Last week my wife came home from work with a large, cardboard portfolio. She said she had stopped at my mom’s house on the way home; my mom had said, “I’m going through some old things, and I thought you’d like copies of all of Mike’s old school pictures.”
We had a few laughs looking at old photos of the blossoming me, specifically the evolution of my hairstyle. In sixth grade, the part was on the side. By seventh grade, it had migrated to the middle (shut up, it was cool at the time). By eighth grade, all bets were off: My curly spikes were gelled with a sheen that could rival a new penny and with a rigidity measurable only by the Mohs mineral hardness scale. Twenty years later, and I think I’m just now starting to really understand the world of men’s hairstyling products.
The fact is, no man should have to spend thirty minutes every morning just on his hair. At the same time, maybe spend more than two? We’re going to talk about the three main stages of your morning hair routine: pre-styling, styling, and finish.
But first, let’s talk about what you want and what you can realistically do with your hair.
Decide What You Want Your Hairstyle to Look Like Before You Start
What you don’t want to do is start messing with your hair with no set goal in mind. Next thing you know thirty-five minutes have gone by; your hair looks like something between a pan of bacon and a duck’s ass, and you’re late for work. So before you start this journey, what look do you want your hair to look like?
A few things to consider:
Do you want a strong hold that will maintain your hairstyle all day, or do you want a flexible hold that allows for the hair to move more naturally? Another way to ask this is can you go the whole day without touching your hair, or are you the kind of guy who likes to run his fingers through there every few hours?
There are three levels of hair shine: matte, natural, high. Matte is basically no shine at all. It’s the dry hair look. Natural is a small amount of shine that won’t draw attention but doesn’t look like you’ve been skimping on the conditioner. High shine is, well…high shine, the slick, wet look.
Think of volume as the amount of fullness and lift in your hairstyle. Natural volume (let’s say no more than an inch and a half of height) can be easily achieved through a quick towel dry and the right styling product. If you want that high volume look, you’ll need to invest in a blow dryer. A word to the wise: if your hair is thinning, you’ll want to stick more with a natural volume style as a high volume style may emphasize the thinning.
Best for: Adding volume or control to clean hair to allow styling products to work optimally
Pre-styling gets your hair prepped for whatever style you want to achieve. It’s hard to style dirty hair, so pre-styling actually starts in the shower. Shampoo made with sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate lathers wonderfully, and it does a good job stripping stubborn product out of your hair. Unfortunately it also strips your hair’s natural oils, which actually help keep your hair tame in the styling process.
Bottom line: If you don’t need luscious lather, make the switch to sulfate-free. Love Beauty and Planet is a great brand that makes a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner set. And yes, you need to use a conditioner. While shampoo gets your hair clean, conditioner moisturizes each strand, creating a barrier to lock that moisture in all day. Love Beauty and Planet is nice because it’s budget friendly, and they have multiple scents from which to choose.
Once you’re out of the shower, towel dry your hair. Your next step is entirely dependent upon the hairstyle you want to achieve. If you want natural volume, you can move straight to applying product. And by the way, using only a towel to dry your hair is admittedly the healthiest option. However if you want any marked volume (especially if you’re styling a quiff or a pompadour), then you need to get out the blow dryer.
Before you turn that blow dryer on high, there are a few other products you need to consider.
Mousse and Gel
We generally recommend against using mousse and gel as just styling products because when used that way, the result is always…crispy.
Mousse and gel can add significant volume to your hair when used as a pre-styler without making it stiff. How? Blow dryer. If your main priority is lift, use mousse. If you want ultimate control, use gel. Honestly, I vacillate between the two depending on what kind of mood I’m in that day. A little mousse or gel rubbed through damp hair goes a long way. With gel, use the blow dryer and a brush (or your fingers for that textured look), and voila, you’ve got volume that isn’t crunchy or liable to stab someone. Mousse can be dried with a blow dryer for soft, silky volume or left to air dry for that messy look. Grooming cream also works great as a pre-styler when used similarly. See the Styling Products section below for more information.
