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15 Best Curly Hair Gels for 3a to 4c Hair (and How to Apply Them)

The enemy of my childhood is actually my new BFF!?

best curly hair gels and how to use them

If the last time you used hair gel on your curls was before you had a driver’s license/a real sense of self, then hi, yeah, same. Despite being a beauty editor, I spent the majority of my adult life thinking of hair gels as the quickest way to leave my curls crunchy, flakey, and stiff…just like 13-year-old me liked it. But after getting deep into the Curly Girl Method a few years ago (a technique—nay, a way of life—of getting truly excellent curls) and finding that a main component of said perfect curls was hair gel, I decided to revisit the nemesis of my past. And, folks, I truly cannot emphasize this revelation enough: Curly hair gel is the freaking key to excellent-looking hair.

If you already knew this, then wow, very rude of you not to TELL ME SOONER?! But you may also keep scrolling to find what you really came here for: the best curly hair gels of 2022 (like, actually. As in I read reviews and studied ingredients and consulted with stylists). But if you’re still skeptical, or if you’ve tried curl gels in the past with meh results, allow me to crack open the world for you. Please keep reading to find the 15 best (but actually) curly hair gels for types 3 and 4 hair.

Our top curly hair gel picks of 2022

K, now keep scrolling for the complete breakdown, plus everything you need to know about how to actually apply gel to your hair, why that "crunchy" finish is actually a good think (yup, really), and what to look for in the best curl gel.

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Best Curl Gel for Fine Hair
Jessicurl Spiralicious Styling Gel

  • Lightweight and creates strong definition
  • Free of glycerin (so less frizz in humid weather)

  • Doesn't have strong hold

Behold! The gel heard 'round the world! This lightweight, formula was actually my first step back into the world of hair gels, and I was really, truly shocked by how well it defined and clumped my super-fine 2c/3a curls without making them greasy. On clean, sopping-wet hair, I just rake and scrunch a quarter-size squeeze through my flipped-over, sopping-wet hair, then immediately plop for 20 minutes and air-dry.

THE REVIEWS: "This stuff is my holy grail," reads one review. "I started the Curly Girl Method a few months ago and read about this numerous times from other curly girls. I've never had curl definition like I do with this gel. Yes, it leaves the crunch (gel cast!), but I scrunch out the crunch (SOTC) once it's dry and I'm left with beautiful, soft ringlets. AH-MAZE-ING."

Best Hair Gel for Wash and Gos
Adwoa Baomint Moisturizing Curl Defining Gel

  • Doesn't flake or feel stiff

  • Easy to use too much, so start slow

This cream-gel hybrid is pure moisturizing goodness in a jar, and basically every reviewer swears by its wash-and-go powers. It's incredibly thick and rich (thanks to the zillion different oils in the formula), so a little goes a long way, but even if you go overboard, your coils won't be left with any crunch or flakes. Rake it through your sopping-wet hair in sections, re-wetting each section as you work (trust the process), then air-dry or diffuse. The result? Definition, shine, volume, joy, etc.

THE REVIEWS: "I have a TWA, so wash n go's is my style for now," reads one tester's review. "This is my go to gel, it does not leave my hair sticky, hard or crunchy like other gel products that I have used in the past. This leaves my curls poppin."

Best Curly Hair Gel for Protective Styles
Curls Ultimate B Smooth Curl Butter Gel

  • Helps hair stay elongated and moisturized

  • Reviewers say it's easy to use too much

If you've ever used a gel that's pure hold and nothin' else in your protective style, you already know that too much structure can be a drying nightmare. But this castor oil-based gel has enough slip and hydration to keep your braids, knots, and twists moisturized and held without drying them out or feeling stiff. Buttery-smooth is real here.

THE REVIEWS: "I use B Smooth Curl Butter for my two strand twists and the definition is on point," one tester writes. "It doesn't cause shrinkage and smells really good. Also very lightweight."

Best Curly Hair Gel Overall
Kinky-Curly Original Curling Custard

  • Can be used on on virtually all curl types

  • May be too heavy for ultra-fine waves or curls

There's a reason why this this hair gel is one of the most popular recs for curly and coily hair: It lightly clumps, moisturizes, and defines, without leaving behind flakes. If this is your first custard encounter, think of it as a thicker, heavier, way-more-moisturizing gel (so less is more if you have super-fine or low-porosity hair). Try layering it over your leave-in conditioner on sopping-wet hair in sections, then plop and dry your curls, or smooth on a curl cream or butter for more moisture before twisting, braiding, or drying your hair.

