I’ve always been intimidated by hair gel. I didn’t grow up with it; in my house there was watermelon-scented Suave Detangler, but not a jar or bottle of hair gel to be found. So when friends and TikTok girlies started sharing their slicked-back hair routines, scooping their fingers into large plastic jars of bubbly green-yellow Eco Style Gel or running a Tigi Wax Stick that resembled a metallic deodorant over their strong middle part, I, who's still figuring out the claw clip, felt out of my depth.
Styling gels and waxes are of course not new — and have been borrowed from Black hair culture — but they've become particularly trendy this year with people experimenting with tightly slicked-back hairstyles, some for the first time. "With the rise of TikTok, everyone is trying to do their hair at home and certain styles and products are going viral," says celebrity stylist Lacy Redway.
But for Black women, it's a bit of an eye-roll. Labels like Dax Wax, Shine n' Jam!, and even Eco Style Gel have been mainstays in Black hair salons for decades, well before TikTok made them popular. "It's so funny that Eco Style is considered 'trendy' right now because it's one of those products that I've known for 20-plus years," says Redway. "It's a product that, in the Black community, we've used for so long. It's interesting when things go viral — I just hope that they're credited appropriately."
Ahead, Redway and other seasoned Black hairstylists break down everything to know about hair gels and waxes, the old and the new. We get into the difference between stronghold gel and a wax stick (and edge control), the best ones to shop (and the ingredients to avoid, mainly alcohols), how to apply them, and how to wash them out properly so your hair doesn't snap off — that can happen, if you're not careful.
What is the difference between hair gel and hair wax?
Hair gel and waxes are different forms of a similar styling product. When you see a super tight slicked-back hairstyle, there's likely a styling gel involved. "A gel is going to get your hair super sleek and snatched," explains celebrity stylist Sabrina Porsche. "If you're slicking your hair back in a bun or a ponytail, it's going to make your hair very sleek and very shiny." The consistency of hair gel is thinner, more jellied, compared to a wax stick which is in a solid form, and it will dry down once applied into the hair.
"A wax stick is a firm product, so you can glide it across your hair," explains Redway. Some people prefer the stick application for touch ups, which is how Porsche classifies wax sticks. "If someone with fine hair doesn't want that super sleek look but wants to lay down those flyaways so the hair is smooth, a wax stick is a good pick," she explains.
What's the difference between a hair wax and an edge control?
When styling their hair, Black women often shape the baby hairs at the front of their hairline with gel or wax to lay them flat to the skin, the process is called laying edges and it requires an edge brush and an edge-control styling cream. Edge-control products function similar to a wax stick which can also be used to lay hair flat, but they're not synonymous. "An edge control, I would scoop it out with an edge brush or my finger and then apply it," explains Redway. "With a wax stick, I would apply it directly from the stick, like a roll-on deodorant. They're different but they can do similar things."
Porsche agrees. "I would never use a wax stick to lay my edges," she explains. "A wax stick is just something to smooth those flyaways, like a finishing product. Whereas an edge control is going to lay down those baby hairs and keep them sticking to your skin so they don't move. A wax stick doesn't have those same ingredients to keep your hair as sleek as an edge control."
What's a good hair gel?
When it comes to mastering your own slicked-back hairstyle, it will take some trial and error. However, Redway's advice is to follow hairstylists or creators with a hair type similar to you, and try the products they use. "Look at videos on YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram Reels of people who have similar styles to you and see what they're doing in general," she offers. Then, buy the travel-sized version of the gel or wax. "I always recommend getting a smaller size to see what it does for your hair before really investing in full sizes," Redway explains.
In general, the Eco Style Gel is going to be a good, affordable, classic pick. "It's a lightweight gel that most all hair textures can manage," says Redway. "It does get pretty firm and will hold your hair in place." Plus, Eco Style has reformulated their gels with new ingredient technology to create softer, more gentle formulas. Porsche, who has 3C-4A hair pattern, says it works for her and most of her clients.
