Beauty Q&A: Hair Products — Why So Many?

Questions 1–11: I would sincerely like a list of hair products and what they do. Mousse — what does it do and who needs it? Hair shine from a pump vs. hair shine from a spray — I’ve been using this but I don’t really know what if anything it’s doing. “Beach waves” spray. Also texturizer spray — what’s the difference? When do I use hairspray? Just when I want to set a style, or when I also want to control frizz? And when do people use gel? When do they use pomade? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY? It is nonsense!

I have a theory about people who ask this question, because I know many of them, including this letter writer who goes by the name of “Edith.” My theory is that they have been sent here from the 14th century to spy on us for the… Pope? Probably, who else was in charge and had the resources back then? Anyway, they believe hair products are magic potions — concoctions not simply infused with magical properties, but ALIVE with millions of atom-sized Tailor of Gloucester mice for your hair. Miniscule mice with a great sense of style and flair for hair, who, depending on which emulsion they’re suspended in (and they can sense which one it is by the way it tingles their quark-length mouse fur), instinctively go to work on each individual strand to fashion the hairstyle of your dreams — which the mice divine through your scalp! — while you sit on the couch and watch TV for half an hour.

Furthermore, and this is neither here-nor-there I suppose, but they tend to shy away from trendy cuts or color, these folks, opting instead for a natural look of all-one-length hair; no layers, no bangs. What I’m trying to say is, products are 25% of the battle, the rest of your desired look is achieved through cut, styling, and manipulation using various tools, all of which take up a bunch of space in your cupboards and time from your short, few days. There is no magic.

So, “Edith,” I will answer your questions, but I am onto you. The below are opinions and (mostly) open for discussion. The above are facts and the case is closed. Before I get to the first question, one family of products you didn’t mention…

Leave in conditioners and styling prep sprays?

This is the only junk you people need to bother with! That is, if you’re not going to change your routine. A leave-in conditioner will control frizz and flyaways and will help to keep your long hair healthy and prevent split ends. If you plan to do any styling, a prep spray like this helps detangle and protects your hair during blow-drying and gives a teensy bit of control that you almost won’t feel. These products are mostly geared toward keeping your long locks from splitting and looking yucky and they are honestly all you need. And here’s one that foams so you can feel like you’re actually using this next thing you’re interested in for some reason?

Mousse — what does it do and who needs it?

Mousse creates volume and texture and is best for shorter hairstyles or curly hair. I imagine Elizabeth Taylor was a mousse woman, yeah? Bouncy hair on top of her head. (She obviously loved hairspray too, but we’ll get to that.) Mousse does not do much for longer, non-curly hair except for separating pieces and sometimes, if you use too much, making crunchy looks like we loved in the late 1980s. It can be used for control: used on damp hair to hold a style created by blow-drying and curling, but there are better products for that, methinks.

Hair shine from a pump vs. hair shine from a spray — I’ve been using this but I don’t really know what, if anything, it’s doing.

Here’s a product even the loons can use and love! Spray or pump? Doesn’t really matter. In fact, mine is a spray but… I spray it into my hand first and then run my fingers through my hair! Some hairstylist did that to me at a salon once and it felt less heavy than when I used to spray directly onto my hair. Shine products are great for color-treated or dry hair; hair that seems dull or damaged. It can be used at any point during the styling process, but I prefer it as a finishing touch after a nice blowout. I would NOT use a shine spray after creating a style with hairspray. They can cancel each other out. So, it’s a polishing, “ooh, her hair looks shiny” kind of product. It is the icing on a Peggy Moffitt cake. Also great for creating a bit more pulled-together, less flyaway kind of look on longer air dried hair.

“Beach waves” spray.

You could also use this? Beach sprays, or sea salt sprays, or those sorts of things, are intended to give your hair a windswept, surfer look. Do you know where girls surf? In the ocean. Do you know what’s there? A bunch of dirt and salt. It’s kind of a mess, so if you want that look, this is the product to use. And it helps to be 18 and have looong, naturally ombré’d tresses and lots of freckles and a sick bod.

Also texturizer spray — what’s the difference?

Not much, though one thing to note: this class of products does a wholly different thing on shorter hair. It’s an extreme example, but Meg Ryan probably goes through a lot of texturizing spray. Think “piecey” when you think of texturizers.

I’m going to switch subjects now, because I can: volumizing sprays. These are actually kind of wonderful, but only if you plan to style your hair. Spray a little at the roots, blow-dry upside down or while lifting the hair, and tease at the roots when it’s dry. That’s how you begin to get this sort of volume

When do I use hairspray? Just when I want to set a style, or when I also want to control frizz?