THE REVIEWS: "It gives my hair shine, defines my curls beautifully, and does really well in keeping frizz under control (my hair won't ever be frizz-free because I have a patch that hates me)," one tester writes. "For new users: it feels crunchy after drying, but all you have to do is scrunch with some light oil, or just your hands, and you have beautiful soft curls."

Best Hair Gel for Wavy Hair
Briogeo Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Quinoa Frizz Control Gel

  • Helps strengthen damaged hair with use

  • Protein-heavy, which can build up on some hair types

Waves and loose curls fall into a very finicky territory where the right products can magically enhance their texture...while the wrong products can fully straighten them out. This protein-rich gel, however, is one of the good ones. It's lightweight, non-sticky, and silicone-free, so it'll help define your wavy hair without weighing it down. Rub a squeeze of gel between your palms, flip your sopping-wet hair over, and gently scrunch the gel to encourage your wave/curl pattern.

THE REVIEWS: "This is a great curl gel if you know your hair's needs and likes. I have 2c/3a hair that wants all the protein all the time," reads one review. "This is my go to gel for moderate hold, definition, and softness."

Best Curly Hair Gel for Gel Casts
Aussie Instant Freeze 20-Hour Hold Hair Gel

  • Gives the best and strongest hold

  • Too drying for type-4 hair

If you legit cannot get a gel cast to save your life (it's an art! I still struggle! Help!) try this strong-hold gel. It'll clump your curls to help protect them against frizz and humidity while you diffuse or air-dry. Remember to wait until your hair is 100 percent dry, though, before breaking the cast or "scrunching out the crunch," lest you awaken the frizz demons.

THE REVIEWS: "This gel is amazing if you want a nice cast with NO flakes!! I always come back to this gel!," one reviewer writes, "It mixes well with many products, leaves a hard cast, and gives major volume! Def love if you want a hard hold gel."

Best Strong Hair Gel for Fine Curls
Giovanni L.A. Natural Styling Gel Strong Hold

  • Doesn't leave curls feeling limp or greasy

  • Isn't moisturizing, so dry hair may need to to use with a cream

Usually, strong-hold gels can just weigh down fine curls. But this formula uses aloe and mallow extract to define thinner, drier curls and create a strong gel cast—all without weighing them down. It's Curly Girl Method-approved (as are most of these gels on this list), safe for low-porosity hair, and under $10. Yes, to all of this.

THE REVIEWS: "I have 2c-3a-3b curls, and my hair is very fine and low density," one tester's review reads. "I've been looking for a gel that will hold my curls and define them without weighing them down. This gel does just that and helps with volume. Also, this gel reactivates the next day with just water."

Best Curl-Enhancing Gel
MopTop Salon Anti-Frizz Medium Hold Gel

  • Helps curls clump together

  • Doesn't create a strong gel cast (if that's your preference)

If you've got fluffy waves or loose curls that need a little extra help in the curling and clumping department, try this medium-hold hair gel. It's more moisturizing than it is defining, so it'll add softness and shine while helping to encourage your natural curl pattern without a crunchy finish.

THE REVIEWS: "This is my holy grail, never-fail wavy curly gel perfect for literally ALL climates," one reviewer writes. "It leaves a light cast that easily scrunches out and leaves frizz free defined voluminous wavy curly hair! I will never go without this stuff!"

Best Natural Curly Hair Gel
Innersense Organic Beauty I Create Hold Styling Gel
Now 10% off

  • Excellent for low-porosity curls
  • Cruelty-free and clean

  • Can be a little heavy on finer hair types

This gel is basically all aloe, water, and honey, making it a hydrating, lightweight, defining dream for low-porosity curls (not sure WTF your hair porosity is? Uh, take this quiz immediately pls). It's best for medium-to-thick curls, so if your hair is easily weighed down like mine, don't go overboard on the application.

THE REVIEWS: "Use small amount (nickel to quarter depending on length of hair) on wet hair, diffuse for a few minutes, let air dry, then break the cast," writes one reviewer, who notes that a little of this gel goes a long way. "Your curls will be tight, frizz free, and defined."

