How does Harvey Specter style his hair? Does he use a clay or a wax to give it that structured natural look? What about David Beckham? The guy is never caught without impeccably looking hair. Does he use a pomade, clay or gel?
Getting a great haircut is only the first step to the perfect hairstyle. The second step is using the right product to style it. Whether you pick a gel vs. pomade vs. clay depends on your hair type and the style you want to achieve. With hundreds of brands and variations on the market, picking the right one for your hair can be a tricky task.
Sounds confusing? You’re not alone but read on.
We jump in with both feet in the sea of hair products to demystify what each one does and what hair type and style it works best for. We interviewed some of the best barbers in the city and spent hour researching virtually every variety of men’s hair products. From gels to waxes to styling creams - we covered them all and summarized our findings and tips for use below.
The word pomade comes from the French “pommade”, which means “ointment”. The use of pomades dates back to Roman times when soap and animal fat were used to give a glossy finish to one’s beard and hair.
Nowadays, pomades come in two varieties: petroleum-based and water-based. According to Pomades.com, the petroleum-based variety are the original ones dating back to the early 20th century. Some of the classic pomades from that time were Murray’s Superior Pomade (1920’s) and Brylcreem (1930’s).
Petroleum pomades use beeswax, lanolin and petroleum jelly to give your hair a glossy look. They last forever and keep your hair pliable. The downside of the petroleum pomades is that they contain petroleum - not exactly a healthy ingredient - and are extremely hard to wash off.
Water-based pomades are a good alternative to the petroleum-based ones. They wash off easily but don’t last as long.
When Pomades Work Best
Pomades work best on thick hair. Most pomades are heavy and unless you have sufficient hair thickness to carry the weight, pomades will make your hair look flat. If you have thinning or fine hair, pomade is rarely a good solution.
On medium and long hair styles is where pomades shine. Duck’s Ass and Pompadour are two of the most popular hair styles that call for a pomade. It gives them some hold and their signature shine. Pomades also work great on curly hair. If you are looking the classic Frank Sinatra look (minus the hat),
Here are three great pomades to get you started.
Finish: shiny, glossy look
Hold: weak to medium
Feel: pliable, easy to mold
If you grew up in the 90s, you probably have gotten your fair share of gels. They used to come in various neon colours and were the weapon of choice for the slicked back helmet of hair.
Most gels have the texture of jelly. They are made with cationic polymers, which makes gels stretchy. Unlike most other hair products, hair gels don’t get absorb by the hair. They form a coat on top of the hair, which hardens as it dries out.
Hair gels have a wet finish but unlike pomades, they are not pliable. Once they set, you can’t play around with your hair. They literally turn into a helmet.
Some of the cheaper hair gels tend to flake after several hours. If the one you put on comes in a funky colour, then you may end up with highlighter yellow flakes with your hair. That may not be a problem if you are part of an 80s punk rock band. If that’s not you, the flakiness can be a major annoyance.
When Gels Work Best
Gels are a good choice you are looking for a high hold and highly structured hair style. Because they are stiff, gels work best with shorter cuts. Longer hair is prone to more movement and, hence, it is more likely to move around and break the stiff hold of the gel.
Since gels give your hair wet finish, they are not a good choice for thinning hair. They will weigh it down and make it look even thinner.
Short spiky haircuts with high shine require the use of gel. Gels will work well on hairstyles where structure is key. Think of the punk rock spikes popular in the 80s. To get the hair to stand up straight you need to use a product with stiff strong hold.
Hair gels have lost some popularity since the 80s. They are still available at most drug stores but today there many new products to help you achieve a high hold and high shine look without the downsides of gels.
If you want to try a gel, here are some good options.
Finish: wet look, high gloss
Hold: weak to extremely strong
Feel: hard, stiff, non-pliable
Styling creams are unlike any other product here. While pomades, clays and gels have some hold and give some shape to your hair, styling creams do none of that. Instead, they tame any loose hairs and enhance its natural look.
Styling creams are exactly that - creams. Their consistency is similar to that of a body lotion. Some tend to be thicker than others but this hardly makes a difference when you apply them to your hair.
Many styling creams are infused with essential oils and ingredients supporting hair health and natural look. Argan oil and keratin are common ingredients in many hair conditioners and styling creams.
When Styling Creams Work Best
Styling creams work best on long hair. They tame any flyaways and give your hair a natural nourished look.
Styling creams have virtually no hold and would not be a good choice for any elaborate hair style. If you are looking for a casual, natural look - the kind you’d rock on the beach or right after shower, styling creams are a good choice.
The texture and weight of styling creams vary but my experience shows that few of them work for thinning hair. If they are heavy on the oils, they may make your hair stick together in defined strands. This look could be great if you have plenty of hair. If that’s not you, you risk looking like Frodo.
If you have long, wavy or curly hair, a good styling cream will emphasize your curls and give them more definition. The key difference between styling creams and all other hair products here is that styling creams only enhance what your natural hair look and don’t augment it.
These are some good creams to try.
