As a teenager in the '90s and early aughts, there were three things most of us turned to to look and feel great: a good acne treatment, a trendy fragrance (mine was Curve for Men), and a giant container of hair gel. My family happened to be an L.A. Looks family—the big bottle of green goo was as much a bathroom fixture as the sink—but sometimes we’d dabble in the other top brands of the time, like Dep or Dippity Do.
Back then, hair gel—or styling gel, however you called it—was the be-all and end-all of hair care. It could lift, it could hold, it could spike, it could slick, it could curl—basically, if you wanted any hairstyle featured in an issue of Tiger Beat, a solid dollop of gel was your way to get there. But since then, hair gel has faded into the background. It's far less prevalent on drugstore shelves than in the past, and there’s a reason for that. Several, actually, starting with the concern that it may lead to hair loss.
So what’s the deal? Does gel damage your hair? We talked to three experts—a barber, a dermatologist, and a trichologist—to take a deeper look at hair gel to see whether it could cause more harm than good. And if you’re still a hair gel user, don’t worry—we also asked about alternatives in case you want to update your haircare routine.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Dustin Portela is a board-certified dermatologist at Treasure Valley Dermatology & Skin Cancer Center in Boise, Idaho. He also shares tips with his 2.2 million+ TikTok followers.
- Ralph Wilburn is a senior barber at Fellow Barber at Hudson Yards in New York City.
- Susie Hammond is a consultant trichologist at Philip Kingsley, where she has worked since 2014. She is passionate about giving clients the most up-to-date options for various hair and scalp conditions, including scarring alopecia.
What’s in Hair Gel?
The main ingredient in hair gel that gives it its main solid hold properties is a form of vinyl monomer like polyvinyl pyrolidone (PVP) or vinyl pyrolidone (VP). However, Wilburn says the potential problems stem from three secondary ingredients: parabens, sulfates, and alcohol.
- Parabens: The most common being methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, these controversial ingredients are added as preservatives against bacteria and fungus growth in order to extend a product’s shelf life. While the jury is still out on whether they’re actually harmful in small amounts, Wilburn says they can irritate skin and, considering how much a watery product like hair gel comes in contact with our scalp, that’s definitely something to avoid if you’re sensitive or prone to dandruff.
- Sulfates: Another ingredient with its fair share of contention, sulfates mostly play a role in shampoos and cleansers as surfactants, creating clouds of lather that help remove dirt, oil, and product buildup. They also contain antimicrobial properties and easily rinse out, which could explain their role in hair gel. But like parabens, Wilburn says sulfates can also be potentially irritating.
- Alcohol: Portela says that alcohol is drying to both the hair and scalp, which can leave hair looking dull and brittle: “If the hair gel contains alcohol or otherwise contributes to dryness of the hair, it can break more easily, leading to hair loss.”
Can Hair Gel Cause Hair Loss?
If you're sensitive to any of the above ingredients, avoiding hair gel altogether is a no-brainer. But according to both Portela and Hammond, while gel itself is unlikely to cause hair loss, the way you use it might. Hammond says using gel to slick back very tight styles can, over a long period, lead to traction alopecia, when hair literally falls out because of a continuous pulling force exerted by certain tense or tight hairstyles. She also mentions proper hair hygiene, saying that using gel daily without shampooing for long periods of time can trigger certain scalp conditions. Portela points out that styling products like gel can impact the scalp's microbiome, leading to an increased risk of dandruff. But generally, the experts say most people are able to tolerate hair gel without any significant problems.
Aside from potential hair loss, Wilburn says the drying effect of alcohol on the scalp could lead to a vicious cycle of itching and flaking. “Dry scalp leads to overproduction of sebum, the naturally occurring oil produced by your scalp to protect and nourish both hair and scalp,” he explains. “This leads to many guys washing their hair daily because it's too oily, when in reality it's their scalp's way of attempting to rebalance itself after being stripped too dry.”
How to Avoid Hair Loss from Hair Gel
Like we said, if any of the above ingredients or conditions pertain to you, stop asking if gel damages your hair (it probably does for you) and find a new product, which we’ll get into shortly. But if you really love hair gel and find it hasn't been causing reactions, there are a few basic rules to follow that can ensure your hair and scalp stay happy.
- Use Sparingly: Portela recommends only using a small amount of gel—enough to get the shape and texture you want. Remember that gel is a strong-hold product to begin with, so don’t overdo it.
- Keep Gel Away from Scalp: It’s called hair gel, not scalp gel, and Hammond says to try and avoid getting too much of it on your scalp, which could cause irritation.
- Choose a Water-Soluble Formula: Wilburn recommends choosing a gel that’s water-soluble, meaning it rinses out under hot water without needing to be shampooed out. Of course you’ll still need to shampoo regularly, but this helps minimize buildup from forming.
- Shampoo Regularly: We’ll say it again. “If you don’t shampoo regularly but keep applying gel, you’ll find your hair begins to appear lank and greasier,” Hammond says.
Hair Gel Alternatives
Even the most die-hard hair gel advocates will agree that today’s haircare technology has led to the creation of many products that promise the solid hold of gel without the downsides.
Hefty hold, high shine, and extreme definition? Check to all three. This new-age pomade by Fellow Barber allows you to manipulate your hair any way you like and keeps it there until you wash it out. It's also free of artificial fragrance, contains ingredients that nourish your hair rather than damage it, and is water-soluble for easy cleanup.
If you turn to hair gel as your go-to curl definer, you’ll love this creamy leave-in from Briogeo. It gives you the same defined texture and lightweight bounce, but it’s fortified with rice amino acids, avocado oil, quinoa extract, and a bunch of other nourishing ingredients to avoid the dreaded '80s “crispy curls” effect.
If it’s height you’re after, this styling powder is everything you need for skyscraper-high hair. If you’ve never used a hair powder before, you’ll have to try it to believe it. By building volume between strands, it creates lift and texture you can form any way you like—without the heavy, gunky feeling hair gel can leave.
Lastly, if you’re in a DIY mood, try Byrdie’s very own homemade hair gel recipe. Made with just three simple (and Byrdie Clean) ingredients, this method helps you avoid irritants and even allows you to customize the fragrance for a gel that’s as unique as your hairstyle.
The Final Takeaway
Hair gel was the optimal way to get the impossibly high, daring hairstyles that helped define our self-images in a time when hair was everything (and maybe, for some, it still is). But like every self-care product out there, if what’s inside is potentially causing other problems, you may want to consider one of the very capable alternatives out there. While some ingredients in traditional gel have the potential to damage your hair, at the end of the day, the wide range of options today means you can still have fun with your hair and be kind to it at the same time.
www.chemistryislife.com - The Chemistry of Hair Gel
Pulickal JK, Kaliyadan F. Traction Alopecia. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.