Best Flaxseed Gel for Curly Hair
CurlMix Pure Flaxseed Gel

  • Comes in 5 scents (including fragrance free)
  • Adds major shine and definition

  • The hold and definition doesn't last past day one

You can't spend a minute (a second? Millisecond?!) on a curly hair website/forum without someone raving about their recipe for homemade flaxseed gel. Flaxseed gels + curly hair = BFFs. They add the perfect amount of definition, shine, protein, and hold to type 2, 3, and 4 hair...but they're usually annoying to DIY. Enter: this flaxseed gel that uses a touch of glycerin and oil (the type of oil depends on which of the five fragrances you choose) to amp up hydration and shine without the crunch.

THE REVIEWS: "This is the first product I've used where my curls were defined without looking greasy or feeling heavy," writes one reviewer, while another adds, "I love how my hair stayed soft to the touch days after washing it. The gel made my hair very manageable even when my waved loosened up."

Best Elongating Curly Hair Gel
Aunt Jackie's Flaxseed Don't Shrink Curling Gel

  • Won't dry out hair or leave it crunchy

  • Doesn't completely stretch hair

Not all hair gels are created equal. Or, like, even remotely equal. While some gels will give you all the hold (and all the dryness and accidental shrinkage), other gels, like this protein-spiked formula from Aunt Jackie's, will keep your hair defined and moisturized, and—when paired with a good curl cream and/or oil—stretched and healthy, even in your wash and go.

THE REVIEWS: "This gel provides great curl and hold without super crunchiness and it doesn't dry out your hair," one tester's review reads. "Because it is clear, the product is not visible while air-drying. Haven't noticed any elongating properties but I have never used a product that could actually live up to that claim with a wash and go. I won't go back to using my other curl creams. Curls be poppin."

Best Moisturizing Curly Hair Gel
MopTop Curly Hair Custard Gel

  • Surprisingly lightweight
  • Creates a medium-hold gel cast

  • Can flake if you apply too much (so start slow)

This custard is on the lighter end of the custard spectrum, so it won't feel as heavy on finer hair types (hi!). It has a bit of hold and a bit of hydration, which actually makes it killer for either adding a moisturizing layer to protective styles (try it in place of cream in the LOC method) or for helping 2c to 3c curls clump together without weighing them down.

THE REVIEWS: "This works so good on my fine hair. I put a quarter-size amount on my soaking wet hair and scrunch with my hands and then with a microfiber towel," writes one reviewer. "I let it air dry for about an hour and then diffuse. Shake/pick my roots out and scrunch again and it’s perfect. It dries with a crunchy cast, but after it’s dry and you scrunch that crunchiness is completely gone."

Best Curly Hair Gel for Twist-Outs
The Mane Choice Ancient Egyptian 24 Karat Gold Twisting Gel

  • Leaves hair looking shiny and defined for days

  • May need to layer over cream for more moisture

The ~key~ to a ridiculously good twist-out? A moisturizing, medium-hold gel that'll still give you body and movement without flakes or stiffness. This rich, cult-favorite twisting gel brings out your curls and keeps them defined and shiny (shout out to the itty-bitty flecks of gold shimmer in the gel).

THE REVIEWS: "This product is excellent! At first I thought I used too much for my two-strand twist out but the next day when I separated the twists I had the best definition & bounce I've ever seen than with any other product!" writes one reviewer, adding that their "twist out gets better every day (not adding any more product after the 2nd day) with only dampening it and re-twisting it."

Best Glycerin-Free Curly Hair Gel
Alikay Naturals Aloe Berry Style Gel

  • Lightweight enough for fine curls

  • Isn't strong enough to lay edges or slick-down hair

This styling gel is natural, organic, and fully edible (JK, please don't eat it, despite how yummy it smells). It's also packed with coconut, almond, and avocado oils to keep 3c to 4c hair moisturized and lightly held all day without feeling stiff or crunchy. And, because it's glycerin free (a rarity in hair gels), it won't cause intense frizzing if you live in humid areas.

THE REVIEWS: "So I used this one wash day, I braided my hair and put this on the ends. The next day I took out my braids slowly and my ends were POPPING," one review reads. "No frizzy ends. No flakes from the gel, and it laid down my baby hairs. Now it doesn't give a strong hold, it gives a medium hold but that's what I like. My hair is fine and I don't want anything too heavy."

