I was a metalhead with hair down past my shoulders during my teenage years. In my early 20s, I got sick of the hair and decided to chop off my locks, trading them for a high and tight fade. I was immediately delighted by just how fun it was to style my hair and the wide range of looks I could achieve simply by using different products. I was also overwhelmed by the vast range of products, which continues to expand yearly. I’ve since learned how they all work, so today, I’ll share what I know so you can find the right product!
Traditional Wax-Based Pomades
While these aren’t popular nowadays, I feel they deserve an honourable mention. The first pomades were made in France of bear of pig fat infused with essential oils. The name pomade comes from the French pomme, for apple, as apple was often used to sweeten the rancid animal fats used to concoct them.
Modern wax-based pomades are still beloved by traditionalist rockabillies and greasers for their hold and shine. Their wax & oil-based formulas give a glisten rivalled only by Layrite Super shine, and being quite heavy, they can weigh down and control even the thickest hair. As someone with tons of hair and plenty of cowlicks, I was beholden to Reuzel green grease for years.This product is endlessly malleable and can be re-styled endlessly, so if you’re always on the move or working a physical job, this is one of the few products that will hold up all day. They also leave grease on everything: hats, pillows, towels, etc., and they require special degreasing shampoo to wash out and prevent acne, so greasy pomades are a serious commitment. I still love Reuzel green for its shine, flexibility, and melon scent, while the pink grease is a flexible, strong-hold option with less shine. Both feature a pig on the tin, an homage to the pork fat once used in pomade. They are now made with beeswax and mineral oil.
While the most historically-accurate rockabillies may use grease-based products, most folks aren’t down with the oil slick that follows them everywhere. One such rockabilly was Donnie Hawley, a Las Vegas barber who has helped revive the craft of barbering in the modern age. He recognized the need for a product that worked like the classics but wasn’t greasy. Thus, Layrite was born on the ethos of “Holds like wax, washes out like gel”. Pretty much every water-based pomade since has been a variation on this formula.
Water-based pomades have a distinct gel-like feel, a little like very firm jello, and typically come in a regular and strong hold. They offer great hold for a locked-in look with a decent shine. If you want your hair to hold in one place all day long, you want water-based pomade, and if you have thick hair, you want a strong-hold product. The Layrite classics work fantastic and have a sweeter vanilla scent. I’ve always been more partial to the Crown Shaving Co Hippie Killer Pomade, which is grapefruit scented and has a very solid hold. Reuzel makes an excellent water-based pomade in a nifty tin, but it tends to dry out if not used in a couple of months. Where pomade falls short is with hair that has a mind of its own and for folks who are physically active. If you’re moving around and sweating, they’ll break down and need to be reapplied.
One thing that deters some folks from pomades is the ‘crunchy’ feel and shine they give, a clear indication that you have a product in your hair. In response, lighter, more natural products were created to give a more natural-looking and feeling style. Creams are the lightest, perfect for reducing frizz, holding short hair in place, and taming fine and thinning hair. Creams feel much like a hand-lotion and offer about as much hold. They’re great for folks who wear hats or suffer from a lot of static in their hair, as they tame it just enough to be noticeable. After I grew my hair back out, I found Layrite Hair Cream excellent at dealing with frizz and giving my hair a little texture.
Another product that sort of fits into the cream category is Layrite Super Shine. This super slick product is reminiscent of classic Brylcreem without the greasiness. It’s a heavy yet soft water-based product that is excellent for weighing-down thick hair and gives a shine worthy of Michael Corleone. It was one of the best products for my stubborn hair, and I found that if I applied it generously to wet hair, it would hold in place all day in a way that no other product would.
Salt sprays and tonics
If cream even seems too heavy for you, as it is for me since I’ve grown my hair back to shoulder length, you will love salt sprays and tonics. Like hair cream, they offer texture and reduce static frizz but are exceedingly light, perfect for controlling just-washed hair. They also breathe fresh life into flat, greasy hair if it’s been a while since your last shower.
Similar to the grease I love dearly, fibre pomades give you a great hold with a mouldable texture that can be restyled all day long. They don’t stiffen up like water-based products, so fibre can be re-combed instantly if your hair tends to flop or you expect to be active. The big difference with fibre is that it tends to have little to no shine, giving a more natural look, and is water-soluble, making it very easy to wash out.
Similar to cream and fibre, clays are a more modern, low-shine, water-soluble product. They offer extreme hold, even better than water-based pomades, so they’re perfect for thick, coarse hair and tall hairstyles. That said, there is a lot of variation in the world of clays, and it’s one of the least well-defined products. Layrite Cement and Dapper Dan clays perform as expected, but Crown and Coltrane Clay from Triumph & Disaster are softer and more malleable, as is Reuzel.Bartigan & Stark Klei is super soft, more akin to cream.
Paste is a fusion of sorts between clay and cream, sitting right between the two in terms of malleability and hold. Both Crown Paste and Reuzel Paste are excellent for relaxed yet defined hairstyles.
I hope this helps you better navigate the world of pomades, clays, and more. It can be confusing, and without trying them all, one is better off consulting an expert than choosing blindly. Once you find your perfect product, you’re set for life (or until you change your hairstyle).
A famed cocktologist and axe man, Nathan opened the first Kent of Inglewood store in Calgary, and now spends his days writing most of what you are reading here and teaching straight razor shaving classes. Ask him about his world-famous Three Cherry Manhattan. In his spare time Nathan can be found sharpening his axe, making fermented foods, or practicing his amateur butchering hobby. He doesn't slur his words, he speaks in cursive.