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Choosing the right hair styling product – a brief history of waxes, pomades and oils

Posted on January 15 2018

Choosing the right hair styling product – a brief history of waxes, pomades and oils

When it comes to men's hair styling products, it is increasingly difficult to tell them apart.

Picking the right one for your hair type and style can be tricky. The history of different product types can be a handy guide to understanding what each was originally intended to do and the ingredients they use to do it.

The quest of the dapper gent

The quest for the perfect hair styling product is far from new. In fact, the Journal of Archeological Science found that mummified Egyptian remains showed traces of a fatty material intended solely to sculpt and style the hair.

The courtiers of Louis XV used beef fat to hold their excessively elaborate styles upright.

In the 1870’s the pomade and the first hair oil styling products emerged in Europe. The early commercial pomades featured bear fat as the main holding ingredient.   

Around the same time, a London barber called Alexander Rowland launched the precursor to a brilliantine style oil, known as Macassar Oil. This product combined coconut oil, Kusum (Macassar tree) oil and ylang ylang fragrance into a light styling product that gave a glossy shine to the user’s hair, and a permanent stain to any fabric that the user’s hair touched.  

Bears give way to bees

By the early 1900s, petroleum jelly, beeswax and lard had thankfully replaced bear fat as the primary ingredients in pomades. The fate of Europe’s soft furnishings had also taken a positive turn with the emergence of Edouard Pinaud’s brilliantine in 1900 - an alternative to Macassar. The brilliantine proved enormously popular amongst the French aristocracy as a means of softening hair, beards and moustaches.

Simply brilliant

In 1928, English company County Chemicals created a crème made of water, mineral oil and beeswax called Brylcreem. Brylcreem took the world by storm and made the Birmingham brand a household word across Europe and the U.S.

Brylcreem was in many ways an extension of Pinaud’s brilliantine concept; providing an alternative to the firmer pomades but this time in a light mouse rather than a pure liquid.

The gloss, wet oil look prevailed in one form or another from the 1920’s to the 1950’s – but it now had challengers from unexpected quarters.

Hair styling begins to gel

Gels began to appear in the 1920’s. The early hair gels were a blend of water and mineral oil and thickened with wax. Over the subsequent years, this innocent blend gave way to the more contemporary mix of calcium hydroxide, stearic acid, magnesium sulphate and catrionic polymers required to produce the rigid styles of the 70’s and 80’s. Modern day gels are gelatinous (thus the name). They allow for greater breadth of styling while wet, but dry solid and cannot then be restyled. They are typically water-based and don’t deal with rain or high wind all that well.

Hairspray – the fashion weapon

The aerosol, originally invented as a means of distributing high volumes of jungle insecticides during World War 2, found its true calling in the late 1940's. Distributing vast amounts of hair product, the aerosol gave birth to the hairspray industry.

The ability to quickly blast fixative onto hair sculpted into impossible positions opened the door to a generation of previously inconceivable hairstyles. In the 50’s, style aficionados often doubled down – using a styling product for shape and then hairsprays to fix the style in place. This ensured that nothing short of blunt force or a category-three cyclone would compromise the look.

Like gels, sprays typically provide rigidity and set solid. The different composition of sprays means that they often leave a higher level of residual film on the hair than gels, leading to build up over time.  

Today’s hair product landscape

Many of today’s products borrow heavily from their historical ancestors. The current hair product landscape looks like this –

Pomades

Pomades haven’t changed dramatically over the years. A pomade is slick, with a firm hold, and doesn’t set solidly. That said, many pomades – especially those that are water-based set almost as rigidly as a gel.

The base of a pomade makes a difference to the way it behaves. There are three main types of pomade.

    1. Petroleum-based pomades - The traditional petroleum-based pomade that contains grease-like ingredients for a slick look. Think Grease the movie. These often have a marked shine as well and can be combed back into shape. They can be difficult to wash out but can provide a protective film that locks in moisture if build up Is kept under control.
    2. Water-based pomades - This is the more recent evolution of the pomade. Water-based pomades tend to have a matte appearance, feel more like a paste, wash out in water and set more firmly. Some water-based pomades while easier to remove can also draw moisture from the hair.
    3. Wax-based pomades - or just hair waxes. This variation arguably borrows the best from both styles and is more old style than the water bases. Natural waxes provide medium shine and medium or high hold. They are pliable while still offering hold. Rather than use a petrochemical base, this style relies heavily on beeswax for its firm hold and uses coconut or jojoba oil rather than any form of fat or grease. Natural waxes wash out more easily than petroleum-based products but obviously not as well as a water-based style.