This gel isn’t cheap, but after twenty years of searching, it’s the best gel I’ve ever used. It’s incredibly strong while staying soft to the touch (after you blow dry), and because Aveda products are plant-based, it’s not doing any damage to your hair.
As mousse goes, it’s actually pretty hard to beat Tresemme’s Extra Hold. It’s lightweight, blows dry with excellent control, and best of all, it’s cheap.
As much as I love my blow dryer, it’s not doing my hair health any favors. Whichever pre-styler product you use, you want to spray on a heat protectant before you blow dry.
This affordable heat protectant spray is made by CHI, the same company that makes blow dryers, curling irons, and straighteners, which all use high heat. This protectant coats your hair with healthy vitamins and proteins that moisturize and protect so you can style without fear.
Once you’ve applied your pre-styling products, and your hair is dry or nearly dry, it’s time to apply a styling product. This will shape your style for the day. There are myriad styling products out there to achieve every hairstyle imaginable, but unless you already know what you’re doing, a great place to start is in your barbershop. Have a conversation with your barber about what hairstyle you want to achieve; he or she can tell you what’s realistic based on your hair type (thick, curly, coily, thin, wavy, straight) and what styling products you’ll need.
How to Use Styling Products
With any new styling product, start small. Dip your finger in and get a dollop about the size of a dime. Rub it through your hands for 10 seconds to make it spreadable and work it through your hair starting from the back and working towards the front. Yes, the direction here really does matter (and this applies to any hair product you use). If you start in the front, chances are good that you won’t get even distribution, and you’ll have too much product go in all in the same spot. Not enough product, you can add more. Too much product, you’re screwed.
The truth is that the best hairstyling products are the ones that work best for you. And since no two guys have the same hair, you may have to experiment a bit. Here are the basic categories:
Best for: Uniform, high shine/wet styles
Pomades are one of the oldest styling products for men, offering that wet, slicked-back look (think Elvis). Pomades typically have a light-to-medium hold and a medium-to-high shine, depending on which one you buy. If you have especially wavy or curly hair (a.k.a. unruly), then a pomade is a good choice for keeping it under control. If you have thin hair, stay away from pomades: they don’t add fullness or rich texture and can be heavy so they will most likely accentuate your hair’s thinness.
If you enjoy styling with a comb for that uniform look, pomade is your best bet. Also, if you’re looking for high volume, pomades can work, but you’ll have to experiment with how much you use, as they tend to be a bit heavy and don’t allow for lots of lift.
Pomades are either oil-based or water-based. Oil-based pomades are more traditional and tend to offer a better hold and higher shine than water-based. The problem is that oil-based pomades are difficult to wash out, aren’t good for your hair, your scalp, hell, they’re not even good for your comb. Water-based pomades, while not quite as strong, will still offer decent hold, are easy to wash out, and are lighter weight.
Here are a few water-based pomades worth trying:
Imperial products are designed and produced by working barbers, with quality and budget in mind (while $22 doesn’t seem cheap, 6 oz. goes a long way). Imperial’s Classic Pomade offers a strong hold with a low shine, and it’s water based, so it washes out easily. Great for that side part or pompadour.
While Suavecito products have been around for about a decade, they’ve gained huge popularity in the mainstream in the last year or so. The products are very well priced, and this one does a great job keeping curls under control.
Admiral uses only plant-based preservatives, so it’s gentle on your hair. And even though it’s a pomade, it has beeswax, which will help your hair preserve its moisture for that added smooth look.