Best Lightweight Curl Gel
As I Am Curling Jelly

  • Can be used on all curl types

  • Dry hair will need to pair this with a cream or oil

This curl gel (or ~jelly~ if we're gettin' fancy) has a super-thin consistency, making it easy to spread throughout your type 3 to type 4 hair. The lightweight formula is filled with aloe vera and sugar beet root to keep curls hydrated and softly defined—this definitely isn't a strong- or even medium-hold gel—though drier hair types will want to layer this one over your leave-in or oil.

THE REVIEWS: "This curling jelly is the Best curling jelly i've ever used," one reviewer writes. "It makes my curls pop like crazy and gives them a slight hold. I typically cowash my hair, put in leave-in conditioner, apply Jamaican black castor oil, then apply the jelly. You have to apply some sort of moisturizer before putting it on."


How to choose the best curly hair gel


First, know your hair type

The best hair gel for your curly hair is going to depend on what type of hair you have and the hairstyle you’re working with, so you'll wanna figure out your hair type for this. It’s not an exact science, but gels made for protective styles, wash and gos, and twist/braid-outs are usually high in moisture and soft or medium in hold, making them excellent choices for drier, type 4 hair.

On the other hand, gels made for waves and curls (think type 2c-3c hair) are usually super-high in hold and lower in moisture, giving curls a stiffer, stronger, more defined look. No, that is not a bad thing, despite the middle-school imagery flashing through your head—that crunchy noodle look is what you want. It's actually called a “gel cast,” and it’s the magic behind traditional curly hair gels (more on this below).

Give the formula two weeks

If you try one of these gels and immediately hate your hair the next day, it may be more on user error—ahem, you <3—than on the actual product itself, especially if you're working with finer or looser curl types (think: 2b waves to 3b curls), which can easily be weighed down. Which means before you decide you hate the gel, give it 2-3 full weeks of experimenting before making a yay or nay decision.

Here's how: Try the gel on sopping-wet hair and on damp hair. Try it before combing and after combing. Try it on its own, and on top of a curl cream (for drier hair types) or mousse (for finer hair types). If your hair feels too heavy or product-y when it dries, try using less gel. If your hair feels basically the same, try using way, way more gel. Sry, bb, but some trial and error is what curly requires.


What’s a gel cast and why is it good?


It’s the stiff, hardened coating that stronger-hold gels often leave behind on curly hair. As your hair dries, the gel forms a crunchy shell around each of your curls/waves, defining it while protecting it from humidity and frizz. In junior high, we called this a ~lewk~. In 2020, we call this step one. Step two is to “scrunch out the crunch” or “break the cast."

Breaking the gel cast is pretty self-explanatory and simple. Once your hair is 100 percent dry (whether that’s via diffusing, air-drying, or using a hooded dryer), gently scrunch your hair up toward your scalp with your hands, scrunching section after section until the crunch is gone and the cast is broken (check out this tutorial for a visual). To prevent frizz and add shine, you can rub a few drops of a lightweight hair oil between your hands before scrunching out the crunch (finer hair types might want to skip this and just use clean hands).

Some curly folks like to use a diffuser to break their cast, or find that sleeping on their gel cast naturally breaks it by morning. Regardless of your method, there is only one rule: Your hair must be totally, completely, 120 percent dry or you’ll be left with a frizzy, undefined mess. Do it correctly, and you'll be left with this before-and-after magic).


How to use hair gel for curly hair


It fully depends on your hair type, texture, and the look you’re going for (e.g., a protective style doesn’t require a gel cast and won’t necessarily use the same application method as a wash and go or). But if you’re going for the gel cast, you'll need a lot of gel—like a huge handful of gel for fine, shoulder-length hair. Coat your hands with gel then rake and scrunch it through your soaking-wet hair section by section (here’s a gel cast tutorial I love, if you need a visual).

If you’re using gel for a protective style, twist/braid-out, or literally any other style that’s not a gel cast, you’ll have to experiment with which application works best for your texture, whether that’s praying-hands, shingling, finger-raking, or Denman-brushing. Play around with using your gel alone, or on top of a leave-in conditioner and an oil. Like all hair products, it’s a trial-and-error situation.


Why trust Cosmo?


Chloe Metzger is the deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan with nearly 10 years of experience researching, writing, and editing hair stories that range from the Curly Girl Method to cleansing conditioners to hair types. She’s an authority in all hair categories, but is an expert when it comes to curly skin, thanks to her own lifetime of working with her own 2b/3a curly hair. She regularly tests curly hair gels, mousses, and creams for efficacy, and worked with the industry’s top hairstylists and cosmetic chemists to assess new formulas and brands for this story.

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