How to Select the Right Hairstyle Product

When I started styling my hair with products, I was twelve years old. I wore a v-shaped cut with bangs at the front and a bowl-cut. This look was perfect with my Bugle Boy jeans.

Hairspray and gel were the only choices for hair products back then. I did not like the way hairspray felt like I was being mustard-gassed, so I switched to gel. For the next ten years, I used gel to style and maintain my hair. To achieve the George Clooney Caesar haircut, I used gel in 8th Grade. Gel was used in 10th grade to spike my bangs. This was a popular choice for teenage boys in late 90s and early 2000s. Although I never highlighted my bangs, I thought my spiky bangs looked great with my pukashell necklace. In my twenties, I used gel to create a perfect side-parting haircut.

It was as if gel was all that was available, so I only used gel.

The Cambrian explosion in men’s hair products occurred a decade ago. This led to a much larger and more diverse market. After 50 years of hibernation, pomades are making a comeback. There were many options for holding hair: pastes, creams and sprays as well as clays, creams, powders, and sprays.

The proliferation of hair products for males has made it possible to style their hair more easily, but it also adds complexity to your grooming routine. It can be difficult to choose the right one with so many choices.

The type of hair, your haircut, and your personal preference will all impact the choice of hair product.

I spoke to Thad Forrester (master barber and co-owner of Hudson / Hawk Barber & Shop) to help me understand the complex selection process.

You’ll be able to identify the benefits of each product and determine if it is right for you.

These are the main factors to consider when choosing a hair product

Shine. The product shines and makes your hair shiny.

Matte. Matte is the opposite of shine. A matte product doesn’t make your hair shiny. Instead, it absorbs light and makes your hair look dull.

How strong the product holds your hair in its place. High hold products will hold your hair more securely and for longer periods of time, but they may look stiffer and more styled. Products with a lower hold won’t hold your hair in place as well but will give you a natural look.

Malleability. The malleability of your hair is the ability to modify it after styling. You can find products that have great holding power but are less malleable. Gel, for example, has a high hold but isn’t very malleable. After gel hardens, hair will remain in the same shape as before. Hair wax on the other side has a high hold, but it is very malleable. It can hold your hair in any style you choose, and it can be modified to keep it looking new.

The labels of hair products often include “shine,” “matte,” or “hold”. However, malleability can be found in knowing the base material (see below) as well as personal experimentation. It may also be mentioned on the packaging.

The hairstyle you choose and your personal preference will determine how shiny, smooth, and malleable your hair is. Some men prefer the smooth, wet look that reminds them of 1940s silver screen stars like Cary Grant. Others prefer a more natural, straight look like Burt Reynolds in the 1970s. You’re not going to achieve the natural look you want if you go for the matte, low-hold style and use a high shine/high holding hair product.

Thad suggests talking to your barber to discuss your hairstyle goals, hair type and to determine the best hair product for you. To be able to communicate effectively with your barber, you need to have a basic knowledge of the different hair products available and their functions.

Types of hair products and when/why to use them

If you think of hair products for men, the most obvious thing that comes to mind is “pomade.” But it can also refer to anything.

Thad explains that “Pomade” is French for “ointment” or ‘hairdressing. So anything you use in your hair can be considered a pomade.” He goes on:

This is where things can get confusing. There will be companies that produce a product with a wax base, and they will call it a “wax-based pomade.” Another company will offer the same product but call it a “hair wax” as though it were a different category of hair product. The only difference between them is that one company called their product a “pomade.”

Instead of focusing on the pomade content of a hair product, consider the base it uses. Is it wax-based or water-based? Water-based? Oil-based? Clay-based? This is more useful because each base has its own upsides and pitfalls.

With this in mind, we will classify all hairstyle products (except gel and sea salt spray) as “pomades” for the purposes of this article.

Pomade made from petroleum-based oil

High shine, medium hold, high malleability

These are the pomades that your grandpa used. These pomades are oil-based, giving your hair a shiny look and shine. Think “greasers” and “Fonzi” when you think of petroleum-based pomades. While they provide a lot of shine and hold for your hair, they can also make it greasy and last a while.

