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What Are All Those Hair Products, Anyway?

Different hair products on beauty salon shelf
4 PM production/Shutterstock

According to one study, women in the U.S. spend as much as $55,000 on average, throughout a lifetime, on their hair. That number sounds steep, but haircare can be a worthwhile investment.

When you use the right products and treatments, you’ll save money on expensive repair products and cuts to hide hair damage. And it’s not just about healthy hair. Certain products can also help both men and women get the look they want.

To save money and buy products strategically, it’s worthwhile to learn what each different product does. Everyone knows about basic items like shampoos and conditioners, but what about all that other stuff? Let’s demystify salon shelves with this essential guide to hair products!

Wax

For short styles that need serious hold, you might reach for a wax. Hair wax is sometimes also called hair paste or clay.

This thick product doesn’t work for long hair: it makes the hairs stick together. But it does add long-lasting shape to short styles. Wax tends to have a matte finish for an undone, messy look, rather than a sleek one.

Pomade

Pomade is similar to wax, but it’s lighter and typically adds shine to hair.

For many years, pomade was known for making hair look greasy. That’s because pomades were once always made with petroleum, creating an oily, shiny product. However, today you can get the same effect with less grease by choosing a water-based pomade.

Like wax, pomade is typically used to shape short hair into long-lasting styles. For example, you could use it to slick back your hair, or to part it on the side.

Hairspray

Hairdresser fixing woman's hair with hairspray
bodiaphvideo/Shutterstock

When you need a longer hairstyle to stay in place, you’ll typically reach for a can of hairspray.

Unlike wax and pomade, hairspray isn’t a heavy, thick product, so it can be used to hold long styles as well as short ones and updos. Hairspray uses polymers to coat your hair, so each hair holds its shape more effectively. It can also increase volume since it adds thickness and stiffness to each individual hair.

Modern hairsprays are typically less stiff and sticky than their predecessors. You can find hairsprays that offer a flexible hold for less stiffness, or an intense hold for a style that won’t budge. The more intense the hold, the stiffer your hair will feel.

Volumizer

People often associate thick, voluminous hair with being healthy and attractive. If your hair doesn’t have the volume you want, a volumizer can help you achieve it.

Volumizers come in several different forms. You might see volumizing mousse, spray, and cream, for example. But they all do effectively the same thing: add thickness to existing hairs to create an illusion of more hair.

Some work by coating each individual strand with product to make it thicker and stiffer. Instead of laying flat, the hairs take on more volume to make your overall head of hair look bigger.

Others work at your roots to help the hairs there have more lift, instead of laying flat against the scalp. Making strands thicker and stiffer at the base helps you get the appearance of a lush crown of hair around your head.

However, people with fine hair will want to take care with volumizers. Since you’re adding thickness to your hair, using too much product will actually weigh your hair down, giving you the opposite effect.

Mousse

female hand with hair mousse spray
Voyagerix/Shutterstock

Mousse sounds old-fashioned, but it still has a solid place in modern hair products. You might also see it labeled as styling foam.

Mousse is designed to add volume and texture to your hair, and modern versions avoid the stickiness for which mousse was once known. It also offers a light hold that can help your hairstyle stay in place.

You’ll typically apply this product to damp hair before you style it. Mousse can also add definition to natural textures, like curls.

Shine Serums and Sprays

Like volume, shine is another hair feature often linked to good health.

You can find serums and sprays of all sorts that promise to add shine. In fact, many products intended for other purposes, like pomade, can also add shine. But some people opt for individual shine products instead.

Shine serums and sprays work by adding moisture to hair while also smoothing the hair shaft to reduce frizz. They coat each strand with glossy ingredients for that healthy glow.

Detangler

Woman combing hair on blurred background, closeup
Aquarius Studio/Shutterstock

If you regularly struggle to run a brush or comb through your hair, a detangler might be just what you need.

These products add a layer of slickness to the surface of your hair, so the hair can’t stick together and form knots as easily. A wide variety of ingredients, from silicone to oil, can be used to get this effect. Detanglers often use similar ingredients as hair shine products.

Detangling helps prevent breakage and other hair damage caused by brushing, making this a valuable product for anyone who wants healthy hair or is prone to tangles.

Texturizing Spray

Texturizing sprays offer a casual, undone look for easy, laidback styling. These sprays usually have a matte finish and work well for deliberately messy styles.

Some of these sprays use sea salt to recreate the loose, windswept look that hair takes on after a day at the beach. Others function more like an ultra-loose hairspray, adding just a little bit of volume and grip to your hair to help it hold its shape. With a texturizing spray, you can often scrunch your hair into loose waves, or tousle it with your hands for more volume.

Straightening Balm

You can’t straighten wavy or curly hair without the help of hot tools like a flat iron, or professional treatments. But you can supplement the results of your straightening tools with a straightening balm.

These balms help smooth down the hair shaft and maintain the sleek style for longer. Without a balm, you’ll see your natural texture start to return sooner.

Curl Enhancer

Girl with brown curly hair in a striped T-shirt close-up
progressman/Shutterstock

You also can’t fake curls or waves in straight hair, unless you use hot tools or get a perm. However, you can enhance natural curls and waves with a curl enhancing product.

These products add definition to individual curls by reducing frizz and increasing separation. They can also help your hair get the hydration it needs for healthy, bouncy curls. Some products focus on getting the hair to curl more. Others focus on making your existing curls look their best—you might see these products labeled as “curl definers” rather than “curl enhancers.”

Heat Protector

If you straighten, curl, or otherwise treat your hair with heat, you’ll want to invest in a heat protector, sometimes also known as a “hair primer.”

Heat protection products include sprays, serums, lotions, and more, but they all use the same basic concept. They create a barrier that coats your strands, so the heat from your styling tools can’t penetrate the hair shaft and damage it as easily. Heat styling removes moisture from your hair, which leaves it dry and brittle. To help counteract this effect, heat protectors also tend to contain lots of moisture.

Leave-In Conditioner

These moisturizing products help hair stay healthy and tangle-free after a shower, with no rinsing required. Some can also be applied to dry hair, but most call for damp, clean strands.

Leave-in conditioners often overlap with other hydrating products, like detanglers and heat protectors. But you can also find stand-alone products whose main purpose is to add valuable moisture to help hair stay healthy.

People with thin hair will want a lighter leave-in conditioner, like a spray. Those with thick hair can reach for a heavier, creamy leave-in product.  

Hair Mask

brunette woman with a nourishing mask on her hair
plprod/Shutterstock

When your regular rinse-out or leave-in conditioner doesn’t cut it, you might try a hair mask.

These deep-conditioning treatments sit on your hair to allow the moisturizers to penetrate better before you rinse them out. Some are used in the shower, while others are designed for overnight use. The longer you leave a hair mask on, the more hydration you’ll get.

Hair masks can help repair hair that’s dried out and frizzy. But they’re also good as preventative treatments to make sure your hair doesn’t lose too much moisture in the first place.

Temporary Color

Finally, some hair products offer temporary color for a fun look when you don’t want to commit.

Temporary color products have a wide range of formulas. You can use sprays to add tinted highlights or glitter. Hair mascara lets you add streaks of bold color, or touch up your roots before your next dye job. Colored mousses, gels, and pastes offer a more intense effect. Hair chalk adds a dose of bright color to individual sections of hair.

You can use these products to boost your natural look, such as by spraying on a shimmery highlighter color, or you can go bold with streaks of rainbow shades that will wash out with your next shampoo.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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