The best hair products all do essentially the same thing: they get your hair right where you want it, and they keep it there. But they don’t all go about it in the same way. We like to think of all products existing on some sort of hair-styling matrix, with the two key factors being hold and shine. In other words, what kind of grip do you want your product to give you if any at all? And what level of matte or shiny do you want to achieve?
But then it gets even more complex. For example, what do some of the secondary hair products do, like hair oil and salt spray? How much texture and volume do you want to show? Also, do the hair products require you to apply them to dry hair or freshly towel-dried damp hair? (Doing this incorrectly might either render the hair products ineffective, or give you the opposite kind of hold, shine, texture, and volume that you wished for.)
One more complexity is that many brands will make hybrid products, or alter the traditional characteristics of a type of product to their own liking. That’s a win for us because it means we get more variety in the marketplace. But if you read these descriptions below for each kind of product, be sure the product you ultimately buy matches up. Some pastes provide a higher hold than others. Some hairspray is light while others are super gripping. Some “pomades” aren’t pomades at all.
So, in short, there is a lot to know about each product, and how they play out for different lengths, densities, hair texture, and styling goals. But worry not: We’ll walk you through the best hair products for men from every category here–and let you know when and how to use each one.
What clay is for: Medium hold, low shine when applied dry; High hold, medium shine when applied damp.
Clay is a versatile styler. You’ll get lots of texture with clay (compared to paste, though it’ll also be less “touchable” than paste, too). This means it won’t feel as “re-workable”, like if you wear a winter hat and need to revive it after the hat comes off. So, pick clay if you know you aren’t going to disrupt the hair’s equilibrium throughout the day, but still want some choppiness and definition, or a pinch of lift and volume.
What fiber is for: High hold, no shine—apply it to clean, dry hair.
Fiber is great for all hair types, but it is one of the best men’s products for thick hair especially; apply it to dry hair and it’ll texturize while locking everything into place. With most fiber products, you’ll get little or no shine; the result is like a perfectly tousled bedhead. It’s comparable to clay but provides more hold.
Fiber is better for short to medium styles. If you need a more combable product for long, thick hair, we suggest switching from fiber to clay and applying it towel-dried.
What cream is for Light hold, light shine when applied to clean, dry hair; both increase to a light-medium level when applied to clean, damp hair.
If your hair is a few inches or longer, then keep a cream for the days you want feather-light, flowy style. The cream is a big upgrade from wearing nothing—it coaches everything into a specific direction, but it’ll still feel natural (as if there’s nothing applied at all).
Hair cream is effective at taming strays on longer styles, too. You can massage a small dab of cream in your fingers and then dust it over any flyaways. It can also keep your hair from ballooning, and prevent frizz. For longer hair, it’s often comparable to hair oil but provides less shine.
What wax is for: High hold, low to medium shine; apply to clean, dry hair.
Wax adds texture to short hair and is the best product to use as that buzz grows out. (it can add the slightest of texture for a more intentional finish on barely-grown hair). Wax can also deliver stronghold to styles around 1 inch but should be applied at the root (if applied to the entire hair, it will weigh everything down). If your hair is any longer than that, you’ll want to swap it out for something equally texturizing but less clumpy, like fiber or clay.
Like cream, wax is also a good finishing coat on longer, frizzy hair, done by lightly running your wax-covered palms over top of the finished style. Or, you can tuck strays into place by warming wax on your fingertips and gently grazing it over anything that pops out from the rest of the carefully put-together style.
What hairspray is for: Extra control; degree of hold will vary.
Hairspray is the surefire way to keep your style in place, especially if you’ve opted for a lighter-weight product as your foundation. Rarely will you use hairspray on its own; instead, keep it around for especially hot or humid days, when the heat and sweat might otherwise compromise a style with a lot of volumes.
You can get hairsprays with high hold, or with a lightweight hold that simply calms strays, and helps add just enough control that you aren’t touching your hair all day or worrying about the humidity.