Whether you recently transitioned to natural hair or have been proudly rocking your texture for years, chances are you’ve heard the term hair shrinkage before. Regardless if you have wavy dark brown hair or dirty blonde coils, almost every curly head of hair deals with shrinkage during its hair journey.
Wondering how to overcome hair shrinkage? You’re in luck. We chatted with curl expert Ashley Lee, Mizani brand ambassador and stylist, who explained everything you’ve ever wanted to know about shrinkage. Here’s how to identify shrinkage and what you can do to add some extra length to your curls if that’s your ultimate goal. We’ve also rounded up some styles and tricks to help elongate your mane, so scroll on for all the scoop.
What causes hair to shrink?
First things first, how do we define hair shrinkage?
Shrinkage describes how wavy, curly, or coily hair appears shorter dry than it does wet (or stretched). Have you ever noticed that your cotton shirt looks twice as big after pulling it out of the washer than it does when hanging in your closet? Or what about that dry sponge shriveled up next to your sink? Hair goes through similar expansion and contraction stages.
As strands absorb and swell up with water, they get weighed down, stretching out your curl pattern and putting your true length on full display. Then, as water evaporates from your strands, whether from the blow-drying or air-drying process, the hair shrinks and reverts to its tight natural shape, thus hiding your hair’s actual span.
Do all curl types experience shrinkage?
Lee says all curl types experience some degree of shrinkage. Still, those with higher curl types (think type four hair, also known as types five through eight on the Mizani hair chart) usually undergo a more significant decrease in curl length—some may even see their locks recoil up to 50 percent of their original length.
“Higher curl types are most likely to experience more dramatic shrinkage, as their curl patterns are tighter and more compact than someone with an open wave,” she says.
Certain curls and coils are also more porous than their straighter counterparts and can absorb more water from the jump, contributing to more drastic length fluctuations.
Hair shrinkage may be a nuisance if you dream of princess-length locks, but it’s worth noting that it’s a perfectly healthy and natural property of wavy to coily hair types. In fact, if your hair doesn’t spring up a bit when it dries, it may be a sign of hair damage from habits like heat styling, color transformations, or hard water usage. We recommend visiting a salon so a professional can help evaluate your hair’s health and provide a customized cut and care regimen to get your strands back on track.
How do you know if you have hair shrinkage?
Shrinkage is easy to notice. If your hair hangs over your shoulders when you step out of the shower but springs up to the nape of your neck after your washing and styling routine, you likely have shrinkage.
How do you stop hair shrinkage?
If you’re reading this, you may start to wonder, “Does hair shrinkage go away?”
Unfortunately, there are no miracle products that will completely prevent shrinkage from occurring. In Lee’s professional opinion, the best way to combat shrinkage is 80 percent styling and hair stretching techniques (we’ll get to those) and 20 percent product choice. That being said, some products on the market can help minimize shrinkage.
“Utilizing products like high hold like gels can help alleviate some shrinkage when defining your natural curls,” Lee explains.
Strong-hold gels like Redken’s Max Sculpting Gel (formerly known as Hardware 16) will help to weigh down your hair and hold your style in place, allowing you to maximize your length as your hair dries. Plus, it provides flake-free control with added thickness.
We also love Matrix’s Controller Gel to add structure and shine to curls and coils, which is part of the reinvented Matrix Styling Collection. (You can read our full review of the range here!)
Elongating creams and lotions are specifically made with waves, curls, and coils in mind. These formulas often contain nourishing oils and rich butters that help moisturize your locks and pair well with hair-stretching techniques.
Mizani True Textures Curl Define Pudding is a great pick. This lightweight curl-defining cream is infused with moisturizing coconut oil, olive oil, and marula oil for smooth strands and mirror shine—perfect for soft, touchable twist-outs and braid-outs.
Since shrinkage occurs when water leaves the strands, using products that help your locks retain moisture can prevent your curl pattern from shrinking, especially if your hair is particularly prone to dryness. After all, hydrated curls are naturally more plump and elongated.
We love the Redken All Soft Mega Curls range for parched, curly locks. Containing a shampoo, conditioner, and the HydraMelt Leave-In Treatment, the collection is made with star ingredients like cactus extract, aloe vera, and sacha inchi oil to promote hair hydration. When used as a complete system, the All Soft Mega Curls family increases curl and coil definition, moisture, nourishment, hydration, softness, frizz reduction, and shine for up to 72 hours.
What are some of the best hair stretching methods?
There are several hair stretching methods, and the one best for you depends on your desired result.
Regardless of your hair type, knots and tangles are a surefire way to make your mane appear shorter than it truly is since it causes sections of hair to clump and bunch together.
The good news is that you can easily detangle your hair in the shower using conditioner and a wide-toothed comb. Conditioner provides some extra slip that can help loosen up snags and allow your comb to glide smoothly through—just be sure to detangle from the bottom up to reduce the chances of hair breakage and fallout. You also get the added benefit of better distributing your conditioner so that your curls are evenly hydrated.
Searching for wash day recommendations to incorporate into your routine? Check out our guide on our best conditioners for curly hair.
If you want to give your wash-and-go a little extra length, Leerecommends using your hands and a blow dryer to stretch your hair longer. All you have to do is gently tug on the ends of your curls as you blow dry your hair to set the longer length.
“Make sure to use a heat protectant before this step to protect your curls,” Lee advises. “Mizani’s Thermastrength Heat Protecting Serum and 25 Miracle Milk provide great protection for natural curls.” You can use them separately or combine them to customize your curl cocktailing routine.
Interested in achieving more significant length? Lee recommends a braid-out. A braid-out is when you braid or cornrow your damp hair and allow it to dry in its elongated state. When you undo the braids, your hair will appear longer and have the texture created by the braids, which can look crimped or gently waved, depending on the braided style.
“My top hair stretching method is a braid-out, especially over the course of a few days. Braid-outs allow for some of the least shrinkage when styling, as opposed to normal two-strand twists. By styling on top of dry hair and adding minimal product, you can get the length and volume you desire,” Lee explains.
If braid-outs and twist-outs are a bit more work than you’re ready to do, you’re in luck because you can actually sleep your way to longer-looking hair. Before heading to bed, Lee suggests retwisting your dry hair to stretch your curls and add definition without wetting your strands. After your hair is twisted, gather it all near the top of your head and secure it in a loose pineapple to get the ultimate stretch.
“A ’pineapple,’ or sleeping with your curls pushed toward the top of your head, gives your hair some stretch as well as volume,” the stylist explains.
Isn’t it ironic how high buns can give straight locks some volume and loosen up natural curls? Bantu knots are stacked spiral knots that can help create longer-looking heatless curls.
First, apply a curl-defining lotion and let your hair dry until it’s damp. Next, part your hair to form enough sections for your desired amount of knots (try to keep the sections uniform in size), then coil each section around itself to make a tight twist. Wrap that twist around itself to create a “knot” and lock it into place with bobby pins or clear elastic. Want to add a chic visual element to your knots? Feel free to part your hair into geometric shapes, like diamonds or triangle sections.
Now that you’re equipped with the tools and techniques to stretch your curls as long as your heart desires, you’ll greatly decrease your chances of running into unwanted shrinkage in the future. Happy styling!
Interested in personalized advice about the best hair care routine for your mane? Use our salon locator to book an appointment with a stylist near you.