If you or someone you know has natural hair, chances are you’ve had a conversation that touches on hair type. During these conversations, numbers and letters like 4A, 3B, 2C get tossed around and can be equally confusing and enlightening. “We often use hair typing systems to discuss commonalities, product recommendations for natural hair, or even just to understand our own hair better,” Star Donaldson, Byrdie’s senior social media editor and the host and creator of Crowned, explains. By defining your hair’s unique texture, you may find better styling techniques, products, and have a greater understanding of your strands overall. Still, it is important to know the history behind the typing system and why it’s heavily criticized.
While the hair typing system has been highly relevant in the beauty space in recent years, the concept has been around since the early 1900s. Donaldson explains in the early 20th century, hair typing was created to determine a person’s proximity to whiteness based on their texture. “It was about racial categorization to support racist ideologies,” Donaldson says. “One of the earliest hair typing systems was invented in 1908 by Eugen Fischer, a German Nazi ‘scientist’ who created the ‘hair gauge,’ to determine Namibians’ proximity to whiteness based on their hair texture.”
The Apartheid Pencil Test also stated that if individuals could hold a pencil in their hair while shaking their hair, they could not be classified as white. So while, today, the hair typing system uses numbers and letters, the classifying aspect was used throughout history to compare and contrast the amount of whiteness a Black person displayed.
The Hair Typing System Today
The hair typing system we know and refer to today has different origins. Celebrity stylist Andre Walker introduced the hair typing system on the Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1990s to promote his hair product collection. Walker categorized hair into four categories: straight, wavy, curly, and coily. Over time, up to three subcategories per category were added to the chart to classify hair textures further. Walker’s system starts with hair type one as the straightest of strands, type two hair features loose waves, type three has O-shaped curls, and in type four you’ll find the tightest coils.
According to Donaldson, the modern hair charting system may help identify how a person’s hair responds to styling. “Hair types help predict and describe how different chemicals and processes might interact with hair,” she says. “This system also helps us set expectations surrounding hair health, but it’s important not to confuse hair type and hair health.”
Donaldson breaks down three criteria to determine hair health: porosity, how the hair retains and absorbs moisture; elasticity, the hair’s ability to maintain its shape after being stretched; and plasticity, the ability for hair to retain its shape.
Understanding your hair type (you can also have more than one) can help identify the best products for your hair. For example, on hair that’s naturally straight or wavy, you may opt for sprays and stylers that help hold shape and curl. Your strands may crave extra moisture for curlier type three or four hair and benefit from curl butters and leave-in conditioners.
The Hair Typing System and Texturism
While the Walker hair chart is commonly used in hair care and conversation, it has its limitations. “The system has been widely critiqued for favoring looser curls over coily textures,” Donaldson explains. This presents a more significant issue of texturism, the discrimination of Afro-textured hair in favor of looser curl patterns and smooth textures. “Even the way we speak about different hair textures is inherently based on the idea that Afro-textured hair is lesser,” Donaldson explains. An unfortunate example is when social media bullied Blue Ivy Carter for her tightly-coiled hair and compared hers in favor of North West’s looser texture. Texture discrimination goes beyond Hollywood and impacts people’s lives at school and in the workplace daily.
While the hair typing system can be a beneficial way to discover more about your hair type and texture, it’s important to acknowledge its murky gray area. “Categorizing texture, especially Afro-textured hair in the four range can be extremely restrictive and limiting,” Donaldson says. “All hair textures deserve praise and acknowledgment, and embracing our natural hair is something we should all be able to do.”