Redway also recommends the Tresemmé Extra Hold Gel (she's an ambassador for the brand). "It's great for anyone who wants to slick their hair back," she says, adding that it's been her secret weapon for sleek hairstyles for years. "I've been using it at New York Fashion Week for the last four seasons. I also used it on the past season of Project Runway All Stars," Redway adds. Porsche also recommends the Not Your Mother's Curl Talk Frizz Control Sculpting Gel (she's an ambassador for the brand), which adds moisture to the hair, preventing frizz while holding it in place.
What's a good hair wax?
Nowadays, there are so many different wax sticks — hair accessories brand Emi Jay has a chic one called Angelstick, the Tigi Bedhead one is a popular go-to — but the one Porsche recommends is the Tancho Stick. "I'm grateful [hairstylist and Ouai founder] Jen Atkin put me on to this because it sold out once she told everyone," Porsche explains. "It's undefeated. I use it on all my clients. It smells really good; it has a lavender scent. It lays the hair down without leaving a sticky, oily residue. I mainly use it on the part to lay the flyaways flat."
Is gel and wax bad for my hair?
All hairstylists I spoke with for this story agree: A slicked-back style is for an occasion, not every day. "Any time you're pulling your hair back it's [causing] tension and it's damaging," says Porsche. "It's never going to be a good thing to pull your hair back in a sleek, tight ponytail. Don't do it on a daily basis."
You also want to be mindful of the types of gels and waxes you're using, avoiding alcohol whenever possible. "It's almost impossible to find products that don't contain alcohol in them but that's really what dries out your hair," explains hairstylist and curl expert Sabrina Ahmed. "I'd make sure alcohol is not in the first row of ingredients. If it's further down it's fine, but you just don't want to over-dry your hair." Porsche also recommends avoiding silicones and instead looking for gels and waxes with natural oils. "Something with oil blends is going to add moisture and shine," Porsche explains. "I look for argan oil, jojoba oil, or coconut oil."
What is the best way to apply hair gel or wax?
When you are styling your hair in a slicked-back bun or ponytail, the advice is to start with dry hair. "I wash and blow dry the hair and then put the gel on," explains Porsche. "It depends on your hair texture; some people can apply gel to wet hair, but I wouldn't recommend it." Remember, hair is more fragile when it's wet so it's best to avoid pulling at it. I always recommend combing your hair thoroughly before applying a gel.
With any gel or wax, comb your hair first and practice a light-handed application. "I always recommend combing your hair thoroughly before applying a gel," offers Porsche. This will help stimulate the scalp and spread the natural oils to avoid buildup on the scalp. "You can always add more gel if you need a stronger hold, but the more gentle you are with your hair, the healthier it will be afterwards.
How do I wash my hair after wearing a slicked-back style?
The best advice from hairstylists and trichologists is to wash your hair after wearing a slicked-back style. "Don't go to bed with slicked-back hair," offers Ahmed. Instead, you want to carefully take out your bun or ponytail and wet your hair under lukewarm water before you even touch it. "You're prone to breakage because your hair is stiff, so you could put it at risk for snapping your hair," warns Porsche. "Completely saturate the hair and then go in with your shampoo and conditioner. I like to let that product rinse out before touching it. If your hair is sticking up because the product is so hard, always let your hair get saturated before you touch it."
As for what you're using in the shower, Redway recommends a clarifying shampoo. "People should really use a clarifying shampoo to remove all that buildup, especially if you're someone who layers products throughout the week," Redway explains. "For someone with curly or coily hair, we're not washing our hair daily. It might be once a week or once every other week, which is also why it's super important to make sure you're cleansing your hair and removing heavy product buildup." Redway recommends Tresemmé Cleanse and Replenish System which cleanses the scalp and hydrates the hair. "That's a great one for all hair types," she says.
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