The Curly Bella’s Gabrielle Santana Shares Her Journey to Embracing Her Natural Hair

Image courtesy of Gabrielle Santana

Gabrielle Santana regularly rocks her crown of luscious curls. She’s nailed the perfectly coiffed pajón, which has drawn 18.5K followers to her Instagram account for natural hair styling tips and must-try products.

Santana, widely-known as The Curly Bella, has been transparent in sharing her natural hair journey. A #TransformationTuesday post from July shows a side-by-side image of her hair in 2013 and 2018. The caption reads, “I started relaxing my hair at the age of 13, and it took me two years to transition my hair. So when you say, ‘arghh I tried those products but it doesn’t look like yours,’ BE PATIENT. This journey takes time, but it’s beautiful.”

Like many women, the Afro-Latina influencer heat styled and chemically treated her hair to achieve straight, long tresses, but her move from her beloved Puerto Rico to New York City kick-started her hair transition. And years later, she’s got her hair routine and styling methods down to a science.

Although she’s open to sharing her experience with products and styles, she encourages people to review the insight and, ultimately, do what’s best for their hair.

“I had to teach myself, and really internalize that this is my hair and this is how it is,” Santana tells Remezcla. “I can try to make it like someone else’s, but that’s never going to work out. It’s not going to be good and healthy for me either.”

The millennial naturalista is full of gems, sharing how she manages her hair, her quick, simple hair routine (as well as her more time consuming regimen), and go-to products she picks up at Ulta Beauty to achieve her amazing signature look.

Talk to me a little bit about your hair. What type of hair would you say you have and what type of products work best on your hair?

I have three or four different curl types in my hair. If you see the top portion of my hair, it’s not as tight of a curl. And then you go to the bottom part of my hair, it’s very tight ringlets. So I have to use different products and methods for each different part of my hair. And it took me time to learn what will work best.

Image courtesy of Gabrielle Santana.
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For example, for my top part of hair, I can’t use any product that is very dense because it would weigh it down. And I have to make sure that when I’m styling it, I am styling the curls upwards. So when they fall, I have a natural bump that would give me volume. And then for the bottom portion of my hair, I have to make sure that I define the curls, because if not it’s going to be more of an Afro-texture, in comparison to the rest of my hair. So it’s different type of techniques and different type of products for different portions of my hair.

A lot of women do have different textures in their hair. How long would you say it takes you to style your hair, based upon the different textures in each area?

Well, now I’ve mastered it. [It’s now the quickest it can be] – from the moment I’m washing my hair to the moment I finish drying it, it’s probably an hour and a half. That’s if I’m not deep conditioning, I’m not doing any treatments, I’m just co-washing and detangling and putting in product and diffusing it. My hair type takes a long time to dry. So that’s what’s most time consuming for me. I usually dry up to 70 percent and let the rest air dry.

Once it’s completely dried, I pick it so I can get more volume and I separate my curls. I tend to separate my curls all day, every day, because they just naturally clump up together. And if I didn’t separate it, I wouldn’t have as much volume as I have whatsoever. So that’s, I think, the No. 1 advice I could give to girls that have my type of hair, is that you have to separate your curl and you have to pick it in order to get that volume that you’re trying to get.

What do you like most about your hair?

I love my hair because it connects me to my roots. When I see myself in the mirror and I see my hair, I see my parents. They both had really curly hair, and I see the African culture inside of me and I see the Taíno skin, and it’s a mixture of who I am. So it’s a way for me to show that I am very proud of who I am and where I come from, and I don’t let other people’s perspectives of beauty change that.

When I grew up in Puerto Rico, what was beautiful was long straight hair. And I would relax my hair and I would flat iron it until there wasn’t a dent in it, to have those long straight locks that everyone wanted. And I was envied because of my hair because I had the long straight hair, but it was so much work, and I did so much damage to my hair to try to make these other people think that I’m pretty because that was what was pretty in Puerto Rico where I grew up.

[When] I moved to the [mainland], I became the “spokesperson” for all Puerto Ricans with all my new friends, and I really missed my family. I really missed where I came from and I just said, “I’m not going to do it anymore.” So that’s when I did a no-heat challenge, which really kick-started my transition. I wanted to show the younger version of myself that her hair was beautiful. The women in my family are strong and powerful, so I took inspiration from their strength and learned to love my natural hair.

