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Hair gel has long been a staple styling product for men. It has a rich history to say the least, with some of the most famous style icons of the last century (think: Gable, Dean, Travolta, Beckham) all fans of a firm hold. However, even though it’s been around longer than many other grooming essentials, it is perhaps the most precarious and intimidating product to use. Too much and the hair collapses like a sad scarecrow; too little and your barnet is bouncing around like an inflatable at a car dealership.
Overall, gels can be drying, says Janice Kinjo, a professional men's groomer. "For all hair and skin products, be aware of certain alcohols like isopropyl alcohol and [specially denatured] alcohols—the first three ingredients are the main ones, and these alcohols are drying and can cause breakage," she explains. "On the other hand, cetearyl alcohol is an emulsifying ingredient that smooths and softens and is the good alcohol. Lastly, hair gel leaves that wet hair look which is the clean look and polished look. Just remember to wash the gel out every night because it will help keep moisture in your hair."
Certain hair gels are truly a cut above the fold, with both styling and nourishing benefits, and we've done the work of rounding up the best of them. Look for products that avoid using drying alcohols but include nutritive ingredients for healthy hair.
Keep scrolling for the best hair gels for men.
Best Overall: Kiehl’s Grooming Solutions Clean Styling Gel
Kiehl's never looks at a product in a linear way, which is why the brand's hair gel offering has conditioning benefits, too. Enriched with botanicals and formulated with pracaxi oil, the product may nourish the hair as much as it styles it. Overall, it does what you would want your gel to do—it gives just the right amount of both shine and hold.
Best Budget: Harry’s Sculpting Gel
If you're a grooming nut, chances are you’ve heard of Harry’s. The brand has a smart subscription service for razors and shaving products, delivering everything you need straight to your door on the regular. However, its hair offerings are equally strong, with pomades, waxes, and gels available at a great price. This gel, in particular, is great—its non-glossy, easy-to-use formula has a decent hold, giving you a slick (but not overdone) vibe.
Best Scent: Horace Gel Pomade
Horace, a new brand on the block, isn't following the rules when it comes to this category. Think natural ingredients, a pot (!!!!), and a fresh fragrance—all free from parabens, silicones, and mineral oils, which is no easy feat. The formula feels great, leaving a glossy shine and strong hold to the hair when you work it through.
Hair gels are great for those with fine hair for a strong hold versus using a wax that can weigh hair down, says Kinjo.
Best Splurge: Bumble & Bumble Give ‘Em Gel
Any cool-kid salon will be stocked with Bumble & Bumble, a hairdresser go-to brand. More flexible than traditional gels, this one has a medium hold, moderate shine, and a non-sticky finish. It's definitely a get-up-and-go kind of gel—the sort you need when you're running late in the morning and just using your fingers.
Best Clay: Larry King Velvet Texture Clay
Larry King's sleek London salons are a staple of It-boy culture, and his eponymous brand of hair products follows suit. His signature Velvet Texture Clay might be the standout, though. Perfect for a little more hold than a pomade, this is a dream for a gritty, matte look.
Best Balm: Aesop Violet Leaf Hair Balm
For those seeking a bit of shape but not a stiff style, balms are the ticket. They leave a floppy, schoolboy look and a slight gloss that hints at really healthy-looking hair. (For this reason, they're especially perfect for dry, coarse, or unruly locks.) Aesop’s version should be your go-to. Its blend of nourishing butters and natural oils absorbs beautifully without leaving any residue—brilliant if a dry scalp also plagues you.
"If you want piecey hair, put gel on dry hair and focus application middle of the hair to the tips," Kinjo recommends. "If you want full control coiffed look, then dampen your hair, apply gel, and then use a blow-dryer to set the hair. Your hair will stay all day."
Best Wax: Hanz De Fuko Sponge Wax
Perhaps the most common hair product after gel, wax has a nice pliable hold that can be adjusted throughout the day with ease. Think Zayn Malik, David Beckham, or Zac Efron—all great hair, all wax devotees. Hanz De Fuko has nailed the category with a formula that's the perfect combo of firm and flexible.
What to Look For in a Hair Gel for Men
The hold that hair gels produce is typically due to the inclusion of polymers. You can find either natural or synthetic polymers in hair gels. Natural examples include cellulose, hydrolyzed wheat protein, silk protein, or starches. Synthetic polymers include polyester, silicone, and polyamide.
Look for nourishing and protective ingredients in gels to boost the condition of your hair—particularly if the gel contains certain alcohols like isopropyl alcohol and denatured alcohols, which can cause dryness and breakage. Seek products with natural oils and butters and plant extracts.
Type of Forumula
Choose a hair gel product that has a formulation that produces the look you are after. For instance, pomades and creams that help you create a matte, messy textured look, or more liquidy gels that might hold firm and glossy.
Is gel damaging to your hair?
Some gel formulas can damage hair, mainly those with drying alcohols, so look for gels without damaging alcohols. Make sure to wash gel out of your hair to prevent damage and choose a product with nourishing ingredients like oils, butters, and plant extracts.
Does gel stop hair growth?
It is thought that some gels can clog pores and may prevent optimal hair growth. For this reason, it is wise to avoid putting gel on your scalp. Add it to the tips and midshaft only, and be sure to wash your hair before bed.
Is gel bad for men's hair?
Some gels can be damaging to your hair. Hair gel can cause dryness and breakage or lead to dandruff if it isn't washed out properly. Look for high-quality ingredients and avoid products with damaging alcohols. Choosing products with extra nourishing oils, butters, and plant extracts may help counteract the potential negative effects of using hair gel.
Can I use hair gel every day?
Hair gel can be applied every day, just make sure to wash it out at bedtime. If you are a daily gel user, choose a high-quality product that offers hair protective and nourishing properties.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Meet the Expert
Janice Kinjo is a professional men's groomer and celebrity makeup artist. Some of her clients include Idris Elba, Drake, Mary J Blige, and Uzo Aduba.
Gregory Allen is a freelance male beauty and grooming writer, and a contributor for Byrdie. After attending Central St. Martins in London, he became the Beauty Editor at Glamour and Elle. He now also contributes grooming features to publications like Mr Porter, Evening Standard, and The Independent.