If a hair product isn’t giving you exactly what you want, then you need to toss it and find a replacement. There are simply too many good stylers available, and you shouldn’t settle for something that doesn’t provide the precise shine and hold that you need.
But what do you need? You might need more than one product at the ready so that you have various styles in your arsenal; your high-shine black-tie styler is going to be very different from your matte weekend surfer texturizer. Or, you might choose to keep things closer to the center of the hold-shine matrix, in which case you can pick a single product that does different things. One that, if it’s applied to clean, dry hair, gives more shine and hold versus when it’s applied to clean damp hair. (We’re looking at you, hair paste.)
To help you navigate this matrix of options, here is a rundown of the products as they fall onto the hold-versus-shine grid. Know that there is some flexibility in these rules; different brands will create slightly different formulas, and technology is making it so that all kinds of hybrid products exist, as well as products that adopt one name despite mimicking the characteristics of another type.
In short, it’s a confusing game, but we’re here to help you figure it out. We’ll even recommend our favorite products in each spot on the grid.
High Hold, High Shine: Gel
It’s easy to write off gel as a product you’ll never use, since we associate it with the LA Looks helmet-tight styles of 1995. However, gels these days can still deliver high hold and high shine without feeling like liquid cement suffocating your skull. The reputable brands — that is, the ones whose price point is more than that of a footlong sub — offer nourishing, water-soluble formulas that rinse clean and don’t flake during the day.
High Hold, Medium Shine: Clay and Putty
Clays and putties vary on the shine spectrum — some promise a matte finish, but might more closely resemble a fiber. Either way, we’ll slot them here as high on hold, medium on shine, particularly when applied to damp hair. Like paste, you increase their shine and hold by applying to towel-dried hair, letting the water activate the product. Applied dry, you’ll get a little less of both hold and shine, making clay and putty good products for a fresh short haircut that you intend to grow out. Their functions evolve with your needs. And, while I’d love to differentiate between the two, I don’t think it’s distinct enough. You’ll see far more clays than putties in the market, but in either product, the end result tends to be the same.
High Hold, Low Shine: Wax and Fiber
Anytime you hear the word wax, you get a clear idea of a density and a shine: candle wax has it, beeswax has it, even your earwax has it. Luckily, hair wax is a little less repulsive than the last of that list but no less dense nor dull. Wax is great for short styles almost exclusively unless it’s part of a hybrid product and targeted towards medium styles — which would make it a little more like a fiber or a paste, and which would give it a more medium or light hold. I use wax whenever I have an inch-long style and want to showcase a bit of texture and separation instead of letting everything lay lifeless and flat. You could argue that it has medium shine, but because you can only apply it dry, it’s definitely on the lower end of the spectrum.
Apply fiber dry for all the grit and texture you want, minus any of the shimmer. Fiber is a wax-like styler that is ideal for shorter, choppy styles. It’s a little more malleable than a wax, too, and works for texturizing and taming medium styles. Use your fingers as a comb to coach everything into place, but target those roots first, so that you get maximum control over each strand.
Medium Hold, High Shine: Pomade
The word ‘pomade’ has expanded in recent years and has grown from its origins as a workplace, buttoned-up styler. Now we refer to pomades being matte, shiny, high hold, light hold — anything and everything. For the sake of simplicity, though, we’ll keep that traditional definition in place here. Pomade keeps your hair in place but is a little more buoyant and touchable than a gel. It’s great for medium-length styles that require a comb to tame and can be separated and texturized with the fingers prior to drying.
Medium Hold, Medium Shine: Paste
Paste is perhaps the most flexible styler, in that it can be applied damp or dry for different results, and can be re-wet throughout the day for reactivation. It’s most effective applied to towel-dried (damp) hair and combed into place. You can chop it up with your fingers for added texture and grit, but the result will always be touchable hair that stays in place — unless you fuss with it throughout the day. Paste is great if you need to be combed-back during the day, and undone for happy hour. Just flutter your fingers through it after work and it should relax and fall forward for something more laidback. It also has a pinch more shine if applied to damp hair versus dry hair.
Medium Hold, Low Shine: Cream
Different creams offer different results; it’s another product that has a spectrum of powers. So, you need to assess the label of any product. It’s also a product thats strength is magnified in towel-dried hair. Cream is not very effective in shorter styles since it is used to tame combed-back and long styles. However, it can be used to tame flyaways and minimize frizz, as a lightweight styler. Many styling creams also contain conditioning ingredients, and many leave-in conditioners are just double-duty creams in disguise.
Low Hold, High Shine: Oil
Oil is really just a taming product, and the best ones double as leave-in conditioners that nourish and soften the hairs. I like to add a drop or two to a styling cream or fiber if I want those products to do their job with a little extra shine. Oil showcases depth, texture, and separation in your hair, since the light catches each strand. A few drops goes a long way to keep everything smooth in longer styles, or to tame flyaways in shorter styles. (Don’t be afraid to use your beard oil in your hair.)
Low Hold, Medium Shine: Paste or Salt Spray
As aforementioned, paste can be applied to clean, dry hair for less hold but the same amount of shine. Ditto for many creams. Learn to use them in different ways, and their space on the hold-versus-shine matrix expands tremendously.
Alternatively, if you want a little bit of texture that doesn’t really qualify as “hold,” then spritz a sea salt spray into your hair and separate it with your fingers. You’ll have touchable, lightweight hair all day, but it will actually look like you styled it instead of doing nothing with it. (You know how you can always tell if a guy isn’t wearing product, and he looks a like a fuzzy tennis ball? This will distance you from that guy.)
Low Hold, Low Shine: Hair Powder
If you want a little grit and are totally shine averse, then apply texture powder to your hair. It soaks up excess oil like a dry shampoo, and gives an intentional kind of finish; powder smooths and separates the hair but does little else. Be sure to target the roots in medium and longer styles if you want to use powder simply as a dry shampoo alternatively. However, it’s not going to do much to these styles besides volumize the hair from the root. (I’d suggest a lightweight cream or paste to add a little control and direction.)