Curl activators and leave-in conditioners are very popular hair styling products for curly hair.
If you’re a curly girl or you have unmanageable frizz, I’m sure you’ve stumbled upon Cantu’s Curl Activator.
There are also a lot of popular leave-in conditioners, and in this post, I will explain how I use both.
I discovered these products a while ago, and they both changed my world.
I talk about how I use Cantu here in this post.
I’ve also explained the difference between a curl activator and a curl cream in this post.
And I’ve gone ahead and explained the difference between a curl cream and a curl mousse in this post.
Both the curl activator and leave-in conditioner are designed to moisturize hair and reduce frizz.
A leave-in conditioner moisturizes your hair, detangles it, reduces frizz, and protects it from heat styling tools and UV rays.
A curl activator enhances your curls and gives them a stronghold so they look healthy and glossy all day.
If your hair is wavier and you don’t need a heavy product, a leave-in conditioner might be all you need.
Both the curl activator and a leave-in conditioner may seem similar, but there are some key differences between the two.
I’ll talk about curl activators vs. leave-in conditioners in this post and then cover the ones I like best and have genuinely worked for people I know and me.
Let’s dive in!
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Curl Activator vs Leave-In Conditioner – What’s the difference?
A Curl Activator is a liquid or spray product that is typically applied to wet or damp hair before styling.
It’s not a cream texture; it’s more liquidy and milky – that’s how I’d describe it. The Cantu Curl Activator has got a thick milky consistency.
This is how a curl activator looks:
It contains ingredients to help activate and enhance natural curls, making them more defined and bouncy.
Now, a curl activator usually has a lightweight, non-greasy texture and is often used by people with fine or thin hair.
For example, even though I have curly hair that’s very dense, my hair is fine. I’m not talking about hair density but hair thickness.
Fine hair is a hair type that refers to the thickness of individual strands of hair. Hair thickness, however, is characterized by the diameter of each hair strand which can range from thick to medium to fine.
So, if this is your hair, the curl activator will work wonders for you.
Because the curl activator is lightweight and milky.
It is not going to weigh down your hair.
And it’s a great option for people who want to enhance their natural curl pattern without weighing down their hair or creating a stiff, crunchy texture.
I’ve been using the Cantu Activator for years!
And I create an emulsion before applying it to my damp hair. I’ll explain that in a bit.
A curl activator contains no petroleum, so it’s milky and smooth.
The only curl activator I recommend to every curly girl is the Cantu Curl Activator.
Let’s move on to a leave-in conditioner.
A Leave-In conditioner is thinner and more runny. It’s applied right after a shower – so your hair needs to be damp before applying a leave-in conditioner.
So, this is how a leave-in conditioner looks:
It’s way more watery and runny than a curl activator.
It doesn’t need to be rinsed off (hence the term leave-in), so it goes onto your hair before a curl activator or a hair cream.
And a leave-in conditioner provides moisture and nourishment to your hair throughout the day.
A leave-in conditioner basically moisturizes your hair and prevents it from becoming dry and brittle.
It’s very helpful to detangle your curls – it provides a nice slip, so you can use your fingers to detangle your hair.
It does add a nice shine and softness to your curls (which will be further enhanced with a hair cream or a curl activator)
It reduces frizz and also prevents breakage because it does help your hair become stronger.
And most of all, because it provides moisture and seals the moisture inside the hair cuticles, your leave-in conditioner will give your hair a nice, glossy, polished look.
Now, curly girls tend to lose moisture very quickly, so it’s vital to moisturize your hair right after a shower.
I use a leave-in conditioner right after my shower.
And if I want to style my hair because I’m going out for lunch or a coffee, I go in with my curl activator.
What are the best leave-in conditioners for curly hair?
3 Leave In Conditioners I highly recommend (and I’ve used all of these and love them) are:
- Cantu Leave-In Conditioning Repair Cream with Argan Oil (I’m a huge fan of Cantu products, and I genuinely love how inexpensive and wonderful this is)
- SheaMoisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil Leave-In Conditioner For Damaged Hair 100% – Another solid leave-in with so many good ingredients!
- Garnier Hair Care Fructis Triple Nutrition Curl Nourish Butter Cream Leave-In Conditioner – I’ve never been a huge fan of Garnier, but this particular line of curly hair products seems to have struck gold.
In what order do I use the leave-in conditioner and curl activator/curl cream?
So, the order of the hair products are:
- The leave-in conditioner goes into your hair first, moisturizes the curls, and protects your hair from environmental stressors or heat styling tools.
- The curl activator goes in second – working its magic, enhancing your curls, and providing a nice, strong hold so you can look fabulous all day!
What is the difference between a leave-in conditioner, curl activator, and curl cream?
So, now as you can tell, a leave-in is something all curly girls can use because it provides the base for moisture.
After that, depending on your hair type, you can go in for a curl activator/curl cream/butter.
So, if I were to arrange the products in order of density and thickness, it would go like this:
Leave in Conditioner < Curl Activator < Curl Cream < Curl Butter
Leave-in Conditioner is the most runny.
Curl Butter is the most waxy and buttery.
Are you getting my drift?
When to use the curl activator vs leave-in?
You can use both – as a curly girl.
You actually don’t need to pick either one.