Unlike most pomades that are water, oil, or gel based, Baxter uses a cream base to offer a medium-firm hold with a softer, more natural finish. The award-winning pomade works best on thicker hair that's parted or very structured. Which conveniently leads us into…
Best for: A lightweight style with a natural shine that moves freely; controlling flyaways, waves, and curls
Styling creams actually make outstanding pre-stylers, as they contribute to a smooth finish and add an extra layer of control while blow drying. You can add a cream to your hair while it’s damp, and then blow it dry for volume, or apply it when your hair is already dry for added texture. Creams not only add moisture and body to your hair, but they’re perfect for creating that natural look; that is, the look like you’re not using any product at all. If your hair is dry, and you suffer from rampant flyaways, a cream is a great choice for keeping your hair tame. Keep in mind though that creams, by themselves, don’t offer much hold.
This molding cream from Billy Jealousy is one of the best pre-stylers I’ve used. It goes in smoothly, and adds volume whether you blow dry or not. It’s advertised as a matte finish, but I’d say it’s matte without looking dry.
Meraki is the first styling cream that BluMaan produced, and they advertise it as a pre-styler for increased volume. Apply to damp hair, blow it out. You’re set.
Shea Moisture makes outstanding products for curly and coily hair at competitive prices. This cream styles tight curls and coils while staying lightweight and smooth to the touch.
Layrite products are just wonderful. The prices are reasonable; the products perform flawlessly, and they smell like cream soda. Trust me, it’s quite pleasing. This cream has a matte finish and a medium hold, which is the perfect combination for the guy with finer hair who needs a bit of body without stiffness or crunch.
Woody’s makes a whole slew of men’s grooming products inspired by the surfer life. This cream has a natural shine, low hold, and will give you just the right amount of control without limiting style flexibility.
Best for: Medium to thick hair; high hold, low shine
Clays are typically made with bentonite clay or kaolin clay (either is fine). Clays offer excellent control and hold while keeping shine very low or nonexistent. If your hair is thick, you’ll probably need the strength (and lightweight) of a clay to control it. If you’re styling a quiff or an especially high pompadour (i.e. hairstyles for longer hair), a clay is probably your best bet. Clay isn’t always the easiest product to wash out, but if you need all-day hold, the extra wash is worth it. And remember, start with a small amount, a finger dip no bigger than a dime is a good place to start.
Claymation is one of the best clays I’ve ever used. It’s what I trusted on my wedding day. The hold is outstanding, yet somehow it’s never stiff. It’s lightweight with a matte finish that has no shine but doesn’t look dry. I don’t know how they do it, but this clay is amazing. My only complaint: $23 is a bit expensive for only 2oz.
While Lockhart’s advertises a matte finish, I’d say it’s more of a natural finish. Sometimes if I want just the slightest hint of shine, I’ll cocktail some Lockhart’s in with my Claymation. Lockhart’s feels a bit thinner than your average clay, but the hold is strong, and it works especially well when my hair has gotten quite long on top.
Because this clay is made from bentonite, beeswax, and petroleum, it gives you all the benefits of a pomade, a clay, and a wax – that is to say you get the hold, the matte (just shy of natural) finish, and the texture. The only downside is that it can be a bit tough to wash out.
A combination clay and sea salt spray, this liquified clay offers a compromise of both: Not as much hold as a regular clay, stiffer than a sea salt spray. LPT: Spray it into your hand instead of around your head to avoid getting weird white dots all over your wall that takes you weeks to figure out what they are.
Best for: Short hair; natural shine, medium hold
Wax styling products are usually made with beeswax or some other type of natural wax like carnauba (the stuff in shoe polish), resulting in what we call a “natural” shine: your hair won’t look wet, but it’s not a matte finish either. Waxes are lightweight, but they can gum up easily, so it’s best to use them with short hair. Waxes tend to offer minimal hold (despite many of them advertising a high hold), and do a better job adding texture and body than actually keeping a hairstyle in place all day long.
Mr. Pompadour has commanded quite a following in the last five years because their products not only work well, but they’re also made with natural ingredients. This particular wax (they call it a paste, but really…it’s a wax) is made from beeswax and lanolin, which is wax derived from sheep’s wool and acts as a natural conditioner.
