The Thorough Guide to Hairstyling: Part 2: Types of Products

Overview of product types and their (typical) hold, shine, and texture properties.

  • Gel: High hold, high shine, dry/hard texture. Will lock your hair in place once it dries, giving a very firm-holding wet look. Your hair, however, will be rather on the brittle-feeling side, kind of crunchy, even with high-quality gels. Works well for very sleek and controlled looks, but I personally find the texture problematic, especially for my fine strands of hair. Can also be brushed or combed out to maintain the hold without the hard look, but I’ve had limited success with this myself. Glue is a stronger variant of gel, often used for spiking or extreme styles such as Mohawks, and offers a ridiculously, superbly strong hold, and oftentimes with less shine than gel (though sometimes even more, always check the label). Worth exploring if you’re a big fan of very vertical hairstyles, or other sorts of alternative, extreme hairstyles.
  • Old-Style Pomade: High to super-high hold, medium to high shine, greasy, beeswaxy texture but remains somewhat pliable. Old-style Pomades includes stuff like Murray’s, Mr. Ducktail, and about a million others. There’s really a whole culture around all the different kinds, and each offers something a little bit different, so the typical traits of a pomade can vary enormously, and some even offer a matte finish. Generally, though, they are excellent for very sleek, stylish looks, and offer a bit more malleability throughout the day than a gel, which will lose many of its properties if you rough it up. Also allows for the creation of some very striking styles, like pompadours and rockabilly styles. Very hard to wash out, however, and can stay in your hair for days or weeks at a time depending on the brand you use. I want to re-emphasize, though, that there is a ridiculous amount of variety in these products. If you wish to delve further into pomade, and especially the greaser/rockabilly culture surrounding it, I’d recommend The Rebel Rouser’s blog[1] for the most comprehensive source of information and some highly detailed product reviews and some solid styling lessons.
  • New Pomade: High shine, Low-medium hold, slightly greasy feel with some smoothness. These are the pomades marketed by very modern brands like American Crew, Axe, Hanz De Fuko, etc., and are pretty much universally water-based and water-soluble. These are meant to emulate the malleable-texture and high-shine properties of traditional pomades, but without the at times overwhelming greasiness and the tendency to be impossible to wash out. They lose something in the process, however, and often end up providing a much lower level of hold, and are therefore not really suitable for the rockabilly styles of traditional pomades. What they are useful for is adding shine to a look that doesn’t need much hold at all, or cocktailing with other products to produce some interesting effects.
  • Cream: Medium hold and Shine, smooth and controlled but malleable and light texture. Typically a good ‘beginner’ styling product because it strikes a good balance between messy looks and highly-styled looks, creams tend to be vastly underrated, largely because it might seem like they aren’t doing anything depending on the amount you use and your hair type. And for certain very product-resistant hairtypes, creams can indeed end up ineffective, or you’ll end up having to use tons to have any effect. For the hair types that benefit from a cream, though, you can expect to add thickness, a smooth and fairly natural texture, a healthy-looking shine, and some level of control. They also provide a good amount of moisture retention, making them excellent for allowing curly and wavy hair-types to do their thing. I also personally find that creams distribute into and are absorbed by my hair much more easily than almost any other product, making them good for quick styling and for just playing around with the style throughout the day.
  • Wax: High hold, low shine or matte finish, stiffer texture but still considerably more malleable than a gel, and often with a dry feel. Generally used to achieve styles with a dry look and fairly natural texture but a more styled shape. Offers a lot of control while remaining adjustable throughout the day. Only real issue is that some waxes can be very hard and difficult to evenly distribute on your hands and into your hair, so if you plan to use wax be extra careful that you’ve emulsified it on your hands properly before putting it in your hair. The last thing worth noting is that waxes also come in stick form, which allows you to apply it to your hair much like using a glue stick. I don’t really have much experience with these, and don’t really intend to gain any more at the moment, but their primary use is in applying wax to long hairstyles more easily.
  • Hairspray: Typically high hold, variable shine, slightly crunchy texture. Hairspray is pretty much a tool for sealing a hairstyle that’s already done, kind of like a lacquer for your hair. In my experience it offers relatively little in the way of styling versatility in shorter hair (which is most men’s hair), and I personally do not have experience using it in longer hair. Mostly useful for when you’re using something like a light cream and you want to maintain the natural look the cream provides while making the hairstyle more durable and long-lasting.
  • Mousse: Variable shine but typically low, low-medium hold, lots of volume and a fairly soft texture (once it’s dried and you’ve combed it through). This is primarily what I would refer to as a prepping tool, something you add to your hair while it’s wet to enhance its basic qualities without actually styling it. A typical way to use mouse is to get some in your hands and then rub it into your wet hair and scalp, making sure to apply it evenly to the roots and strands of your hair, then blow-drying to achieve a look with a lot of volume but otherwise natural properties. Better for long hair than short hair, but useful in both.
  • Powder: An interesting little oddity in the hairstyling world, powder typically does not offer typically offer any hold or shine, but rather works to drastically increase the volume and lift of your hair, allowing you to achieve natural-looking vertical styles without the hardness or locked-in nature of a gel or glue. Very good as a prepping product to add some character and size to your hair before styling with other products, and a lot of fun to play around with.
  • Grooming Spray, Tonic, Serum: Essentially, any liquid product you put into your hair that is not traditional hairspray. These are typically used like leave-in conditioners, and will provide moisture, a small bit of healthy shine, protection when blow-drying or straightening, and lubrication for helping heavier styling products to adhere evenly. They can also work very well on their own for natural looks. A good example, since this category is a bit vaguer, is Bumble and Bumble’s Prep, which works as described above. Some of these products do offer more hold and shine, however, or may be specifically formulated to bring out the natural qualities of curly hair, so be sure to read the description as well as some reviews so as to be sure of what exactly you’ll be getting.
  • Clay: Basically, as far as product performance is concerned, clay is a marketing synonym for wax. Seriously, that’s about it. Yes, it often does include actual clay, but it performs just like a wax in nine cases out of ten. It’s typically a term to denote wax-type products which are even higher hold and will provide a low-medium shine rather than a matte finish, but this is not always the case, so do your research before buying. These can be very, very hard and dry, and depending on your hair type can be very difficult to work into your hair. There are some excellent products labeled ‘clay’, however, so it’s worth your consideration if you want to basically take a waxed look and make it even firmer and more controlled.
  • Mud: Same deal as ‘clay’ in terms of naming, only with a far more meaningless buzzword. Check out this bit from a description of Sebastian Molding Mud: “Fiber-fused mud molds uncombed-looking style for drop-dead groovy locks”. Absolutely, 100% meaningless drivel that tells you nothing about what this product will actually do for your hair. That’s not to say that these products won’t be high quality or worth using, and I can’t evaluate the Sebastian product because I haven’t used it, but you really have no idea what you’re getting in terms of hold, shine, or texture, and so it’s a big gamble for you as a consumer. If you’re willing to risk it, go ahead, as long as you don’t mind being surprised. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, however, and find a product like Alterna’s Hemp Organics Styling Mud, which I have not personally used, but which is described in mostly practical and useful detail on their website. And all that in spite of a ridiculously hippie-friendly name that seems designed to be sold to, well, hippies. Sometimes it’s nice to be surprised.
  • Anything Else: If you come across any other products that don’t have one of these names, chances are they are either very unique (and I’d like to hear about them!) or they actually are one of these products, but that fact is buried under marketing. If you have questions about a specific product I have not yet reviewed, let me know and I’ll try to find out what I can about its actual properties, and I may even try it out myself if it sounds interesting enough. Good stuff!

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