Everything You Need To Know About Dyeing Curly Hair

From an expert

by Tamim Alnuweiri

It might seem like there would be a lot of hard parts about growing up as the middle of five children, but by far the hardest things was that, despite my huge family, no one understood my hair. I was the first and only person for generations to have curly hair. This basically meant that no one knew how or what I should do with my curly locks, including me, and it took me years to learn to embrace my curly-haired self.

Throughout high school, my sisters experimented with hair dye—everything from those really streaky, chunky highlights of the early 2000s to dip-dying the ends green in the 2010s to going silver last year. During all of their dyeing expeditions, my hair stayed the same. It’s not that I didn’t want bright orange tiger-striped streaks, it was that I was scared senseless of dyeing my tresses. 

I’m not sure that there is any casual cosmetic decision more shrouded in mystery and old wives’ tale older than dying curly hair. I just never seemed to be able to find a clear answer as to what it would do to my locks. All anecdotal evidence pointed to the end of the world. A friend’s mom said that her curls thinned and started falling out after she dyed her hair. Another friend claimed that she had completely lost her curl pattern. A girl in my English class said that it had left her hair in a permanently frizzy state.

I’ve already always had a complicated relationship with my hair. I might threaten to shave my head most mornings, but I’d still lose it if I ever lost my curls. Recently, though, I’ve been itching to do something different. Instead of continuing to pore through the horror stories of hair dye-killing curls, I decided to speak with an actual expert who would have real answers and advice that wasn’t centered around a story they heard from their third cousin twice removed. I spoke to Colleen Flaherty, the head colorist at NYC's Spoke & Weal (the only salon I’ve ever returned to for a haircut), to figure out what is possible for curly hair when it comes to color. Here's what she had to say.

Is it true that dyeing your hair can kill your curl pattern?

It depends on how strong or weak the hair is, on the person’s curl, and their type of hair. There are some people where I can lighten them up, and their curl is completely fine, and then there are some people where it loosens up their curl just a little bit. During a consultation, I always say to someone with curly hair that it might change their curl pattern or whatnot, so don’t be alarmed.

Can people determine the strength of their curl?

If your hair’s been processed over and over again, you will most likely lose the curl pattern. If a person has fine curly hair, it might become a little bit more limp after dye; this won't happen as much if the hair is strong or coarse. It all depends on your texture of hair. It also depends on the product that you use, because if you’re not using the right products, you might not get as much curl as before.

When curl patterns are destroyed, is that usually recoverable or permanent?

The only time I’ve actually ever seen a destroyed curl pattern, it’s been in one area. I’ve never seen it completely over the whole head. It’ll maybe be one or two curls [that are affected], and maybe after a month, [the curl pattern] will start to come back again. But I’ve never seen someone’s curl go completely straight. 

Should people with curly hair stay away from anything specific? Like bleach, for example?

It just depends on their texture and the type of their hair. I don’t think curly hair should be scared of bleach or what we use as a lightener, but it all depends on how the colorist is coloring their hair. They could completely damage it if they’re not using the right product or if they’re not using it correctly.

Are there any red flags to look out for? 

I don’t think there’s anything that you should stay away from. I think you should go to someone who's comfortable coloring curly hair. And if you feel strong and have done your research on who you’re seeing, so that you can make sure they can give you the result that you want, then I don’t think you should be afraid. The colorist that’s coloring your hair should be able to determine what will look good and best for you, and you guys should have a consultation about what the best look is for you.

What is the most important thing you think people should know about dyeing their hair when it’s curly?

If you’re getting highlighted, your hair is going to look different every day because your curl pattern can look different every day. Not that it would be completely different, but you might see more color one day and a little bit less the next day. But that’s beautiful too because you get different versions of color!

What’s the biggest difference between dyeing curly and straight hair?

Say you wanted to color your hair dark and all one color; the thing with curly hair is it might look lighter on top and darker on the bottom because you have all of this curl down there, where it can start to look kind of like a black hole. You have no movement because you’re not seeing that curl, so that’s something different. Whereas with straight hair, you kind of get to see it a little bit more. When it comes to curly hair and wanting to go darker, I tend to put little pieces of something a few shades lighter just to give that hair down toward the end a little more reflection, so it doesn’t feel kind of like a black hole or like you can’t see your curl because it looks so dark.

After dyeing hair, what should you be doing for maintenance?

I always recommend using a color-safe shampoo and conditioner and then always using a product that benefits your curl completely. If you’re not using stuff that’s going to help your color, then it could easily fade, but it also depends on your texture. If your hair is a little more dry, then maybe we would just recommend a shampoo to give it something more moisturizing for your curl. But always use a professional-grade product.

Any other wisdom or tips for curly hair?

Lion Babe’s hair is great, and she’ll do this little trick: She’ll diffuse her hair and then at the end, she’ll go with a little curling iron to define the curls a little bit more—that way it looks a little bit more put together.