Quicksand is kind of the hair product multi-tool: one part dry shampoo, one part wax, three parts kick ass. For guys with finer or thinning hair, it's more pliable and less sticky than the brand's Claymation featured above. The dry shampoo adds texture and natural-looking volume to combat the weight a normal wax might create. The only downside to using dry shampoo, or products that contain it, is it can be hard to cocktail with other styling products since you're mixing powders and pastes. Primer's founder, Andrew, uses Quicksand quite often.
Blind Barber's wax is made from a blend of natural oils and botanical extracts, including hops which helps thicken hair while fighting grease. Perfect for the messy, texturized look, this wax can also serve as a pre-styler and heat protectant.
Made with real beeswax, this locally available option gives humidity-beating hold at a price you don't mind paying to experiment with something new.
Best for: Short-to-medium length hairstyles requiring high hold and low shine.
Fiber is not for the faint of heart. It’s somewhat dry, is difficult to work with, and is not going to give you that silky smooth touchability. That being said, if you need high hold that will outlast the day with a matte finish, then fiber is your product. Think of fiber as a cross between clay and wax…and cement. It’s not stiff like hairspray, it’s just not especially forgiving.
American Crew Fiber has been around for a long time, and for good reason. The hold is outstanding, the scent is mild and pleasing, and the price is right. A word to the wise: once you style with Fiber, leave your hair alone.
Reuzel products come from Holland, and the feedback they get is pretty consistent: Excellent performance, not the easiest to wash out. This fiber is especially good for thick hair, adding texture and separation while maintaining hold.
Sea Salt Spray
Best for: Getting that tousled, beachy texture for any length; also great as a pre-styler for thin or thick hair alike
Sea salt spray is, in a word, magic. It gives your hair texture without being gritty, volume without being stiff, and bounce with being sloppy. Apply a few squirts of sea salt spray to damp hair, then blow it dry while you run your fingers through, shaping your style as you do so. Add some clay or pomade if you need to, but sea salt sprays can often stand alone.
Bearbrand’s sea salt spray has kaolin clay mixed in for added texture in styling and blow drying. The particular scent I use is called “Old Money.” A blend of oak, black pepper, and amber, it smells like a library full of wood shelves and leather chairs. I recently got a bottle of this, and it’s completely upped my game. Andrew uses the Temple Smoke scent as a pre-styler to make his fine hair move and hold in a way thicker hair does.
This unbelievably affordable sea salt spray actually does a great job. Its scent is pleasant but mild; it keeps your hair lightweight, and it blows dry with little-to-no shine.
Best for: If you have thin or fine hair, texture powder can make it move and hold in ways thicker hair does naturally
How to use: Lift sections of your hair and lightly dust the roots; avoid dusting the top of your hair to keep it from looking “powdery”
Texture powder is one of those weird products that you see on the shelf, but you’re not really sure what it does. Think of texture powder like fiber, but in powder form. In short, it’s a powder that adds volume and hold to your hair without weighing it down, with the mattest of matte finishes. It works great as a pre-styler, and while I realize this is getting repetitive, a tiny bit goes a long way. If you want that silky-smooth feel, then don’t use a texture powder: the tradeoff for that great hold is that it leaves your hair somewhat rough to the touch.
The first thing you'll notice about American Crew's Boost Powder, if you've used any of their other pucks, is that this one is smaller. But that's a testament to just how little texture powder you need (and should be using). Sprinkle lightly while holding up strands of hair. Since powders are white, try to avoid dumping too much in one spot without making sure it's rubbed in.
This texture powder comes from the barbershop chain Floyds with locations all across the United States. An easy way to dip your toes in the texture powder waters would be to head there for your next cut and ask your barber to use it. Andrew also uses this, depending on his hair length.
When this arrives in the mail, you’ll think you got ripped off. It’s small. But oh my, is it mighty. You’ll not only be amazed at how long this little vial will last; you’ll be amazed at its strength. As hair powders go, this is basically vibranium.
