Water-Based or Oil-Based, Pomades Can Help You Achieve Your Dream Hair—Here's How

Close up of a men's hair product

Tawni Bannister / Byrdie

Pomade will always have a special place in my heart because the first non-gel product I ever bought for myself back in my teenage years happened to be a pomade. What first intrigued me about pomade was the texture: it was firm, yet malleable; slippery, yet not too viscous; essentially a hybrid of Jell-o and Vaseline that smelled amazing and, next to the huge bottle of LA Looks gel that had previously been my go-to, felt like I’d graduated into a new era of classy. 

Unfortunately, that seminal pot of pomade was the last thing my hormonally-greasy hair needed, and I ended up looking like I’d spent all morning doing an aerobic workout by the time I got to school. Looking back now, as an adult that’s well-seasoned in all things ingredients, I've figured out where I went wrong: In my haste to use cooler products, I’d chosen an oil-based pomade rather than a water-based pomade, a decision that could’ve been prevented had I brushed away my adolescent hubris and asked the advice of my hairdresser

Nowadays, pomade is more popular than ever, with varieties for all hair types and a wide array of finishes, from classic shiny to modern matte, but it's essentially sold in two categories: oil-based and water-based. And to help us understand the pros and cons of each, we’ve enlisted two of New York City’s top hair experts, barbers Alyssa Bachowski and Chris Brownless. Keep reading to find out what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

What Is Pomade?

Q: In a world filled with gels, creams, clays, pastes, mousses, and lotions, what exactly is a pomade? A: Pomade is a styling product that typically has a strong hold and high shine finish. The name, Brownless explains, originally comes from the French word for apple—pomme—because the earliest forms of pomade were made with fat or oil, and apples were used to mask the unpleasant fragrance of the base ingredients. Because of their level of hold and tendency to impart shine, pomades are usually better suited to shorter hairstyles, as they give a well-groomed finish; however, Brownless says they can also be used to smooth and tame longer hair, too. 

Beyond these fundamental characteristics, today’s pomades are grouped into two separate categories—water-based and oil-based—each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Water-Based Pomade vs. Oil-Based Pomade: How They Differ

From an ingredients standpoint, the biggest difference between the two is that water-based pomades are made with water instead of oil as the base, and vice versa for oil-based pomades, which have oil and/or wax at their core. But when it comes to usage, here’s where you need to pay attention: 

Water-based pomades


  • Easy to apply: The soft formula of a water-based pomade easily smoothes throughout the hair without tugging.
  • Easy to wash out: Water-based pomades can be washed out of the hair using plain water, so they’re great for those who don’t wash their hair on the daily. 
  • Great for oily hair: The last thing oily hair needs is more oil, so Bachowski recommends water-based pomades to add hold and shine without making hair look greasy.
  • Versatile finishes: Brownless points out that today’s water-based pomades come in a variety of finishes, from shiny to matte. 


  • Break down easily: Sweating or getting caught in the rain can cause a water-based pomade to lose its hold and wash out. 
  • Not pliable: Bachowski says that once set in place, water-based pomades can become stiff, and the more you touch your hair to restyle, the faster it loses its shine and hold.

Oil-based pomades


  • More resilient hold: Brownless says that oil-based pomades stay flexible throughout the day without setting, meaning you can restyle your hair as often as you like without losing hold or shine.
  • Water-repellent: Hair treated with oil-based pomade will stay put through rain and sweat. 
  • Ideal for thick/coarse hair: Brownless added that oil-based pomades tend to work better with thicker, coarser hair types to help create hold and shine. 
  • Great for dry hair: Bachowski explains that oil-based pomades tend to be naturally moisturizing, making them better suited for those with dry strands. 


  • Require proper shampooing to wash out: “The wax/oil-based products cannot be diluted by water, making it harder to break down and rinse away with water,” says Brownless.
  • Can cause scalp buildup: Brownless adds that oil-based pomades can lead to the formation of buildup if not washed properly and at regular intervals. 
  • More difficult to apply: Bachowski says that it can be tougher to apply oil-based pomade, and recommends applying it to towel-dried hair to avoid breakage. 

How to Pick the One For You

“There is no right or wrong answer when choosing a pomade style,” says Brownless, “but the key is figuring out if you want it to wash out easily or have a bit more of a holding factor, and choosing whether to go for the slick shiny finish or the matte modern look.” Bachowski’s approach to shopping for pomade also takes an ingredient-focused angle. “I also suggest looking for pomades that are sulfate- and paraben-free and [that] utilize natural fragrances," she says. "The fewer ingredients, the better." 

Here are some of our experts’ top recommendations: 

Fellow Strong Pomade
Fellow Strong Pomade $28.00

Bachowski recommends this all-around water-based pomade for its strong hold and high shine, perfect for sculpting even the most unruly hair into something more refined. It’s also got a slightly citrus scent that adds a dash of freshness to your day. 

Kevin Murphy Night Rider Paste
Kevin Murphy Night Rider $34.00

With a base of beeswax, this oil-based matte paste provides some serious hold and texture by molding to hair after you apply it, keeping it in place all night (or day) long. Bachowski says this is one of her clients’ favorites. 

Uppercut Deluxe Deluxe Pomade
Uppercut Deluxe Deluxe Pomade $20.00

This cult status pomade is the real deal and the secret ingredient to any style which requires hold and discipline, from simple side parts to impressive pompadours. Even though it’s water-based, Brownless says it’s capable of holding up all day long and easily rinses away, making it ideal for those who want the hold of an oil-based formula with the ease of a water-based one. 

Uppercut Deluxe Matte Pomade
Uppercut Deluxe Matte Pomade $20.00

This unique water-based pomade imparts a matte finish that Brownless says is ideal for sculpting more modern styles that require hold and texture without shine. 

The Final Takeaway

We all want our hair to look great, but with today’s dizzying selection of products with names that seem almost contradictory, it can be difficult to find the right tools to get us there. That’s why it’s important to take the time to get acquainted with exactly what goes into each product and the effect each ingredient can have on hair.

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