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When it comes down to it, sometimes you just need a powerful product that'll keep your hair in place. While hair gels might remind you of the most cringe-worthy looks of the early aughts, they're actually really great when you need them. (And despite some protests, lots of styles from the 2000s are coming back).
If you're interested in dipping your toes (or rather, your tips) back into the gel pool, we've got good news. Today's formulas aren't like the goopy blue hues of decades past.
They're a little creamier, often nourishing, totally versatile, and offer a flexible hold that lasts for hours. What's more, you can count on all-around better-looking hair. For those rocking a pixie, slick back, cropped cut, sleek updo, or scrunchy curls—and anyone wanting to explore the wet hair look—gel is your friend.
Scroll down for the best gels currently on the market.
Best Overall: Biolage Styling Gelée
What's the best hair gel of today? You're looking at it. Biolage's Styling Gelée is an all-purpose, pro-level product formulated to deliver not just control but also body, shine, and nourishment.
But it doesn't stop there. The lightweight, slightly creamy concoction adds volume, tames flyaways, smooths frizz, and leaves your hair with a truly gorgeous finish. Enriched with blue agave nectar, citrus oil, and other botanicals, it shapes and sculpts without crunchiness or a sticky residue.
Best Budget: Garnier Fructis Style Pure Clean Styling Gel
Thanks to Garnier, you can get the good stuff without shelling out a bunch of cash. Containing an impressive 98% naturally derived ingredients, the brand's Pure Clean Styling Gel offers a strong yet weightless finish without any flakes.
Best Drugstore: Aussie Instant Freeze 20-Hour Hold Hair Gel
Aussie is a go-to for drugstore haircare, so it's no surprise the brand makes a standout gel. Infused with sea kelp and jojoba oil, Instant Freeze offers maximum hold and a refreshing scent—no flakes, no stickiness, no residue.
Best Splurge: Oribe Curl Gelée for Shine & Definition
Feeling fancy? Treat yourself to a tub of Curl Gelée. It's got Oribe's signature plant-derived complex of lychee, watermelon, and edelweiss flower extracts, plus nourishing natural butters and oils to hydrate, tame frizz, and add bounce.
Best for Natural Hair: Pattern Curl Gel
With braids, twists, and coils in mind, Pattern Beauty's take on hair gel is this sizable tube containing an au natural blend of nutrient-rich ingredients. We're talking cacay oil, coconut oil, and aloe vera, plus a slightly sweet aroma of rose, neroli, and patchouli.
Best for Baby Hairs: Kreyòl Essence Sleek + Chic Edge Gel
You'll be glad to have Sleek + Chic Edge Gel on hand when styling your baby hairs. Containing all-star ingredients like black castor, moringa, mango, and coconut oils, the Haitian superfood blend helps lay the tiniest hairs flat for a polished finish.
Best for Curly Hair: Curls Dynasty Twisted Definition Twisting Cream
For the curly-haired camp, we recommend Twisted Definition, a creamy gel that simultaneously moisturizes and defines. Drawing from marshmallow root, ginger, shea, and aloe, it pulls out all the stops for spirals, coils, and kinks.
Best for Wavy Hair: Briogeo Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Quinoa Frizz Control Gel
If you're working with waves, reach for Brigeo's Curl Charisma. The 90-percent naturally derived formula is chock full of healthy-hair ingredients like quinoa extract, rice amino acids, and tomato fruit ferment extract to give your hair a flexible hold and a nourishment boost.
Best for Thick Hair: SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curling Gel Souffle
SheaMoisture's Gel Soufflé does amazing things for those with thick hair and short cuts. The natural formula adds definition and hold, but since it doesn't contain silicone or polymers, you won't get any sticky buildup.
Best for Fine Hair: Sexy Hair Big Sexy Hair Blow Dry Volumizing Gel
Fine hair? Size up with Big Volumizing Gel, which contains fortifying hydrolyzed wheat protein and soothing aloe vera. Apply it to damp hair, then blow-dry, and watch as it plumps up your hair with body, strength, and a soft bounce.
Best Strong Hold: Davines This Is a Strong Hold Cream Gel
Need something that'll stay put for longer than a few hours? Go with Davines. As its name suggests, this no-nonsense, strong-hold gel isn't messing around. It dries quickly, adds texture, and preserves your 'do without any clumps.
