Dictionary of Curl Styling Products

Dictionary of Curl Styling Products

Posted by Lisa C. on

There are so many styling products out there! Our list of products available at Curl Warehouse, which is big but is certainly not absolutely everything, grows all the time.

Let’s take a closer look at your options to provide you with some ideas. Welcome to our....

Dictionary of Curl Styling Products

woman with curly hair facing away

Curl Activators & Definers

There are a few products out there that are specifically formulated to “activate” curls or waves. They tend to not provide much hold but I’ve certainly tried a few that do. They will come in different consistencies (i.e., cream, lotion, liquid-y gel). There are many different names: curl activator, curl definer, curl enhancer, curl stimulator... they're all designed to bring out the best in your natural curl pattern.

Recommended for: waves, looser curls.

Curl Balms

Balms can offer good hold for a creamy product. They are usually quite thick, almost like a cream.

Recommended for: medium or coarse textures and medium to high densities.

Curl Creams

These are - as the word states - creamy.  They are usually quite thick and will stay the same shape and size in the palm of your hand even if you tip it sideways or upside down.  They are good at providing moisture and possibly protein, so they work well for dry hair and medium to coarse textures.  Creams can sometimes be too heavy for fine and/or lower density hair.  It doesn’t mean you should never use a cream but if you find your hair is losing it’s volume or pattern quickly, cut back or eliminate creamy stylers.

Recommended for: dry and/or medium-to-coarse texture.

Here are some examples of popular curl creams:

Curl Custards / Souffles

Custards are usually lighter than gel but firmer than a cream. They may be thicker (more custard-y!) than a serum. 

Recommended for: all hair types, textures, and densities.  Some custards are used for elongation and/or twists and braid outs and will be too heavy for finer hair types. The first two examples below are lighter.


Gels are often the one styling product that becomes part of most of our routines.  It forms a protective shield around your clumps no matter what size. When the gel dries, it helps the clump hold its shape for future refreshes.  Plus it helps hold in the moisture (water) that your hair needs. 

I've broken my recommendations into two lists. Liquidy gels are runny in your hand and spill over or leak between your fingers, whereas a firm gel sits still and is much thicker. You can emulsify a firm gel with water to thin it out.

Recommended for: all curl types.

Liquidy, Lighter Hold Gels

Firmer Gels


The lighter version of a cream tends to be a lotion.  They are also creamy, but lighter in consistency. It starts to run in your hand as you move your hand around.

Recommended for: all curl types, textures, and densities.

Here are some examples of lotions for volume:

One for moisture and protein:

And a lotion for moisturizing:

Mousses and Foams

mousse gel

I have found that these two words are used interchangeably by many product manufacturers.  In general you will find a traditional mousse has the ingredient isoubutane which is combustible so the product comes out under pressure.  A foam is lighter, has a higher water content, and it comes out by pumping the dispenser almost more like sea foam. 

These types of stylers are light and usually provide hold.  They are not as moisturizing as a gel or a cream. As an added bonus these dry quickly and therefore so does your hair.

Recommended for: finer textures, oily hair, low density hair, or anyone who wants to speed up their drying time!

Here are some examples of mousses under pressure:

Recommendations for foams: (You’ll notice many are called mousse but they do not have their contents under pressure.)


Another term you will see on products is serum.  These are concentrated and used sparingly, a few drops at a time. They are formulated specifically to the hair concern or result you want.

Recommended for: specific hair and/or scalp concerns. Usually the title of the product guides you to what it does.

woman with curly hair in bed reading phone

Spray Gels

Lighter than a liquid gel and best applied to your hands then into your hair.

Recommended for: finer textures and low density curlies who find gels too heavy.

And finally...

    Combination / Hybrid Products

    There are also some products that are combinations of more than one product type.

    Recommended for: those who want a simple routine. Many of these products could be used as a "one and done".


    It can be overwhelming looking at all of these terms! You should know that many product names are based on marketing strategies and how companies can stand out or get your attention rather than what is the best choice for your hair (that's up to you).  I hope this overview helps you understand how the manufacturers want the product to perform in your hair without having to analyze each specific ingredient and it’s place in the formulation. 

    Even with all of these options, I still advocate for only using two stylers at once. You can read more about pairing Primers and Stylers in my previous blog posts to get a better idea of what you should choose.

    It is true that what works for you may not work for others and vice versa…. so you will need to experiment with these product types, and potentially within the types, to find the best fit. Always consider:

    • Amount of product
    • Hair state (wet or damp or dry)
    • Texture
    • Pattern
    • Density
    • Climate
    • Damage (from heat, colour, or both)

    Based on these things and your styling goals, you may be able to eliminate groups of products (e.g., volumizing lotions if you are naturally blessed with volume, creams if you have very fine hair, or gels if you hate a cast) from your experimenting. 

    For more information on products you can always read the tips that we place on each product page and the Directions tabs. These often include more detail on usage than the bottle does.

    Have a question or are you looking to narrow down your choices? Send me an email any time at products@curlwarehouse.com.

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