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How to Use Hair Gel for Men

September 1, 2022

6 Min read

A few years ago, hair gel was a tough sell. That’s because most of us grew up with those drugstore gels—the ones that gave us shiny helmet heads. They were extremely crunchy to the touch, and the gel would flake throughout the day. It felt like you could have snapped off a lock of hair since it was so hardened. No wonder hair gel for men (and everyone, really) had such a bad rap. But not anymore.

Gels have a lot more versatility these days; it’s important to think of gels instead as a broad category of products, rather than a singular offer. (In the same way we call many things ‘pomade’ these days, when there’s one very prominent idea we have of what a pomade is supposed to be—speaking of shiny slicked-back looks.) These days, gels have lots of nourishing potential, especially when they can be customized to the user’s own hair type, needs, and goals (like with Prose’s Custom Styling Gel). 

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Different Types of Hair Gel

“Hair gel comes in many many textures and consistencies,” says celebrity stylist Melissa DeZarate. “It’s no longer just the extra crunchy slicked-back look of the past.” She cites how hair gels can be applied in different hair textures:

Lightweight cream gels: “These are used on wavy and curly hair, to both moisturize and hold the shape of the hair.”

Medium-hold gels: “These can be used on straight hair in place of a mousse and give beautiful volume and shape that you can’t get with a volumizing spray.”

Hard-hold gels: “These can create a perfect sweat-proof style if you comb/brush the hair into place beforehand and let it fully dry.”

And with a custom formula, you can get a gel that suits your needs—like a higher-hold option that smooths frizz (without the helmet tautness) if you have straight hair, or a curl-enhancing and moisturizing gel for textured styles, delivering lightweight hold without the crunch.

Universal Hair Gel Tips

Here is how to apply hair gel properly, in order to get the best results—with specific tips for each hair type, courtesy of DeZarate.

1. No matter the texture, your hair needs to be wet

To activate the gel, you need freshly cleaned or rinsed hair, and it should be towel dried but still damp. Even if you need a quick application, simply spritzing the hair is necessary in order to get the desired result. Applying on wet hair allows for the gel to lock in moisture and knock out any potential unwanted frizz. 

2. You can blow it dry for more control

This is a matter of preference, and a matter of free time, too. But if you choose to blow dry your gel, then it will deliver slightly more hold as opposed to letting it air-dry. Usually, this hold can still be “broken up”—namely, with curls that can be loosened after diffuser-drying them. But by blowing them dry first, you can lock in that added definition and have greater control over the finished style than if you leave it up to a gradual air-drying.

3. Go light on thinning hair

If your hair is fine or thinning gradually, then don’t use a lot of product—especially for shorter styles. If you want to use a gel for a short, sparse style, then try a lightweight or medium-hold gel, but apply it as if you were using a high-hold one. You want to prevent the hairs from being weighed down, since you likely want to maximize the potential volume of your style. Honestly, it’s best to stick with a lightweight gel, or switch to a light-hold cream instead.

4. Hair gel is terrific for flyaways, too

DeZarate adds that hair gel’s uses have evolved with the product itself. And one such example is using hair gel to tame cowlicks and flyaways. “Hair gel makes for really wind- and weather-resistant hair styles,” she adds. “No more stubborn hairs popping up.”

5. Start with a little, and add as needed

Until you know exactly how much hair gel to apply for your preferred style, it’s best to err on the conservative side. That being said, you typically need more gel than other types of products (like fibers and clays) in order to achieve the desired results. So, start with a penny-sized amount in shorter styles, and a nickel-sized amount in medium or longer ones.

6. Always shampoo before the next styling session

This tip is especially important for high-hold gel users, but is a terrific universal tip for all gel users. While you may prefer to wash your hair every second or third day, gels often wear best in freshly shampooed strands. So, if you intend to wear gel every day, then it’s best to wash your hair every morning before that application, followed by a residue-free conditioner. Some curly styles will incorporate a leave-in conditioning cream prior to gel use, but other hair types will want to start with a totally clean, towel-dried canvas.

How to Use Hair Gel in Curly Hair (And Wavy + Coily Hair, Too)

Hair gel might be the missing piece in having defined, cooperative, and controlled curls on the regular—and namely, no frizzing or fraying. Below is the simplest way to use hair gel for your hair’s natural texture each and every day.

1. Start with freshly washed hair

You want a fresh canvas for the gel application. If you prefer to condition hair in the shower, that’s fine. You need some sort of conditioning agent after the shampoo, and many curly types prefer to get it from their leave-in conditioning cream.

Dry off your hair after the shower, but make sure it’s still damp before applying the gel. 

2. Optional: Apply your leave-in conditioner

This is when you can apply your leave-conditioning cream, if it’s a step you prefer. Note that any two products, when used together, will create a slightly different effect than if used on their own. So you may want to test your gel with and without a leave-in base, just to see if it still helps you achieve your end goal—especially if the gel has conditioning ingredients.

3. Apply the gel

With curly hair, you can be a little more generous with your lightweight gel than people with shorter, straighter styles. Try a nickel- or quarter-sized amount to start. Massage it throughout your palms.

The goal here is to get that gel evenly coated around the strands. So, for looser curls, it often works to target the ends of the hairs with gel and then scrunch the curls upwards. For coily hair, it might work best to press the palms together and run entire groups of strands through the palms, from roots to ends. You might have to try different methods to ensure that you get the best coating, which also may change depending on how long or short you wear your hair.

4. Dry the hair

You can use a diffuser or let your hair air-dry. Typically, a blow dryer will deliver a little more hold and control.

5. Once dry, loosen any locked curls

It’s still hair gel after all, so there’s a good chance you’ll notice some initial “crunch” in the hair gel, while it holds your curls together. If so, you can gently pick these curls apart, by pulling lightly on the ends of hair, then letting them bounce into their resting place. Give your scalp a massage, too, to loosen up any product and to allow for maximum (but controlled) movement.

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