Your Hair Product Primer: Which to Use and Which to Avoid

The right hairstyle usually needs a helping hand from some product. Trouble is, there are so many damned kinds.

Whether you’re going for something artfully disheveled or a perfect side part, the right hairstyle usually needs a helping hand from some product. Trouble is, there are so many damned kinds that navigating the hair care aisle can be a seriously frustrating endeavor.

But don’t worry: we’re going to break it down for you.


For the most part, you’re gonna want to avoid this stuff. It’s water-based, so it goes on wet and then dries to firmly hold a style in place. The problem, though, is that it leaves your hair looking wet, stiff, and artificial. The rigid finish it causes also makes running your fingers through your hair nearly impossible after it’s dried, and it can also flake off easily, making it look like you’ve got dandruff.

That said, there is some good stuff out there. High quality versions (i.e. not the stuff that comes in 32oz bottles at your local drugstore) will give you a decent hold without drastically drying out your hair or flaking away, though it should be approached with caution unless you're buying from a well-respected brand.


This stuff is old school and heavy duty. The real versions are a mixture of oil and wax, though the lines get blurry thanks to brands who throw the word around pretty loosely. It depends on who's making it, but most are very, very thick and give a super strong hold that’s just barely pliable. It'll leave your hair with a shiny, slightly wet look, though there are some that advertise a matte finish if you want things to look more natural.

It's a great all-around pick for lots of styles. Two examples: with just a tiny bit tousled into dry hair, you can get a wind-swept casual look, or with a thicker application that's combed back neatly, you can get a perfectly slick side part.

Unless you get a type that specifically advertises itself as water-soluble, pomade will usually takes a couple days to wash out completely – good if you don't want to bother fixing up your hair every single day, bad if you want daily variety – and can make your hair look greasy if you go overboard or have naturally oily hair. So plan accordingly.


Just like pomade, but without the oil. That means they’re super thick and leave a matte finish, which offers a more pliable hold and less grease than pomade.

That also makes it more versatile. Just like pomade, you can rub it in roughly for an unkempt look, or comb it in for a side part or pushed back style, but you won't have to worry about it being too stiff and holding your hair into an unnatural position, or taking too long to wash out.

Be wary, though, since it can clump up on you. Make sure to warm it up in your hands before you apply, and be extra thorough so that it doesn’t group together in your hair.


Aside from being a strong indicator of 80’s style, mousse is a foam that coats your hair with polymers, making it seem thicker. Which can be good if you get a high quality one (look for natural ingredients like rice protein or rosemary), but is only necessary if you’re really worried about how thin your hair is.


Good if your hair is already reasonably easy to manage, or if you’re not going for a particularly drastic look. It’ll moisturize your hair while taming flyaway strands and correcting bedhead, but won’t drastically change your hair’s shape or feel. Just be careful, since too much will cause your mane to look greasy.

Hair Spray

No, it’s not just for women. Spray a bit in your hair after you’re done combing or mussing it into place to lock a style in place without the wet look that gel gives.

Like gel, though, this stuff can make your hair undesirably rigid if you use more than a little bit. It’s best reserved as a very light coat for a finishing touch to whatever look you just expertly styled with another more pliable product.

How to Use the Stuff

Choose your product based on how tough your mane is, and what style you’re going for. If you've got extra thick hair and need a lot of hold to keep your style in check, start with a pomade or wax. If your hair is easier to manage and you're only concerned about subtly taming bedhead or subtle curls, reach for lighter stuff like cream.

Whichever you choose, apply it when your hair is either dry or just slightly damp after a shower. For the most part, products won't interact as well with wet hair.

To avoid only coating the top of your hair, rub the product onto your palms, then through your hair thoroughly so that you get the back and down to the roots. Then you can run your fingers or a comb through to help even the stuff out. Comb, brush, or just rough it up a little into whatever style you're going for and then face the day in style.

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