Whether or not you realize it, you’ve seen Kristen Ess at work. Even if you’re not one of the millions who follow her on social media or obsess over her gorgeous hair tutorials on The Beauty Department, you have Ess to thank for making reality TV star Lauren Conrad’s hairstyle one of the most coveted looks of the past decade. Now, Ess has partnered with Sexy Hair—a line of products she’s long used—to bring her expertise to even more people. Here, she sits down with us to share her top hair secrets.
You May Also Like: This Brush Could Be the Secret to Kate Middleton’s Signature Hair
NewBeauty: Why do you think Lauren Conrad’s hairstyle resonates with so many people? You’ve made that look iconic.
Kristin Ess: Lauren’s hair is relatable to a lot of people because it’s very pretty yet very manageable. It’s got versatility and people are looking for that. They’re looking to go conservative or low-maintenance for work, and then they want to go out and edge it up with a bit of texture—we all kind of live that double life a little bit. Lauren has air-dried, wearable hair and then sometimes she loves a really polished curl or to add a lot of texture, and that’s relatable to most people.
NB: Does she air dry?
KE: She does air dry a lot, which is great for the health of her hair. If she’s going to an event, she will blow-dry, but when she doesn’t have to, she leaves it alone.
NB: Do you have any recommendations for how we can get that texture and really pretty look without having to sit through a blow-dry session?
KE: The first steps are the shampoo and conditioner. You definitely want to use something that’s going to create shine, but not weigh hair down and you want something that’s going to rinse clean. After you shower, the most important step is to use a leave-in conditioner. Then what I do is let the hair air dry 50 to 70 percent and put a braid or a bun in it. It’s still going to take that wave. Most people put the braid in when the hair is completely wet, but it’s hard to do that and still have the hair dry at the speed you want it to. Or if you don’t want the waves to lay flat on your hair, you can go 70 percent dry, then flip your head upside down, push all of the hair off the root, and then put it in a bun up top and then take it down when it’s completely dry.
NB: Is there a mistake that everyone makes when they try to do their hair at home?
KE: The biggest game-changer I’ve ever seen is when people go from not using a leave-in conditioner to using one. You wouldn’t catch me dead doing a client without putting on leave-in conditioner. People tend to go straight from shampoo and conditioner to styling. They’re not thinking about that middle step, which is preparation for the style. People don’t realize how big of a deal it is. It changes the quality of the hair, and it changes how long the hairstyle lasts because it provides a buffer. If you’re just using something that’s alcohol-based and drying on the hair, then it gets frizzier much faster.
NB: So you would use a leave-in conditioner after you’ve already used your normal conditioner?
KE: Yes, always—even on the finest hair. It’s just a matter of if you’re going to spray two sprays or if you’re going to spray 10 sprays. There’s really not anyone I can think of that I wouldn’t use it on. Just don’t use it on direct roots of your hair is super fine. The one mistake you can make is letting your hair air dry even the slightest bit and then putting a leave-in conditioner on. You have to put it on super wet hair because that’s the only way it’s going to disappear and you’re not going to feel anything, so towel-dry it right out of the shower and use spray to leave it in. The general misconception is that you can go get dressed and do your makeup and then spray leave-in before you blow-dry once it’s air-dried for a little bit—you can’t do that if you want maximum potential to come from a leave-in conditioner. You have to put it in wet hair.
NB: Speaking of styling—there are some trends, like a braid that seems like they’re never going out of style.
KE: We’re always finding new ways to do braids. I don’t think that the classic French braid is necessarily a huge thing right now nor are super complicated braids. I feel like people that attempted and failed with complicated braids so many times that they’re like, “I’m not doing that,” and the whole world is a little wiser about what’s achievable and what’s not.
NB: Right, I can barely do a basic braid on my own hair.
KE: So you know what I mean, it’s really hard. But that’s the thing is a basic braid with the right texture is way more beautiful than a 17-strand braid. The trick is to get the volume. One technique is called pancaking, where you gently tug at each loop to kind of loosen it up and soften it up and add a little texture. I always use the Sexy Hair powder, called Powder Play, and I pancake with it. It changes the braid game completely. You sprinkle it on and this is the difference. If you sprinkle it on versus spraying something else on, you can kind of tap it in and you’ll notice it goes through the braid and works its way into the braid. Then, when you go to pull it apart, it’s almost like hairspray from the inside, so the braid doesn’t fall apart. It’s bizarre and magical and wonderful, so it just has this support where, you know you’re scared to tug on a piece because you’re like, “I don’t want it to fall out,” but there’s some kind of hold that happens from the polymers in there that I think just, it’s so great.
NB: Do you have any good styling tips for women who have finer hair?
KE: Getting a clean surface is number one. You really have to make sure that you get your scalp clean because if there’s any oils on your scalp, it’s just going to weigh it down. Finding the right balance between cleansing and moisturizing is really important because you also don’t want to use something that’s going to dry your hair. Don’t use a clarifying shampoo every single time that you’re using shampoo. I like shampooing twice and I think it changes my game completely.
Then, use very light conditioning, only from middle to ends. Not on the roots. Then, blow-dry it upside down. That’s a classic mom move but it totally works. I would also say that, as a big picture thing, you really just want to steer clear of really sticky products because if there’s moisture in the air, and even just the moisture in your scalp from sweating, it’s just going to get wet and it’s just going to drag that right down.
One other thing: Try not to wash your hair over the weekend because the more you wash your hair, the more your scalp is going to want to produce oil to make up for the washing off. Sulfate-free products are great for people who have finer hair or kind of oily hair because they leave your natural oils on the inside and take away all the ones that kind of weigh your hair down, so your hair’s not desperate to produce oil to get it back up there. I found that over the weekend, if I just kind of did a little dry shampoo and just sort of let my hair be, it stops producing so much oil if I just give it that break.
NB: Is there a look that you think no one should be scared to try?
KE: There was, for a long time, obviously for the last couple years, the bobs and lobs have been off the charts, but I think that was a really interesting time because where I come from in the hair world, every woman that would come sit in your chair would be like, “I’m so scared to do a bob. I’m not at my thinnest, I have a wide face, etc.” Everyone has had this fear that, oh, it’s going to accentuate this one thing and I don’t want it to accentuate that. It’s so funny because it doesn’t do that.
As stylists, we re-incorporate thinning and can create short styles that are looser with freer texture, so it’s just not the severe bob that it once was. It feels a bit softer and a bit more feminine, and less harsh. You can absolutely create different shapes with it, like leave it a little longer in the front if you’re not comfortable going above your collar bone. It’s just so customizable now for every issue you may have, and hair dressers know how to work with that and I think everybody was terrified, “Oh, I’m getting older, my neck is wrinkling,” but you don’t have to be scared of that because you can cut layers into it a certain way that, if you don’t want to clear your neck completely, you don’t have to, but you can still wear shorter hair.
NB: I totally agree with you on that. The lob and the bob are my favorite. I think it’s everybody’s favorite now.
KE: It really is, like, by 2020, are we all just going to have lobs and bobs? I feel like it’s possible.