Dust It is cheap and has excellent reviews. It offers volume while letting you piece your hair out to create texture to your heart’s delight.
Once you’ve styled your hair, you need to set it in place. The key to using finishing products is to go easy. The last thing you need is to have crunchy hair all day.
Dry shampoo offers texture and control, especially if you haven’t washed your hair for a day or two and you have some product build up (or build up of your hair’s natural oils). The key to using dry shampoo is that you can’t simply spray and walk away. You need to work dry shampoo through your hair with either your fingers or a brush, lest you be left with a somewhat powdery residue visible in your hair.
You're likely no stranger to Dove, the brand has been around since the 50s and focuses its whole line on moisturizing skin and hair instead of drying it out. Their dry shampoo creates volume while fighting grease on days you have to rush out the door sans shampooing, without making it feel dry and brittle. And at under $5, it makes a smart entry into experimenting with the world of dry shampoos.
Detox Dry Shampoo uses natural rice powder to absorb excess moisture from hair, leaving behind a fresh scent with notes of sandalwood and vanilla.
It’s like the sea salt spray, but it’s a dry shampoo. It’s $9 for a two pack. What’s not to like?
Best for: Keeping a style in place, especially in more humid areas
Why use hair spray if you're using other styling products beforehand?
- Hair spray creates a barrier to keep the humidity from wrecking your style job.
- While styling products have great hold, they're inevitably heavier than hair spray. So after a few hours of merely walking around, you can start to lose lift. Hair spray will fight this.
If your hair is long, and you go for high volume, you need hairspray. No, you don’t need a lot. When you’re done styling, give your head a quick once over with a shot of hair spray. It will set your style in place so it doesn’t fall down the second you walk out the door. The amount of hairspray you need will often depend on the season and where you live. If you’re on the East Coast, you’ll need less hairspray in the winter and more in the summer. If you live out West, you may not need hairspray at all because the air is dryer. If you live in Charleston, South Carolina, and it’s July, you’ll need a can of hairspray per day. Seriously though, be mindful of how much hairspray you use: too much, and your hair will get crunchy. A good rule of thumb is to give your hair one pass with hair spray; that is, push down on the dispenser, take the can once around your head, then be done.
This is by far the greatest hair spray I have ever used. Apply this to your hairstyle, and you could walk through a windstorm with no problem. Don’t forget that Aveda products are plant based, and this hair spray actually has a UV blocker to keep your hair from getting sun damage. It’s expensive, but oh my is it worth it.
While Tresemme Climate Protection doesn’t have the ironclad hold of the Aveda, it does an excellent job of keeping the humidity from ruining your hairstyle. The can is huge, the price is low, and it lives up to its name.
There are hairstyling tools for literally every budget, and while you get what you pay for, you can also shape a pretty damn good hairstyle with $20-40 (depending on whether or not you need a blow dryer) of styling tools that you only need to buy once.
While your barber has that amazing $400 Dyson hair dryer (and yes it’s amazing…and pretty), you probably don’t need that because you’re not drying ten heads of hair per day. You want to make sure you get a hair dryer that has at least two heat settings (low/high), a “cool” button, and uses ion technology. Ionic hair dryers produce negatively charged atoms, which overwhelm the positively charged water molecules sitting on your hair. In short: they dry your hair fast, even with low heat.
I’ve had a Hot Tools blow dryer for just shy of eight years, and it’s yet to let me down. This is a great middle-of-the-road brand that offers salon quality results at reasonable (albeit not cheap) prices. This model has ion technology as well as using ceramic infrared heat (basically it keeps you from overdrying your hair).
While perhaps not quite as powerful as the Hot Tools, it’s hard to find any fault in this Remington. A well respected brand in the industry, this model also has ion and ceramic technology to dry hair fast without damaging it. If you only need your hair dryer for 2-5 minutes each day, this model is more than sufficient.
Hair Brush Types
There are three different types of brushes to consider for your styling needs: the vented brush, the paddle brush, and the round brush.