Finish: natural look and shine
Hold: very weak
Feel: soft, natural, pliable
In the last several years hair waxes have gained huge popularity. They are versatile and work for a wide range of hairstyles and hair types.
Technically, any product that list a wax in its top three ingredients is a wax. This makes pomades, clays, putties and many others waxes. Despite the common ingredients, these products can be categorically different. Pomades, for example, are technically waxes but when it comes to performance, they have little in common with texturizing clays.
The difference between subcategories of waxes can be more subtle. What makes a clay different than a putty and a putty different than a paste is not clear. Often, companies label a product a clay vs. a wax for purely marketing reasons. The takeaway is not to take the naming nomenclature too seriously as it is meant to be used loosely.
Hair waxes contain a high degree of some wax (e.g. beeswax, lanolin, etc.) that gives the product a hard, stiff texture. On one extreme, some waxes are so hard that you have to heat them up with a hair dryer in order to use them. On the opposite end, you have waxes that have the texture of thick hand cream.
The general rule is that the thicker and harder a wax is, the heavier it is and higher its hold is. These waxes also tend to have matte finish.
Waxes come in varying degrees of holds, shines and texturizing properties. Usually, the higher the shine, the lower the hold. Going for somewhere in between would work in most cases.
One downside of many waxes is that they are hard to wash off. This is especially the case if the wax contains petroleum or other water insoluble ingredients.
When Hair Waxes Work Best
When shopping for a hair wax, most people are looking for a thick substance with some hold and usually a natural or matte finish. This would be the right product for a short or medium-length hairstyle. If you have longer hair (e.g. shoulder length) waxes will not be the best choice, unless you apply them topically.
Any style where texture is key calls for a wax. If you have thinning hair, go with a wax with matte finish and lighter body. If you found a wax with great texturizing properties but that is too heavy, just put less of it. One of the most common mistakes men make when it comes to styling their hair is that they put too much product. When it comes to texture, less is often more.
Looking for a hair wax? These are some good options:
Finish: matte, natural, shine
Hold: medium to strong
Feel: pliable and easy to move hair around
Clays, Putties and Pastes
We group these products together because there is little practical distinction between them. Whether a product is called a clay or a paste is primarily a marketing decision. For simplicity, from here on, I’ll call them collectively clays.
Clays are different than waxes because of their weight. They tend to be lighter and contain less or no wax.
Two of my favourite clays, BBA’s Texturising Clay and LSB 85 Carats, list some form of wax toward the middle of their ingredients list. The farther on the list is, the less of the ingredient is present in the product.
Instead of mostly wax, the BBA’s Texturising Clay includes kaolin, volcanic ash and a protein complex. The result is a product with light weight and high texture.
In terms of texture, clays can be extremely pliable (almost a mousse-like) or solid. The more wax a clay has, the harder and heavier it is.
When Hair Waxes Work Best
Clays work best on thinning hair where matte finish and high texture is required. To get the matter look, it’s best to apply the clay on a dry hair. If you want some natural shine, towel-dry your hair and then apply the clay. It will trap some of the moisture in your hair and will make for a shinier look.
Clays, like waxes, work best on short hair styles. Once your hair passes the four-inch mark, you might have to opt for a different product unless your hair is very thick and curly.
Clays have two annoying downsides. Both of them could be dealt with through proper application.
If you put too much clay, you may notice that it leaves a residue in your hair. If you overshot on how much you need, just keep spreading it through your hair until no extra is visible. If you really went overboard, just wash it out.
The washing out part brings us to the second downside. Some clays can be hard to wash off. I’ve noticed the more wax and petroleum a clay has, the harder it is to get off your hair. Sometimes clays contain different polymers, which make them water-resistant and longer-lasting. This is great if you want to look well-groomed during a long day on the beach. You pay for it when you get home at night and you struggle to wash it off under the shower.
Here are some great clays to try.
Clay, Putty or Paste
Finish: matte, natural, shine
Hold: medium to strong
Feel: pliable and easy to move around
Mousses and Hairsprays
I’m adding these on the list only for information purposes. I don’t recommend that you ever use them...unless you aspire to look like a middle-aged office worker.
Mousses are usually used to add volume to medium or long hair. They usually come in an aerosol can and squirt out as foam. Once you apply them on your hair, mousses quickly thin out and form a firm film on your hair. The mousse sets the hair in place and you can’t manipulate it much.
Hairsprays were the secret weapon of anyone rocking the blowout hairstyle in the 80s. They usually give volume to long hair and set it in place. Hairsprays could be applied on different layers in your hair or as finishing touch to set the hairstyle.
Short of some alt rock hairstyles, there virtually no modern men’s cut that require the use of a mousse or a hairspray. If that’s you, check out the hair products aisle at your local drug store. These two products are still popular among many women.
How to Pick the Right Product for Your Hair
Now that you know the arsenal of weapons you can use to style your hair, all that is left is to pick the right one. This task can be tricky and costly. If all of the information above is too much to absorb, stick to this cheat sheet here.
Wax, Clay, Putty, Paste
Clay, Putty, Paste
Pomade, Wax, Styling Cream
Wax, Styling Cream