A good stylist is cheaper than a good therapist.
When I first started styling my hair with product, I was 12 years old and rocked a v-shaped bowl cut with a swoop of bangs in the front. The look paired perfectly with my Bugle Boy jeans.
Back then, the only options for hair products were hairspray and gel. I didn’t like how hairspray made me feel like I was getting mustard-gassed when I applied it, so I opted for gel. And for the next 10 years or so, I used gel to style my hair and keep it in place. I used gel in 8th grade to achieve the George Clooney Caesar cut. I used gel in 10th grade to spike up the front of my bangs as was popular for teenage boys in the late 90s and early 2000s; though I never highlighted them, my spiky bangs sure looked great with my puka shell necklace. And I used gel in my early twenties to mold a perfect side-part haircut.
It seemed like gel was all there was, so gel was all I used.
But then a decade or so ago, there was a Cambrian explosion of men’s hair products, and the market became a lot bigger and more varied. Pomades made a roaring comeback after 50 years in hibernation. Companies introduced pastes, clays, creams, sprays, and powders all designed to hold hair in different ways.
While the proliferation of hair products for men has allowed dudes to fine-tune their hairstyles, it’s added a lot of complexity to one’s grooming routine. With so many options, it can be hard to figure out which kind to use.
Your choice of hair product will depend on a lot of factors, including the type of hair you have, the haircut you’re sporting, and personal preference.
To help clarify the confusing selection process, I talked to master barber Thad Forrester, co-owner of Hudson / Hawk Barber & Shop.
After you read our guide below, you’ll know exactly what each type of product does and whether it’s right for the look and feel you’re personally going for with your hair.
The Main Factors to Consider When Choosing a Hair Product
Shine. How much the product reflects light and makes your hair look shiny and wet.
Matte. The opposite of shine. Instead of making your hair look shiny, a matte product absorbs light, making your hair look like it doesn’t have product in it at all.
Hold. How well the product holds your hair in place. Products with high hold will keep your hair in place stronger and longer, but may make it look stiff and more obviously styled. Products with a lower level of hold don’t keep your hair in place as well, but result in a more natural look.
Malleability. Malleability is how much you can modify your hair after you’ve styled it. A product can have good holding power, but be more or less malleable. For example, gel has high hold, but isn’t very malleable. Once the gel has hardened, your hair is pretty much stuck in that shape until you wash it out. Hair wax, on the other hand, has high hold but is pretty malleable. It will hold your hair in whatever style you put it in and if you later modify it, it will hold its new shape.
“Shine,” “matte,” and “hold” often appear on the labels of hair products; malleability is a quality you’ll typically have to gather from knowing what the product’s base is made from (see below) and from personal experimentation, though it may be alluded to or described on the packaging.
How much shine, hold, or malleability you try to achieve with your hair will depend on the hairstyle you’re going for and your personal preference. Some guys like the wet, smooth look reminiscent of 1940s stars of the silver screen like Cary Grant; other guys prefer a dry, tousled look, ala 1970s Burt Reynolds. If you’re going for that former slick style, but use a matte, low hold product, or want that latter natural style but are using a high shine/high hold hair product, you’re going to completely miss the mark.
Thad recommends talking to your barber about your hairstyle goals and your hair type to figure out what hair product is best for you. With that said, in order to effectively talk to your barber, it helps to go into that conversation with a basic understanding of the various hair products on the market and what they do.
Types of Hair Products and When/Why to Use Them
When you start thinking about hair products for men, the first to come to mind is likely “pomade.” But “pomade” can really mean anything.
“‘Pomade’ is a French word for ‘ointment’ or ‘hairdressing,’ so anything you put in your hair could be called a pomade,” says Thad. He continues:
And this is where things can get confusing. You’ll see some companies that make a product that has a wax base and will call it a ‘wax-based pomade.’ A different company will offer the exact same product and call it a ‘hair wax’ as if it was a separate category of hair product. There’s nothing different between the two except one company decided to call their product a ‘pomade.’
So instead of focusing on whether a product is a pomade or not, focus on the base the hair product uses. Is it wax-based? Water-based? Oil-based? Clay-based? That’s more helpful to know because each base offers different upsides and downsides.
With that in mind, for the purposes of this article we’ll classify all hairstyle products as “pomades,” except for gel and sea salt spray, which are never labeled as such.
High shine; medium hold; high malleability
These are the classic, old-school pomades your grandpa used. They use oil as their base which gives your hair a wet look and a lot of shine. When you think petroleum-based pomades, think “greasers” or “Fonzi.” While petroleum-based pomades offer plenty of shine and hold, they do make your hair greasy and stay in your hair for a long time.