Best Flexible Hold: R+Co Motorcycle Flexible Gel
For a piecey look that's not hard as a rock, your best bet is R+Co Motorcycle. Despite its tough-sounding name, a dollop of this clear gel will leave your hair feeling soft and hydrated with just the right amount of texture.
Best for Humid Climates: Ouidad Advanced Climate Control Heat & Humidity Gel
Humidity got you down? Ouidad's Advanced Climate Control Gel is formulated to battle frizz and keep flyaways in check while delivering a reliable hold and an enhanced texture for curls, coils, spirals, kinks, and waves.
Best Texturizing: Amika Haute Mess Texture Gloss
Amika's saucily named Haute Mess walks the line between elegant and unkempt with finesse. Tousle your hair with a squeeze of this gel gloss, and behold your newfound brilliant texture.
Best Defining: Girl + Hair Curl Cloud Moisturizing Curl Defining Gel for Curly Hair
If it's definition you're after, pick up a tub of Curl Cloud. With neem, tea tree, castor, and pimento oils, this antioxidant-rich hair gel accentuates coily and kinky hair and creates a soft hold for loose curls, twist-outs, and braid-outs.
Best Shaping: Sally Hershberger 24K Vanity Hair Shaping Balm
"My favorite product to provide texture, control, and hold is the 24K Vanity Hair Shaping Balm," says celebrity hairstylist Sally Hershberger. "Similar to gel in terms of delivering flexible hold, this balm blends seamlessly into the hair and gives it long-wearing shape and definition without any stickiness."
If we could only recommend one hair gel, we'd have to go with Biolage Styling Gelée (view at Amazon) on account of its multi-use, ultra-nourishing botanical formula that works for all hair types. Having said that, Garnier Fructis Style Pure Clean Styling Gel (view at Amazon) is a great option for those who want to keep their gel budget under $10. And Oribe Curl Gelée for Shine & Definition (view at Amazon) is an excellent choice for anyone open to splurging on a high-quality product.
What to Look for When Buying Hair Gel
Most hair gels contain some form of polymers, which are what creates the long-lasting hold. They can be in the form of naturally derived ingredients, such as starch, cellulose, silk protein, or hydrolyzed wheat protein. Then, synthetic polymers appear on an ingredients list as copolymers, polyquaternium, polyvinyl pyrrolidone, silicone, or acetates.
When browsing hair gels, world-renowned session stylist Kevin Murphy says to look for a "range of ingredients designed to protect the integrity of your hair and scalp while giving you that on-trend gel finish."
While formulas vary greatly in terms of their formulations, standout ingredients include plant-based butters, like mango, cocoa seed, and shea, as well as natural oils, like apricot, jojoba, macadamia, castor, tea tree, neem, baobab, and coconut. Additionally, you'll find options with hydrolyzed wheat protein, keratin, quinoa extract, rice protein, and other amino acids. Aloe vera is also often added for smoothness and enhanced texture.
Modern hair gels come in a few different formulations. There are traditional transparent gooey gels, nourishing gel creams, lightweight gelées, and balms, which fall somewhere between gel and pomade.
How do you apply hair gel?
Though it really depends on your hair type, length, and desired style, as well as the specific formula you're using, it's best to start with a small amount. With a dime-to-nickel-sized dollop in the palm of your hand, massage the gel into your hair, evenly coating each strand. Use your fingers to add texture, scrunch your curls, or tousle your hair to create the look you're going for.
Does hair gel damage your hair?
According to Murphy, this depends on the product. High alcohol contents and poor-quality ingredients can be harsh on your hair. "Alcohol isn't necessarily bad for your hair. If it is high-quality and combined with the right ingredients, it can shut the cuticle and create shine," he explains. "If it is poor-quality, then yes, the chance of creating brittle or dry hair is there. Or it can dry out your scalp, which isn't great for the growth of future hair."
Does hair gel expire?
"Everything has a use-by date," says Murphy. "Most brands have a shelf-life of two years or more, then they either discolor or the suspension drops, and they become watery." So, using expired gel probably won't hurt your hair, but it might not work as well as it used to.
Why Trust Byrdie?
This roundup was researched and written by Theresa Holland, a freelance commerce writer covering fitness, skincare, makeup, and haircare. She has been contributing to Byrdie since 2020, with other stories appearing on The Spruce and MyDomaine.