The lack of effort I put into my hair has always been an odd point of pride for me. I brag to friends and colleagues about my $30 haircuts at student salons and cutting my bangs myself. I've used the same products since I was 13: Smooth 'n Shine Hair Polisher and whichever curly hair mousse is on sale at the Duane-Reade (typically, that's TRESemme).
When I began seeing curly hair "routines" on TikTok earlier this year, I scoffed at the teens discovering the magic of diffusers, scrunching wet curls with a T-shirt, and the occasional finger coil — all techniques I've been using for years.
Then, along came the Denman brush ($20, denmanbrushus.com).
Brushes in general are a tool that I considered blasphemous, a rebuke of all that is curly. Back in my day (2010), we curly-haired people rolled our eyes at those who would tell us with straight faces and even straighter hair, "why don't you just brush it?" when we complained about unruly frizz or tangles.
"Oh, you mean like this?" we would sarcastically reply, showing off brushed, fuzzy lions' manes that so defied gravity we might call ourselves Elphaba. A brush was not part of my curly hair vocabulary. I haven't owned a brush since the '90s. So who the hell did these Gen Z tweens think they were, showing off their routines that involved a thick-handled brush with rows of white teeth?
But when I kept seeing video after video of girls — their curl patterns ranging from wavy 2b to coily 4a — using the brush with enviably spiraled, frizz-free results, I conceded that maybe I wasn't the all-knowing curl guru I thought I was. Maybe I had yet to learn.
"Believe it or not, it's actually an 80-year-old brand," Frances Courtney, head of marketing for Denman tells me, correctly assuming I would not believe this wasn't some new fangled invention discovered by the teens. "And the brush hasn't changed that much from the original design."
The first brush was created in the 1930s by an entrepreneur from Northern Island named John Denman Dean, she says. Inspired by his sister's unruly hair, "he came up with this idea to use nylon [pins] in her hairbrush." Because nylon doesn't melt under heat, it made for the perfect tool for hot styling.
Since the 1950s, says Courtney, the brush has been used primarily by professionals — and not always for the sole purpose of creating the perfect curl. "[The Denman brush] was actually made famous by the Mary Quant bob," she adds, referring to the short, asymmetrical style with ends turned inward that was popular in the '60s.
These days, though, it's become a curl-routine staple. (There are hundreds of results for Denman brush styling tutorials on YouTube, though I personally don't have the patience for a 20-minute video that can be summed up in a 60-second TikTok.) Courtney adds that, perhaps due to TikTok and other social media, though she can't be sure, a younger audience has been finding the brush more recently. And, like they did with the Mary Quant bob, some are using the brush as a tool to help straighten their hair with the help of a hair dryer, making the flat iron seem obsolete.
The best description I've found of how the brush actually works for curly hair is the ribbon-on-scissors metaphor. Like running a piece of ribbon between your thumb and a scissor blade, resulting in an excited little ribbon curl, the brush pulls the hair taught, allowing the section of hair to snap back into itself with the precision of Elle Woods in a nail salon.
"It's all about tension," explains Courtney. The original Denman of the mid 20th century relied on a rubber base to create that resistance against the hair, but the modern brushes have replaced the rubber with TPE materials, a common dupe with thermoplastic and elastomeric properties, so the brush is safe for those with rubber allergies.
The brush is also compatible with different curl types, and will create a different effect based on the number of rows of teeth. The "original" Denman, called the D3, features seven rows of pins, though you can remove rows for a looser curl. For tighter curls, you may find the D4, which has nine rows, more effective.
Last month, after seeing the endless scroll of perfect spirals on Curl TikTok, I finally bit the bullet and purchased the D3 styler. I lined up my tried and true products and readied my diffuser.
And whadya know, it worked. Like, really, really well. My curls, while a bit flat at the roots (from what I can tell, a common issue that can be remedied with a new diffusing method), fell in perfect spirals with nary a frizz halo in sight. I've since tried a few different techniques with the brush, including spiraling it like a finger coil, and brushing both smaller and larger sections at one time. For my 2c/3a hair specifically, I've found that running the hair through the brush from my roots and then tucking the brush under as I approach my ends, works best with my natural pattern, and the slightly chaotic, Grace Slick look that I prefer.
The routine adds roughly 10 minutes to my wash day hair routine, which was only about 10 minutes to begin with. Overall, though, using the brush is a net gain in time, because the curls last for days, in need of only a light refresh (or more, if you happen to use a fat sleep mask), rather than a full wash day after day.
Before discovering the Denman on TikTok, I was a sour curmudgeon set in her ways. Now, I'm proud to say, I'm a sour curmudgeon who knows how to brush her hair.
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