The tradeoff is that the wax coating can lock in moisture and because waxes don’t contain water, they last for a long time without the need for the artificial preservatives often necessary in water-based products. Like petroleum-based products, build up on the scalp can be a consideration with waxes, so it is important to apply frugally and from the middle of the strand to the end. It’s worth removing build up every so often using a cleansing shampoo or one of a number of natural alternatives. Natural beeswax pomades provide a firm hold but leave hair protected and malleable. They also don’t wash out when it rains.

Brilliantines

Brilliantines now appear under a range of different names. Aside from the evergreen Brylcreem, brilliantines exist in their own name and as treatment oils and styling oils.

Interestingly, modern beard oils share many of the characteristics of the early brilliantines – but brilliantines have a higher shine and more hold. For this reason it is helpful to think of a brilliantine as sitting between a beard oil and a mild hair wax. It can be used to provide shape and shine to hair that doesn’t need much hold, or in combination with a wax.  People with very fine hair should approach with caution as the high oil content can make fine hair appear greasy.

Gels

Gels have a jelly-like consistency and are applied to the hair before styling it into shape. A gel has a high hold and high shine. Once in place, the alcohols in the gel react with the air for about 15 minutes; ultimately hardening into a stiff style with no movement. Most are water-based and are therefore easier to wash out but vulnerable to rain and humidity. The alcohol in some gels can also dry out the hair strand. Over time, some gels can make your hair brittle. Gel users should break from the product at regular intervals and be sure to condition well to restore nutrients and moisture. 

Pastes and clays

Pastes and clays are similar to each other and behave similarly to a wax. Unlike a natural wax, clays and pastes are generally water (chemical)-based. They have varying levels of shine, with a paste landing somewhere in the middle. A paste also falls into the middle of the hold range and is, therefore, a good all-rounder. If you need more hold, a clay will give you a higher tack but with a lower shine. 

Hairsprays

When most people think hairsprays, they think of aerosols. This is largely the case, with hairsprays being mostly used to bulk up volume and/or fix a style in place. In this sense, they are like a gel in that they dry to a hard finish that is difficult to restyle once dry. Pump pack hairsprays can perform the same fixing function but can also simply contain natural and chemical volumisers. For this reason it is important to check the bottle to make sure that the spray will do exactly what you need.

When you are contemplating the right hair product, the product you select comes down to a few key considerations. Here are some rules of thumb to get you started.

  • Pomades are good for hold and will give you shine and flexibility. They are good for slick styles and have an obvious shine.
  • Natural wax pomades (Natural hair waxes) will provide the same hold as a pomade but last longer. Many are free of the artificial chemicals that are needed to keep water-based products stable. Waxes still provide some shine but not as much as a gel or a pomade.
  • Brilliantines have no hold but a lot of shine and maximum pliability. A brilliantine can enhance but will not control a wave or curl.
  • Clays and pastes fall somewhere in the middle and are good for shaping and shine. Pastes are good for a matte finish – but are generally water-based.
  • Gels have great hold, shaping when wet but set shiny and firm. For this reason they lack pliability once set
  • Hairsprays (aerosols) will give you hold and body but offer little pliability once dry.

Of course it's not as tidy as this in practice. Product manufacturers blur the lines to take market share from other categories so you end up with pomades that set solid and some gels that don’t!

Where to start

The best way to start is to ask your barber. If you don’t want to do that, decide if you want pliability or a fixed hold. If fixed, you can play in the gel and/or spray isle.

If not, then select a product that falls in the middle in terms of shine and hold like a wax or clay, and experiment. If you want a firm hold, chemical-free option, a hair wax can work well.

Start using a very small quantity on damp hair and increase slowly each time until you get the hold level you need. Once you know the hold and pliability you want, you can shift between products to get the level of shine you want.

Remember less is more and keeping your hair healthy is the most important consideration.

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