Hair Gel, Hair Pomade, Hair Paste — What’s the Difference, Anyway?

A hairstylist explains what each different styling product does, and who they’re best for.

hair gel

Hair gel is usually the first styling product to come to mind, but there are many other options — hair clay, hair cream, hair fiber, hair mousse, hair paste, hair pomade and hair wax, just to name a handful. Cleve McMillan, stylist and hair guru, is here to help us explain what each different hair product does and how to use it (because hair gel can’t have all the love).

The Product: Hair Clay

hair clay

Who It’s Best For: Those with short to medium-length hair.
What to Expect: “Hair clay provides a high hold and a matte finish,” McMillan explains. “So it’s in for the long haul once it sets — this will keep your hairstyle in place for the whole day.” It’s ideal for creating structured hairstyles like the slick back.
How to Style With It: First, the amount of hair clay you use should depend on how much hair you have — a pea-sized dollop for short hair and two pea-sized dollops for medium-length hair. It’s important to soften the hair clay in your hands before styling. Then, simply distribute it evenly throughout your hair, and style as preferred. Remember: Once it sets, it sets, so it’s important to get your hairstyle right before going about your day.

The Product: Hair Creams

hair creams
Who It’s Best For: “I can’t imagine a head of hair that hair creams wouldn’t be good for!” McMillan exclaims.
What to Expect: Hair creams are the mildest of hair products. “They feel like a lotion, act like a moisturizer and provide minimal hold,” McMillan explains. Because of that minimal hold, hair creams are great for someone who doesn’t want to commit to a rigid or aggressive hairstyle — they just want to add a little more oomph to whatever they’re already working with. Hair creams can also be used to smooth out curls and reduce stray hairs.
How to Style With It: Before applying any kind of product, wash and towel-dry your hair until it’s just slightly damp — this will help distribute the product evenly throughout your hair. “Start by gently working a pea-sized amount of hair cream into your hair,” McMillan says. “Hair creams are malleable, meaning you can always add more and restyle as necessary.”

The Product: Hair Fiber

hair fiber
Who It’s Best For: Those with short to medium-length thin hair.
What to Expect: “Hair fiber adds texture and fullness to the hair, so it’s great for people who have limp, or flat hair,” McMillan says. It also has a medium hold and a matte finish.
How to Style With It: Heavier products, like hair fiber, should be warmed by rubbing them together in your hands before styling. This will soften the product, making it easier to distribute evenly amongst your hair. Once you’ve warmed the hair fiber, simply use it to style your hair however you like.

The Product: Hair Gel

hair gel
Who It’s Best For: “Hair gel is good for any hair length,” McMillan says.
What to Expect: “A classic gel delivers strong definition, sharp texture, a firm hold and high shine,” McMillan explains. In other words, this is the product to use if you want everyone to know you have product in your hair.
How to Style With it: First, how much gel you use should depend on how much hair you have — a one-inch squirt for short hair, a one-and-a-half-inch squirt for medium-length hair and a two-inch squirt for long hair. Then, warm the gel in your hands and style as preferred. “The more you apply, the more hold you’ll get,” Cleve says. So be generous when facing an especially windy day.

The Product: Hair Mousse

hair mousse
Who It’s Best For: Those with short, medium-length and long, thin hair.
What to Expect: “Mousse is light, incredibly easy to distribute throughout the hair and washes out really easily,” McMillan says. “It’s also capable of adding more volume to the hair than you’d ever expect.” In other words, mousse is a great product for those who don’t want to weigh down their thin hair.
How to Style With it: “While it’s almost impossible to use too much mouse, I always recommend starting with a golf-ball sized amount of foam in one hand,” McMillan says. “Apply small amounts of the mousse — starting at the roots of your hair and ending at the ends — using your other hand.” Once you’ve applied all the mousse, style your hair using your fingertips as a comb.

The Product: Hair Paste

hair paste

Who It’s Best For: Those with short or medium-length hair.
What to Expect: Providing slightly more hold than hair cream, hair paste adds texture, which is great for achieving the “messy” look. Hair paste is also malleable, meaning you can apply it to your hair in the morning, then restyle it throughout the day. So if you’re one of those guys who likes to change his look at lunch time, this is the product for you.
How to Style With It: “Start with a pea-sized amount of hair paste, and work it through your hands before styling,” McMillan explains. “Then, gently spread it throughout the hair, allowing the product to do the styling for you.” This should leave you with the messy, surfer hairstyle.

The Product: Hair Pomade

hair pomade

Who It’s Best For: Those with short to medium-length hair or curls.
What to Expect: Hair pomade provides a high hold with a matte finish. “Whether you want to add a little texture to a crew cut, add some weight to your curls to keep them from going all over the place or spike your hair, hair pomade is up for the task,” McMillan says. “It adds control to any hairstyle.”
How to Style With It: Again, be sure to soften the product in your hands before styling. Because of its high hold, McMillan also suggests applying hair pomade in two or three applications, styling a different section of your hair each time. By doing this, you’ll distribute the product evenly throughout your hair, so you don’t end up with a massive clump of pomade stuck to the front of your head.

The Product: Hair Wax

hair wax

Who It’s Best For: Those with short hair.
What to Expect: There are two types of hair wax — wax-based waxes, which are more difficult to shampoo out of the hair, and water-based waxes, which wash out easily. The main purpose of wax is to weigh the hair down and to give it shine. “It’s like a straightjacket for your hair,” McMillan says. They’re also usually designed to not dry, meaning you’ll be able to restyle your hair throughout the day.
How to Style With It: “Always start with less — a pea-sized amount is ideal,” McMillan explains. “Then, warm the wax between your hands until it’s soft.” From there, use your fingertips to apply the wax to your roots, progressively working the product through the ends of your hair. Finally, style as preferred.

Now that your styling product horizons have been expanded from just hair gel, which product will you use? Choose wisely, my friend.