Remember the good old days when that fish-shaped 2-in-1 shampoo conditioner was all your haircare routine consisted of? Yeah, and I bet your 'dos didn't look as sweet then either, which is why it's so important to determine your hair type before you go testing all the fancy new shampoos, conditioners, and beyond at Target.
"But Kara," you say, "I've had this hair for my entire life. I know what's going on on my head." Well, sure. You probably know if your hair is super curly or if it's so thin that it slips out of hair ties. However, if you're in between textures and curl patterns (which most of us are), knowing for sure whether your strands are medium or coarse can be the difference between good hair and OMG AMAZING EVERY DAY hair.
To help us all figure this out, I consulted Matrix Celebrity Stylist George Papanikolas (the Kardashians, especially Kim and Khloe, love him) and Matrix Artistic Director Nick Stenson (a regular backstage at New York Fashion Week). Each has their own method for determining a client's hair type, all of which you can do on your own at home. Below are the six things to look for, plus product recommendations for every style of strand.
Even though you can say your hair is big/flat/crazy just by looking at your hair in the mirror, it's the diameter of your hair that's super important for picking out the right products — something you can't tell just by looking. According to Papanikolas, you can only really test if your hair is fine, medium, or coarse by doing a strand test.
If you take a single hair in between your fingers and you don't feel anything, then you have fine hair.
If you can feel the hair, then it's medium.
If you feel a strong, thick strand, then you are coarse.
"Don't confuse the density of hair with diameter," Papanikolas emphasizes. "People with fine hair can have can have a ton of it but still be considered fine. It's looking at the individual hair strands."
If you're having trouble determining if you can feel your hair or not, Stenson recommends doing a thread test as well.
"Pull a single hair from your head and lay it next to a piece of sewing thread (putting it on a surface that's the opposite color of your hair will help)," he explains. "If it’s the same width as the thread, your hair has medium texture, but if it’s thinner or thicker, so is your hair."
Just because the diameter of your hair is fine doesn't mean you can't have a thick head of hair — and vice versa. Stenson offers up a simple test for eyeballing your strand density: "Standing in front of a mirror, grab a handful of hair at the side of your head and notice the space around that 'clump.' Can you easily see your scalp? Your hair is likely thin. No scalp visible? Probably thick. If you’re in the middle, you likely have hair of medium density."
Determining both your diameter AND density will help narrow down the types of product you should use. "Someone with dense, coarse hair will need smoothing products," Papanikolas said. "While someone with less dense but still coarse hair will need a volumizing product."
The amount of elasticity your hair has indicates how healthy it is, plus how easy it'll be to style the way you want. To test, Stenson says to "begin to slowly stretch the hair. If it breaks almost immediately, your elasticity is low, but if it stretches to 50 percent of its original length, your hair has high elasticity." If you hair has low elasticity (mine snapped as soon as I started tugging) you'll want to use a strengthening treatment, like Matrix Biolage Advanced Fiberstrong Shampoo to reinforce your strands. This should help with split ends as well!
4. Texture/Curl Pattern
You probably have a sense of your natural texture, but it's super important to know for sure before you go product shopping. Your hair naturally changes texture as you get older, plus things like birth control and other hormone treatments can affect it as well. You should let your hair air dry at least a couple times a month — it'll give your strands a break from damaging heat styling, plus ensure you're totally familiar with your curl pattern. As you can see, my hair dries to a completely random set of almost-waves, so I tend to go for lightweight serums that'll reduce frizz without weighing down what little curl I have. If you have curlier hair, try a product like Matrix Biolage Curl Defining Elixer to help give your ringlets more definition.
5. Scalp Sebum Production
This one's another you're probably already familiar with, but it's important to understand what type of scalp you have to make sure you're picking products to keep it healthy and balanced. Papanikolas says to check out your hair a day after you washed it. If it's super greasy, you have an oily scalp. If it looks basically the same, your scalp is pretty balanced. If it's dry, you'll start to see flakes on day two. Somehow I ended up with a balanced scalp (that's my second day hair above) that leans on the slightly drier side.
"Most people have a combination of an oily scalp and dry ends," Papanikolas advises. "In that case, it's best to use a volumizing shampoo just at the root area, then apply a hydrating conditioner from mid shaft to the ends of your hair."
Testing the porosity of your hair is less about daily treatments and more about learning how much chemical treatment (dyeing, perms, etc) your strands can withstand. To test this out, Stenson says to remove a single strand of freshly washed, towel dried hair from your head. "If it sinks immediately, you hair is likely highly porous," he explains. "If it doesn't sink, your hair isn't porous."
Blonde hair tends to be more porous than any other color, which is why we need extra moisture. Papanikolas recommends weekly use of a hydrating product, like Matrix Biolage HydraSource Mask, to help balance your strands.
So What Does It All Mean?
Once you have your hair type (fine, medium density, non-elastic, wavy, balanced, porous hair, in my case), you'll be able to shop for your best products a whole lot easier. This isn't a secret system — most brands will note in which hair type their product is made for, and you'll be confident mixing and matching across systems to create your perfect routine.
Another bonus? You'll be more informed at the hairstylist. It'll save you a lot of tears if you go in knowing your super porous hair is likely to be totally fried if you bleach it all, so it's better to ease in with a couple of highlights.