Image courtesy of Gabrielle Santana
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What does a full-on wash day look like for you?

A full-on wash day is like half a day. It is so time consuming, but I wash my hair every four days, maybe even longer. I try not to wash it too often because my hair needs those oils and if it gets completely dry, my curls do not cooperate.

[On a] full-on hair [day], I deep cleanse my hair, so I use a shampoo that removes all the build-up from my hair. Actually, one of the ones that I use, they sell in Ulta [Beauty], it’s the Kenra Clarifying Shampoo. And there’s also a Redken Cleansing Shampoo that I love also. And that, what it does, it strips away all the build-up, all the product that just doesn’t really leave your hair with just a co-wash, and it’s creating a clean slate.

I [also] like to mix my hair masks with oils. So SheaMoisture, the Manuka Honey [and Yogurt] line, has a great hair mask. I mix it with avocado oil, with black castor oil, argan oil, a little bit of peppermint oil just because it helps open the hair follicles in your hair. And I mix it all together and I put it in my hair and I put a plastic bag over my hair for 20 to 30 minutes.

It’s just like when you get a facial and they put steam on your face. Open up the pores. You’re doing the exact same thing with your hair, with your scalp. You’re opening those follicles by having that heat there and it helps penetrate … whatever product you’re putting in faster and more efficiently. So after I remove that hair mask is when I style it. So 30 minutes with the protein mask, rinse that. Thirty minutes with the hair mask, you already have an hour there. That’s without including washing, detangling, styling, and drying so that’s a two-and-a-half, three- hour, maybe four process [depending on] if I’m lazy.

Image courtesy of Gabrielle Santana.
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From September 30 to October 20, Ulta Beauty is offering up to 50% off the most loved brands as part of its Gorgeous Hair Event. Every day, they have beauty steals from from several different brands, which makes trying new items more accessible. What products are you excited to try and why?

I would use Ouidad’s Curl Recovery [Ultra Nourishing] Cleansing Oil… because you want to make sure that your hair is clean. It’s very nourishing, especially with the winter. That’s definitely great because it gently removes dirt and buildup, but it still has a good moisture to it.

[Then, I’d use the] Shea Moisture Manuka Oil, Manuka Honey and Yogurt line. That’s definitely something that I’ll pick up. They have great hair masks that are extremely nourishing and that’s something that’s already in my go-to lines. So being able to get that at a discount is even better. I’ve used a lot of their Shea Moisture’s lines. I’ve used their black castor oil line, I’ve used their Manuka honey line, I’ve used their Manuka honey and yogurt line. They are really great in putting in good ingredients together. So that’s definitely something that I would love to use.

Something that I’ve used, especially during my transition period, is the Viviscal tablets. Viviscal is a vitamin for your hair. It’s very strong. It helps you grow new hair, not just length. When I started my transition period I had pieces of my hair that broke off because of the relaxers that I would use. I would take this religiously to help me grow out those pieces, and in a matter of months my hair was almost completely repaired up. I definitely recommend those tablets.

The Ouidad Mongogo Oil [is] something that I would use to seal my hair after I style it, especially for the colder [times] coming up. That’s just a spray oil. It’s multi-use, so you can use it with your hair mask, you can use it to seal your hair, it’s a heat protectant. It’s also really good if you’re going to put in a lot of heat with your diffuser, if you’re going to style it differently. I don’t really use any heat besides my diffuser, but when you have curly hair you can do whatever you want. If you are going to style it with something else, this oil is really good to help protect your hair as well. Something that a lot of people don’t think about is that, yes during the summer, you think of the sun, you use sunblock, you use things to protect your hair from the sun, but during the winter there is a lot of reflection with snow, and you can easily get a sunburn even quicker during the winter than during the summer. The same thing is with your hair, so your hair needs that protecting, that sealant to help with those UV rays, and that oil is really good for that as well.

Image courtesy of Gabrielle Santana.
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Anything else you want to add?

I think that it’s really important, especially for women with natural hair, is to know that you’re not going to get the same hair as anyone else. People have different hair types. We all have different curls. Even if we have the same hair type, our curls are going to lay differently, they’re going to style differently, so I think that, especially in the beauty community and the curly world, learn to love your curls, and learn what works best for your hair.