As with all things, some hair products are better than others.
Unlike other things, their rate of success (or failure) is immediately clear to anyone who lays eyes on you. So just like the climax of Indiana Jones 3, “choosing wisely” is of maximum importance here.
Fortunately, I had a guide for my research: barber extraordinaire Van Capizzano, who manned the clippers at New York’s Ludlow Blunt and Freemans Sporting Club and just opened Tribe Barber in Boston’s South End.
We recently talked to Van about how to choose between pomades, gels and other hair goops, as well as some common misconceptions to avoid when it comes to hair products. This time around, Van recommends us what he considers the seven most essential hair products, all of which I tested on my own follicles.
A note upfront: I’m a 25-year-old male with fine (or so I’ve been told) Northern European hair that I wear short on the sides and much longer on top, combed back. So yes, results may vary.
Herein, the products themselves, sorted from weakest to strongest hold.
I added Kiehl’s to totally dry hair. It provided shape immediately without the “there’s definitely something in my hair” feeling that accompanies most hair products. True to its name, it did leave a rather lustrous shine — otherwise, it would be impossible to notice that there was anything in my follicles. It also came with an aroma I couldn’t quite place, but definitely appreciated.
It appears wax-thick in the jar, but once I got it in my palms and warmed it up it became much more pliable and took on a silky, smooth texture. It provided plenty of shine, and much more hold than I expected. It did effect a bit of an oily, skipped-the-shower-today look, and I couldn’t decide if that made me look like I was dirty or just some dude who was too cool to shower every day. All in all, great results from a natural product made from a single ingredient.
Unlike the others, I’m no stranger to Malin+Goetz. I’ve been using their pomade steadily for years. I typically apply it straight out of the shower to wet hair that I never bother drying. It flattens the wet hair and gives it immediate shape without shine, but as the day goes by its hold relaxes and adapts to whatever new arrangement I push my hair into. By the middle of the day, it’s hard for anyone to see that there was any pomade in there to begin with: just what you want when you’re using product.
Established in 1925, Murray’s is the grandaddy of pomades. It’s also probably what your granddaddy used. I’d heard tales from barbers about how difficult it could be to work it out of their clients’ manes, so I added a conservative amount to medium towel-dry hair. Thick and minimally pliable, it was a bit of a challenge to work with. It wasn’t as shiny as I expected, but that may be due to the small amount I used — which could also explain why my hair was undone by wind just an hour later. Within the next two hours it completely collapsed, and I gave myself another, more liberal dollop that evening. This time it had a firmer hold, and added enough volume for me to pile my hair up higher than usual (this can be fun on occasion). However, that heavier hold came with a definite extra-on-the-set-of-Grease effect and left some seriously sticky residue on my hands.
But while Murray’s had its drawbacks, keep this in mind: it’s $3. That’s a whole lot of hold for about the price of the worst beer at your local watering hole.
This matte clay comes in a cool little plastic case that resembles a treasure box. I had to dig a little to get the clay out, but once I did, it went easily into dry hair. Despite its matte title, Kevin had a hint of shine. The hold was firm, but also adapted well into the messier, freer arrangements I chose to form my hair into as the day went by. It did great with volume too: I could style my hair high without looking like I’d nuked it with a gel.
Baxter’s clay proved harder to work out of its container than the Rough Rider, and was much harder to work into my mostly dry hair. I made the mistake of not warming it up and smoothing it out between my palms first, which caused my hair to be filled with uneven clumps of clay.
Once these were smoothed out and with some heavy-handed combing, I found the hold to be remarkable. I could feel the firmness of its grip as soon as I’d mixed it in — and see the shine, which was a bit more than I was used to. But that dulled through the day, and eventually it was hard to spot the product. Each time I pushed my hair into a new, less structured position the hold remained, though it had a somewhat stiffer appearance than the Rough Rider.
Layrite smells of delicious vanilla and features a woman straddling a barber pole as its logo, so you know it at least has personality. I applied it to mostly dry hair, and one thing was immediately apparent: there’s product in my hair, and everyone’s going to know it. On the other hand, it remained immaculately firm for the rest of the day. Even when I decided to push it up into a proto-pompadour at the end of the evening, it took on its new shape and stayed there like Jello. If I’m ever tempted to go full pomp (or do Morrissey for Halloween), I know where to look.