A vented brush has bristles that are spread out with holes in between. Use your vented brush to distribute your pre-styling product evenly through your hair before you blow dry. You can also use it later in the day to smooth your style and reshape it.
Thick handle, well spaced bristles, and vents. Perfect.
If your hair is thick, long, and fairly straight, go for the paddle brush. It’s flat, rectangular, and has evenly spread bristles which are great for styling as well as detangling. Because the surface area of a paddle brush is so large, it can hold a lot of hair at once, which will significantly speed up the blow drying process.
This paddle brush has a comfortable wooden handle (which cuts down on plastic use) and mixture of nylon and natural boar bristles to evenly distribute and detangle your hair.
To me, the round brush is the Swiss Army knife of brushes. It distributes product evenly, isn’t too aggressive on your hair, and it gives you ultimate control while styling. If your hair is thick, wavy, or curly, and you need that extra bit of control while blow drying, the round brush is the ticket.
This brush comes in four different sizes, but I find the 1.3 inch is the most versatile and the easiest to use for styling.
Leave-in conditioner isn’t a tool per se. Think of it more like a supplement for your hair. The fact is, the more product you put in your hair, and the more blow drying you do, the more your hair has the potential for damage (over the long term). A leave-in conditioner keeps your hair smooth, and more importantly, strong. If you shower in the morning, rub a dime-sized amount of leave-in conditioner through your hair before you go to bed. If you shower at night, rub a pea-sized amount of leave-in conditioner through your hair before you put in any pre-styling products.
My barber swears by this leave-in conditioner. Anytime he styles my hair, he sprays a few shots of this on my head, brushes it through, then gets to pre-styling. It’s loaded with Vitamin C and linseed oil, which keep your hair healthy and bring out that natural shine.
Hanging onto Your Hair If You’re Balding
If your hair is getting thin or starting to fall out, don’t panic. Check out our in-depth introduction to understanding hair loss. In a nutshell, products like minoxidil (Rogaine) and finasteride (Propecia) really do work; but before you get out the credit card, go have a chat with your doctor. Let your doctor tell you which product will be best for you (or point you in the direction of a hair loss specialist). If you’re apprehensive about having that conversation in person, check out www.forhims.com and www.keeps.com. These online hair-retention companies can set you up with a digital consultation with a doctor who can dial in the right prescription for you. The best part? Once the prescription is set, the company ships the products discreetly to your door.
There are two things to know about minoxidil and finasteride. First, you want to start taking them sooner rather later because they’re much more effective at keeping your hair if you’re losing it versus regrowing hair you’ve lost. The second thing is, if they’re effective for you, you will have to take them for the rest of your life, or however long you want to keep the hair it preserved/grew.
How do I thicken my hair?
If your hair is thin, stay away from clays; they’ll simply weigh your hair down. Start by getting a volumizing or thickening shampoo. Thickening shampoos use proteins to penetrate and coat your hair, making each strand expand (because remember, your hair is basically just protein anyway). In terms of styling, try applying a small amount of styling cream to damp hair, then blow it dry with low heat and low air. Don’t use a brush; just run your fingers through your hair as you blow it dry. This will add texture. Also experiment with texture powders, which offer a noticeable increase in perceived thickness.
My hair is too thick and falls over when I style it.
This is the story of my life. If your hair is thick, you need to use lightweight pre-stylers, like mousse or sea salt spray. And honestly, the sea salt spray is probably the way to go. Also, next time you’re getting a cut, ask your barber to lightly texturize your hair at the tips. This is the process of cutting into the hair creating a jagged edge, versus a straight line with all of the hair the same length.
This will thin it out a bit at the top, making it lighter weight; however, the thickness at the bottom of the hair strands will give it the stability to stay up all day. It’s like how a skyscraper has a deep cement foundation, but they build structural flexibility into the top floors so the building can move safely with the wind. When it comes to styling, use a clay: it’ll give you the best hold.