texture. (Think about how coloring or chemical treatments can change the appearance of hair over time.)
The texture of your hair is typically a description of its circumference or thickness.
Fine hair tends to be thin and fragile. Each hair has two layers: the cortex and the cuticle. Since fine hair is very thin, it can become oily or greasy very quickly. It also tends to get weighed down by products and breaks more easily than thicker hair.
Most women have medium hair, which is thicker than fine hair. Hair of this thickness still has two layers — the cortex and cuticle — but some women may have a third layer to their hair called the medulla. Medium-thickness hair tends to hold hairstyles better than fine hair and has more volume. It is also less prone to breakage.
The third option for hair texture is thick or coarse. Thick hair has three layers (the cortex, the cuticle and the medulla), and it looks fuller than fine or medium hair.
Coarse or thick hair holds hairstyles well and is more tolerant than other textures to things like heat, styling products and hair dye. It’s also less prone to breakage, but it can become frizzy in humid weather and takes longer to dry.
If you’ve been wondering if your hair is thin or thinning, take a look at some common areas of hair loss.
For example, do you have a wider hair part than you used to? (Pictures never lie). Do you see more scalp peeking through? Or maybe your ponytail feels a little skimpier. If so, there’s a chance you’re facing thinning hair rather than having naturally fine hair.
Talk to your dermatology provider to figure out what the root cause is and which hair loss treatment is right for you. Our guide on hair loss in women is a super helpful resource as well.
Some of our fave science-backed treatments include:
Minoxidil drops. This FDA-approved treatment for androgenetic alopecia will likely be your healthcare provider’s first recommendation to treat hair thinning. It’s believed to work by increasing the speed at which your hair follicles go into the anagen phase. Like an espresso shot for your follicles, it helps turbocharge growth. We’re pretty sure you’ve heard of the common over-the-counter form of minoxidil called Rogaine®.
Oral minoxidil. If you’re someone who pills over topical treatments, this once-a-day pill might be a good option. And if you’ve tried topical minoxidil before but didn’t see any results, the oral form might work better. This tends to happen because not everyone has enough of the enzyme follicular sulfotransferase in their hair follicles, which is needed for minoxidil to work. Therefore, taking the pill form could be more effective for those people.
Topical finasteride and minoxidil spray. This spray is a prescription-strength topical treatment containing 6% minoxidil and 0.3% finasteride. It’s designed for postmenopausal women and has shown promising results as a hair loss treatment — even though it’s currently only FDA-approved for men.
In a double-blind, randomized trial, the efficacy of twice-daily finasteride 1% topical gel was compared to a once-daily finasteride 1-milligram oral tablet for six months. The results were similar for both medications, which is great news for women who can’t use oral finasteride.
Spironolactone. Research has shown that this once-daily pill can help treat hormonal female hair loss and encourage new hair growth. This prescription medication blocks androgen production that decreases the amount of DHT (dihydrotestosterone) in your hair follicles. DHT is not a friend to those who are sensitive to it — it’s the hormone that causes hair follicles to produce thinner, weaker hair strands.
Knowing your hair type is like knowing your romantic type. Once you know what your type is, it’s a lot easier to make the next move.
Whether you have straight hair or curlier dry hair, the right haircare routine can make a major impact. Here’s what to remember:
To thine own self be true. Shakespeare said it best. Embrace your hair texture and learn how to care for it properly. It can make all the difference in how your hair looks and feels — and how you feel, too!
Notice the little things. Take note of how your hair looks when experimenting with new styling products. See how your texture reacts and how your scalp looks and feels. We wish you nothing but good hair days and healthy hair, but issues like hair loss in women do happen, so don’t overlook the signs.
Take action. If your part seems like it’s starting to get wider, know there are plenty of promising hair loss treatments like minoxidil that can be effective, no matter your hair type. Read our guide on female pattern baldness to get a better understanding of what might be going on if you’re experiencing hair loss.
And while we did get into styling, we also have to mention that the right haircuts and hairstyles for women with hair loss can make such a huge difference. Find out which look is right for you in our guide.
If you’re ready to find an expert-recommended haircare regimen, take our easy quiz and start a hair consultation today.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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