After I gave up hair gel, I initially became a regular Brylcreem user, which is a century-old petroleum-based pomade. It made my classic side-part hairstyle look real swell, but in the hot, humid Oklahoma summers, I could feel the Brylcreem come streaking down my face when I sweated, and it caused acne breakouts on my forehead. It would take 2-3 hairwashings for me to finally get all of the product out. The upside of the product’s staying power is that it allowed me to restyle my hair without having to put new product in; even after a couple (showerless) days, the remainder was sometimes enough. Oil-based pomades offer a lot of malleability.
Thad says to go with a petroleum-based pomade if you really want to get that classic 40s/50s look, you don’t mind the grease, and you want a product that will allow you to restyle without having to reapply. This type can also be good if your hair is frizzy, or has become wiry as it turns gray.
Oil-based pomades to check out:
Varying degrees of shine; medium hold; low malleability
According to Thad, we have the Rockabilly revival that hit Japan in the 1980s to thank for water-soluble hair pomades. Water-based pomades offer the hold and shine of oil-based pomades, but without the greasiness. They dry and set more in your hair. They also wash out easily with water.
While water-based hair products aren’t messy and are readily removed, Thad says those benefits can also be detriments: “If your hair gets rained on while wearing a water-soluble pomade, your hairstyle is toast. The rain just rinses the pomade out. Also, if you sweat, your water-soluble pomade will lose its shine and hold.”
Water-based pomades to check out:
Varying degrees of shine; medium to high hold; high malleability
“Wax hair products came out of the surf culture in California. Guys developed hair products that they could wax their boards with, but also put a glob in their hair to style it and it would stay in place even when their hair got wet while surfing,” Thad told me.
Wax hair products offer a lot of hold and a lot of malleability, without the greasiness of petroleum-based products. Wax will stay in your hair even after dunking it in the ocean. “You can hit the waves, come out, run a comb through your hair, and boom! Your hair will stay in that position,” says Thad. The downside of that durability is that it takes some effort to wash the product out.
Waxes come in varying degrees of shine — from high shine to a matte finish — depending on the product. If you have wavy or curly hair, you might want to avoid waxes as they can clump in your locks.
Wax-based products to check out:
Low shine; varying degrees of hold; high malleability
Clay-based pomades typically use one of two natural clays: bentonite or kaolinite.
A clay-based product is great for men who want to enhance the texture of their wavy hair, or for anyone who wants a natural look that still has some hold. “Clay products add some thickness to your hair without making it look shiny. Since it’s a clay, it stays in your hair pretty well which allows for all-day malleability,” Thad says.
Clay-based pomades to check out:
Medium shine; high hold; high malleability
Fiber is a different and unique kind of substance. It’s typically wax-based, but it’s super sticky. When you pinch it between your fingers it feels like gum. It has a resinous, fiber-like feel to it, hence the name “fiber.”
Fiber products have a matte finish but have a lot of hold and malleability thanks to their wax base. It thickens up the hair, so if yours is thinning, this could be a good option for you.
Fiber products to check out:
Putty, Mud, Cream, Etc.
You’ll see other products on the market labeled as “putty” or “mud” or “cream.” Don’t let them confuse you; these are basically just more names for pomades made of petroleum, water, wax, clay, etc.
“Putty and muds are clay-based products. They have the same benefits as a clay-based pomade,” Thad told me. “Creams are basically pomades that come in a tube. They can be oil-based or water-based. Again, don’t focus on whether the product is calling itself a cream or pomade or putty. Focus on what the base ingredient of that hair styling product is.”
High shine; high hold; low malleability
If you really want a standard shiny ‘do that will stay in place, don’t be afraid to fall back to that middle school standby: gel. It gets the job done. Just watch out for those flakes that come from dried gel that sort of look like dandruff. Not so spiffy.
Gels to check out:
Sea Salt Spray
No shine; low to medium hold; high malleability
This is a newcomer in the world of men’s hair products. As the name suggests, sea salt spray contains salt. The sea salt absorbs the natural oil in hair and gives you texture, waves, and volume.
Spray it in your hair, style it, and let it dry. It will give you a matte finish, with some decent hold, and lots of malleability throughout the day.
Great product to use if you’re going for a tousled, natural look. Not a good product if you’re looking for a more refined hairstyle. Also, if you already have naturally wavy or curly hair, you might want to skip the salt spray as it will just make your hair wavier and curlier.