If your hair needs moisture (whether you have wavy/curly/coily hair), you definitely need a leave-in conditioner.
And if you want enhanced curls, then you go right in with a curl activator after putting in the leave-in conditioner.
1. Look at your hair type
If you have fine or thin hair and your curls aren’t very thick, then you might be fine with just a leave-in conditioner.
In my case, since my hair is fine and but I have 3B curls, I use a curl activator after my leave-in conditioner. I’ve used the Cantu Curl Activator for years and have never considered switching.
If you have thick or coarse hair or maybe kinky curls and want a more structured, defined look and you don’t mind the heavyweight or cream, then use a curl cream or butter after your leave-in conditioner.
Ultimately, it’s all about experimenting and finding a product that works best for you and your unique hair type.
2. Look at your weather
If you stay in a tropical climate with hot and humid weather, do not skip the leave-in conditioner.
The leave-in conditioner will penetrate your curls, give them that moisture and then seal the moisture in before it protects your curls from harsh weather and other environmental stressors.
I stay in India, so I really like the consistency and feel of my leave-in conditioner, followed by my curl activator.
But if you stay in a country with a very cold climate, you can use a curl cream or curl butter after the leave-in conditioner because this will prevent your hair from losing moisture.
For instance, one of my friends stays in Alaska, and her hair is exposed to snow and cold most of the time, so she uses very heavy curl creams after her leave-in conditioner.
This is something you should consider too!
How to use a leave-in conditioner for curly hair?
Step 1: Start with clean hair
Shampoo your hair as you normally would.
A leave-in conditioner should go into washed, clean hair.
You can gently towel-dry your hair so that your hair is damp. A leave-in conditioner should always be applied to damp hair.
Step 2: Squeeze a decent amount of conditioner onto your palm
The amount you need will depend on your hair length and hair thickness.
So always start with a small amount and add more as needed.
Step 4: Apply evenly to your hair
You can now apply the leave-in conditioner to your hair using the preying hands’ method (where you comb it evenly with your fingers), gently detangling as you go along, or you can also use a wide-toothed comb.
I used to use a comb, but now I prefer my fingers because I’m sensitive to knots and can gently detangle my hair as I apply the leave-in conditioner.
Step 5: Do not rinse!
You are done!
You don’t need to rinse out the leave-in conditioner.
It should not feel sticky or uncomfortable. It should feel soft, glossy, and just right!
If you are uncomfortable with your leave-in, use less product next time, or switch to a different leave-in.
And now, you can go in with a curl activator or curl cream.
How to use a curl activator?
Now, obviously, there are different methods.
But let me explain how I do my hair:
Step 1: Wet your hair and detangle
You never want to work with hair with knots and tangles in it; your hair just won’t be defined.
I don’t prefer working with uber-wet hair that’s soaking wet because the cream doesn’t get absorbed properly.
I work with damp hair by using a curly hair spray bottle and then misting my hair throughout the process.
Divide it into sections and detangle your hair gently with your fingers.
Step 2: Create an emulsion with the curl activator and water
If the curl activator is too thick for you, mix it with a little water in the palm of your hand and rub it with both hands to warm up the product.
I don’t know why it works; it just does.
It forms a nice milky structure.
Hack: Because I go through the Cantu Activator so quickly, I use an empty bottle to create the emulsion. I just put a little cream in it, mix it with water, and then shake it up so it becomes nice and milky.
You’ll get a thin coconut cream-like consistency when you put it in your hand.
Step 3: Apply the cream in sections
I use the preying hands’ method to apply the cream to my hair in 4 sections. Take your time with this, don’t rush.
Let your curls absorb the product, and you’ll immediately notice how the texture becomes soft and bouncy.
Step 4: Air dry or diffuse
I don’t diffuse because my hair dries fairly quickly due to the climate here.
Sometimes, I take an auto ride, and the wind dries my hair!
I don’t use gel on most days and I let my hair air dry and honestly, it’s beautiful. I love the results!
You can also diffuse just the crown section of your hair and let the rest air dry so that your curls set nicely. This is a tip I got from my hairdresser, and I’m immensely grateful to him for it!
But you can finish up with a gel if you know you don’t want your hair to fluff up! I do this when I attend big events or festivals. You need less gel than you think.
And there you have it!
I hope you found this post useful and understood the major differences between a curl activator and a curl cream.
Hopefully, you now know what will work best for your hair, and even if you don’t – experiment!
I’ve given you my product recommendations as well.
I’m going to leave some links to more posts that you might find helpful as a curly girl:
- Curl cream vs curl mousse: Which to use and when?
- Curl activator vs curl cream: Which to use and when?
- 5 Steps to Revive Second-Day Curls (Quickly and Easily)
- 7 Easy Ways to Scrunch Out the Crunch Without Frizz
- 5 Reasons Your Curls Look Wet After Drying + How to Fix it
- 9 Reasons Why Your Curly Hair is Becoming Wavy (+How to Fix it)
- 7 Real Reasons Why Your Hair is Getting Shorter Without Cutting It
- How to Dry Transitioning Hair without Heat [Solved]
- 13 Reasons Why Your Curly Hair Looks So Dry and Messy + How to Fix It
- How to Properly Care for Long 4C Low Porosity Hair [Explained]