I quit hair gel and became a regular Brylcreem customer. It is a 100-year-old, petroleum-based pomade. Although it made my classic side-part hairstyle look great, in hot Oklahoma summers I could feel the Brylcreem streaking down my skin when I sweated. This caused me to get acne breakouts on my forehead. To get the entire product out, it took me 2-3 hairwashings. I liked the fact that the product was long-lasting. It allowed me to style my hair with minimal effort, even after showering only a few times. Pomades made from oil have a lot more flexibility.

Thad recommends using a petroleum-based pomade to achieve the classic look of the 40s and 50s. You don’t mind grease and want a product that can be restyled without needing to apply it again. This product is great if your hair has become frizzy or becomes wet as it turns grey.

Water-Based Pomade

Various degrees of shine; medium hold; high malleability

Thad says water-soluble pomades are responsible for the Rockabilly revival in Japan that occurred in the 1980s. Water-based pomades have the same shine and hold as oil-based pomades but without the greasiness. They set and dry faster. They can also be washed with water.

Thad points out that water-based hair products can be messy and easy to remove. “If your hair is drenched in water while wearing a water-soluble hair pomade, it will ruin your hairstyle.” Rain doesn’t wash the pomade off. Your water-soluble pomade may lose its shine and hold if you sweat.

Wax-Based Pomade

Various degrees of shine; medium-high hold; high malleability

“Wax products were born out of California’s surf culture. Thad explained to me that guys created hair products that they could use to wax their boards and also style their hair with.

Wax hair products are more durable than petroleum-based products and have a greater malleability. Even after you dip your hair in the ocean, wax will still stay on your hair. You can go out and hit the waves. Then, take a comb to your hair. Thad says that your hair will remain in the same position. It is difficult to wash out this product because of its durability.

There are many different types of waxes, ranging from high shine to matte finishes depending on which product you choose. Avoid waxes if you have curly or wavy hair. They can cause clumping.

Clay-Based Pomade

Low shine, varying degrees hold; high malleability

Clay-based pomades usually use one of two clays: bentonite and kaolinite.

Clay-based products are great for men who want to improve the texture of their hair or anyone who wishes to keep it natural. Clay products give your hair some texture without making it shiny. Thad says that clay products are very stable and can be used all day.

Fiber Pomade

Medium shine; high hold, high malleability

Fiber is an entirely new type of substance. Although it is wax-based, fiber is super sticky. It feels almost like gum when you squeeze it between your fingers. It feels like fiber, and has a resinous feel.

The wax base gives fiber products a matte finish, but they have great hold and malleability. This product can thicken hair so it could be a good choice if you have thin hair.

Putty, Mud, Cream, Etc.

Other products may be labeled “putty”, “mud” or even “cream” on the market. These are just additional names for pomades made from petroleum, wax, and clay.

“Putty is clay-based, whereas muds and putty are clay-based. Thad explained to me that they have the same benefits of a clay-based pomade. Creams are pomades in a tube. They can be either oil- or water-based. Don’t be distracted by the name of the product, such as cream, pomade, or putty. You should be focusing on the base ingredient in your hair styling product.


High shine, high hold; low malleability

Gel is a middle school staple that can be used to achieve a shiny, uniform look. It does the job. Be aware of dried gel flakes, which can look a lot like dandruff. It’s not so pretty.

Sea Salt Spray

No shine, low to medium hold, high malleability

This product is new in the world for men’s hair products. Sea salt spray, as the name implies, contains salt. Sea salt spray absorbs natural oils in hair, giving you texture, volume, and waves.

Spray it on your hair and style it. It will leave your hair matte, with some hold and plenty of malleability throughout day.

If you want a natural, tousled look, this is a great product. If you want a more sophisticated look, this is not the product for you. Salt spray is not recommended for people with naturally curly or wavy hair. It will make your hair look softer and more curlier.

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