Why, I’m so glad you asked! For big, sexy hair, after you do that thing I just described, spray the entire length of your almost-dry hair with some hairspray, comb through, and roll up into large velcro rollers as instructed in this perfect video. Either hit it with a blowdryer or allow to air dry and you will have giant, bouncy hair. Finish the style with another healthy dose of hairspray.

Think of hairspray as the fixative to your style. Lots of products go before hairspray, but few go on after. Hairspray is the “net,” if you will, that catches all your hairs, literally creating an invisible web on top of them to hold them in place for a few hours. That net, depending on how much you spray, can get thicker and thicker. The mid-point of hairspray thickness is just heavy, weighed down hair. The end point is 1980s-style big bangs: a web so thick it stands up on its own.

And frizz is another issue that I think is better controlled with leave-in conditioners or shine sprays/serums. There are also full lines of products, like this, or the ancient but recently re-popularized Argan oil or Shea butter products. All great for actually frizzy hair. On non-frizzy hair they are too heavy and oily.

And when do people use gel?

When they want Pauly D hair or slicked back wet-looking but hard-to-the-touch hair, like the girls on that Robert Palmer video, OR right before they blow dry with a round brush. Gel is GREAT at controlling hair and holding a style, so if you plan to create a blown-out style and don’t trust that hairspray alone will wrangle everything into place, grab some gel. Try for a gel that claims to be “brushable” if you don’t want crunchy or wet-looking hair. I personally prefer it over mousse for this purpose, but not as much as I like a styling lotion, gel’s liquidier little sister. Straightening products are in the same family as they’re meant to hold a style created with a blowdryer and brush, followed by a flat iron.

When do they use pomade?

When they are Morrissey or The New-and-Improved Miley Cyrus or my dude (he says this one is best). Pomade is for shorter styles that need height or sectioning, though I’ve seen it used in tiny quantities on longer curly or wavy hair for giving a piecey look.

Honorable mentions:

This hair powder and this hair powder spray help you get humungous bouffants. This is a hard-to-categorize organic defining cream that I love for shorter styles or curls. And these come highly recommended for super curly hair.

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY? It is nonsense!

Agreed! Everyone should just cut their hair really short and move on to more important things. Seriously! *Tosses long, perfectly styled hair in disgust.*

And now, I hand this off to Hairpin friend and commenter, thebestjasmine, who will address a whole slew of black hair products.

Jasmine: First of all, most black hair products (or products most frequently used by black women) are to deal with one major issue: dryness. Black hair, whether it’s natural or relaxed, tends to be incredibly dry, which is why most black women tend to wash their hair only once or twice a week, and why we use so many masques/oils/treatments.

Second, some of what black women use on their hair on a daily basis is dictated by whether our hair is relaxed or natural (and there are many other categories too: braids, twists, dreds, and lots more).

Third, it can’t be said enough, but black hair is not uniform. There are many different types of black hair. This hair type chart and discussions about it illustrate that, so this is just a general overview.


A permanent hair straightener commonly used for black hair. When people talk about “natural” hair, that means hair that has not been relaxed. It used to be a lye based treatment, which burned like hell (example: that scene in the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X when the water gets turned off and they stick their heads in the toilet) but now most relaxers don’t contain lye. They still burn if they’re left on for too long. A few years ago the water went out in the building of my salon when I had relaxer on my hair and my stylist FREAKED OUT. Women tend to get them touched up once every 2–3 months on the roots. Like most chemical processes, this isn’t all that kind to your hair.

Deep conditioner

It’s not just a black hair thing, but since black women tend to have super dry hair, many use deep conditioners frequently. A lot of the products that you see for “ethnic hair” when it comes to conditioning can be used for all super dry hair. Many of these involve slathering your hair, then covering it with plastic and attacking it with heat, and then rinsing out, like this one.

Leave-in conditioner

Like Jane said, opt for this on days when you wash and don’t blow dry. Let the curls come through! Leave-ins tame the hair and give it some extra conditioning. They also work to keep it from frizzing up, perfect in the summer or for vacation times. The one that works best for my hair is Mixed Chicks, but this is also a great one.


Back to that dry hair thing, black women (whether relaxed or natural) tend to use hair oils a lot. They vary from just a little coconut oil (for super dry days), to the classic hot oil treatment and other oil based treatments used before washing and styling, to leave in oils like this one.

Stuff to make your hair STAY

If it’s a windy day, if it’s a humid day, or if it’s the day before hair wash day and your hair looks wacky, sometimes you just need something to make your hair slick back or stay in place. I like this dry wax.


Thank you, Jasmine and “Edith”!

Previously: Blushing, Cobbling, and Black Ties.

Do you have a question for Jane?