If you’re trying to pull off the slicked-back pompadour of your dreams, you’re going to need some of the best hair gel for men. Whether you have short hair or long, straight or curly, a hair gel will meet your needs, and we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite tried-and-true brands below.
First, we reached out to Marissa Machado, a celebrity men’s groomer who’s worked with stars including Rami Malek and Nick Jonas, for her tips and advice. She answered a few questions and gave us the low-down on what to look for in the best hair gels (and what to avoid), the pros and cons of using men’s hair gel and how to apply it.
Machado told SPY that there are two main reasons to turn to hair gel: a strong all-day hold and achieving a wet finish and glossy shine. But with great hold comes great unmanageability.
“Gel is a harder product, gives less mobility in hair and tends not to be as buildable [like softer products],” Machado said.
“It can be a difficult needle to thread,” Machado added. “But a good hair gel will hold the hair in place without creating a rock-hard finish and allow for additional building throughout the day. To that end, you want to avoid sticky gels because they can cause the product to ball up when you reapply.”
What Ingredients To Look for in the Best Hair Gel for Men
In terms of ingredients, what really separates the good hair gels from the bad hair gels is the presence (and type) of alcohol in their formulas. Machado told SPY that “not all alcohols are created equal” when it comes to hair products. Some are okay, while others can contribute to excessive drying. That’s not just bad for the hair itself but can also result in flakes or an ashy finish.
Alcohols that can contribute to drying and poor hair health include:
- Specially denatured alcohol (SDA)
- Denatured alcohol
- Propyl alcohol
- Isopropyl alcohol
Machado explains that the better alcohols come from plants and oils and add a smoothing effect to your hair. These include:
- Lauryl alcohol
- Cetyl alcohol
- Myristyl alcohol
- Stearyl alcohol
- Behenyl alcohol
- Cetearyl alcohol
You can also find alcohol-free men’s hair gel such as Harry’s Sculpting Hair Gel, which we’ve selected as the top option in our shopping guide below. Finally, some of the best hair gel for men contains botanicals designed to support hair health. Common ingredients include tea tree oil, grapefruit extract, Vitamin B5, ginger root extract, and aloe vera juice.
Why Trust SPY?
SPY editors have tested hundreds of grooming products over the years, including hair gels, pomades, waxes, beard oils and everything in between, so we know what’s worked for us and what we’re confident will work for you. In particular, we specialize in testing and reviewing beard products, hair products and skincare products for men. When putting together shopping guides and reviews for SPY readers, we talk to experts, dermatologists and grooming professionals to help us understand what to look for in effective products (and what to avoid). Most importantly, we truly love what we do and are passionate about men’s grooming, and we will never endorse a product we wouldn’t use ourselves.
1. Harry’s Sculpting Men’s Hair Gel
The Harry’s Sculpting Hair Gel offers just about everything you want in the best hair gel. It delivers a firm hold and nice shine without leaving your hair feeling crunchy and rinses out easily at the end of the day. Plus, it’s reasonably priced for its generous size. What else do you need from a hair gel?
2. Jack Black Body-Building Hair Gel for Men
The Jack Black Body-Building Hair Gel adds excellent volume and shine without choking your hair down for light to moderate hold and a great grapefruit and ginger smell. It won’t be the best if you have a specific style you want to keep throughout the day, but if you don’t mind or even prefer to restyle on the go, this will be the best medium-hold hair gel to throw in your bag. Plus, it has an alcohol-free formula and contains botanicals such as grapefruit and ginger to support hair health.
3. American Crew Firm-Hold Styling Gel
The American Crew Firm Hold Styling Gel is an alcohol-free, firm hold hair gel enriched with all kinds of good stuff to keep your hair under control. It contains a dual polymer complex to provide a strong hold with a long-lasting shine and is enriched with natural extracts such as vitamin B5 to help hair look thicker while adding more body. It also employs a low-pH non-flaking formula with special ingredients that allow for easier distribution throughout the hair.
4. Monat Studio One Flexible Hold Gel
For minimal frizz and a non-sticky lightweight hold, Machado pointed us toward the Monat Studio One Flexible Hold Gel. One of her favorites, this hair gel is also silicone-free and still allows you to achieve a buildable hairstyle. Suitable for all hair types and textures, including color-treated hair, this is the best hair gel for a genuinely weightless, strong hold without that stiff feeling.
5. Paul Mitchell Super Clean Sculpting Gel
Packed with conditioning agents to keep hair healthy, the Paul Mitchell Super Clean Sculpting Gel gives you high control, high shine and significant volume. At the same time, it’s not too sticky and works well for any hair type, frizzy or fine. Just be careful about over-touching during the day, as you could end up with a few flakes. But with the firm hold here, you shouldn’t need to touch your hair to maintain your style.
6. AXE Messy Look Hair Gel for Men
BEST LIGHT HOLD HAIR GEL
The best men’s hair gels don’t have to freeze your hair in time. You can still get the messy hair look and maintain control with a light-hold hair gel like the AXE Messy Look Hair Gel. It’s formulated to be adjusted and played with while still giving your hair some form and body. This approach also leaves a matte finish, so your hair doesn’t look shiny and messy.
6. R+Co Motorcycle Flexible Gel
BEST FOR MEDIUM HOLD
Though it’s relatively pricey for a 5-ounce bottle, the R+Co Motorcycle Flexible Gel is one of the best hair gels for versatility. It can offer a more controlled hold on wet hair or a more delicate hold when applied dry, remaining pliable throughout the day without compromising grip. It also doesn’t hurt that it smells great too.
7. Schwarzkopf Got2b Ultra Glued Invincible Styling Gel
BEST FOR EXTRA STRONG HOLD
Vertical hairstyles will stay in place all day and night with the Schwarzkopf Got2b Ultra Glued Invincible Styling Gel. This extreme gel proudly exclaims it feels like a gel, holds like glue, giving you a hold that is so powerful that the product states if you are not up for the strongest gel hold ever, you may want to try another product. Great for shorter hair, a high-tech styling agent called Alpha XTR lets you take your hair to new heights and create your own style, giving you the strongest hold for your own individual look. Ultra Glued is also a non-sticky, no-flake formula that can be used on damp or dry hair and still shampoos out easily.
8. SexyHair Style Hard Up Gel
BEST FOR ALL-DAY SHINE
SexyHair Style Hard Up Gel is a high-performance hair gel that provides maximum hold and all-day shine for all hair types. With its multipurpose uses, you can apply to wet hair for a sculpted, spiked, sleek or refined look or apply to dry hair for a more messy, less-structured appearance. Hard Up gel is a flake-free formula that promises to give you the control you need while being extremely easy to use. With the mica and titanium oxide in the formula — additives to reflect light — you’ll have a shine you’ll need to see to believe. Sure, it may seem expensive up front, but you’re getting a ton of product for your dollar.
How To Apply Hair Gel for Men
One reason we love hair gel is that you can apply it to wet or dry hair.
“When applied to wet hair, the hair gel will yield a wet look to be carried throughout the day, [with] a high shine [and] more polished finish,” Machado tells us. However, when used on dry hair, the gel is more for “holding the style created by a hairdryer or air-dry finish.”
The most important thing to remember when applying hair gel? Less is more. In fact, that simple rule is so important that we’re going to say it again: when applying hair gel, less is more.
“[Start by] squeezing a dime-size amount to hands and warming it up by rubbing hands together until product disappears,” Machado explained. “Then apply from root to tip, making sure to work [the hair gel] through the entire head. Don’t be scared to really get in there for the best effect and longest wear.”
Finally, you’ll want to make sure that you buy a hair gel that suits your styling needs, as not every guy will need firm-hold hair gel. The best hair gels for you may offer a lighter or medium-hold, and matching your hair gel to your needs will help you avoid overapplying. The right hair gel should provide a healthy, long-lasting shine. Likewise, the product you choose should avoid harsh ingredients will leave the hair damaged, your scalp dry, or turn your head into a flake fest.