5 Retro Hair Products You Should Be Using Now

Mousse, gel, and hairspray may not be four letters long, but until recently, they were practically profane in the beauty world. Yep, the styling products you grew up using haven’t been cool since, well, you grew up. It’s probably not hard to remember how stiff, crunchy, greasy, and unnatural those retro products made your hair feel — and why you haven’t used Aqua Net since you used to steal it from your mom.

Thanks to advances in technology, however, these once-dated products are reclaiming the spotlight and can be found in the arsenals in some of the industry's top pros. We say now’s the time to give them another try. These old-school stylers have been reformulated and revamped to give hair flexible hold, natural-looking texture, long-lasting volume, and bounce.

We chatted with Herbal Essences celebrity stylist Charles Baker Strahan and Redken brand ambassador and owner of Cutler/Redken salons Rodney Cutler about what retro hair products we should be reconsidering — and how to use them right now for gorgeous, modern, and easy hairstyles.

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The Product: Mousse
Use It For: Curls and waves with movement

“Mousse is actually one of my favorite products to use,” says Strahan, who has styled celebrities including Leighton Meester and Brooklyn Decker. “It leaves hair looking hydrated, while still holding its shape.”

On a functional level, mousse was — and still is — ideal for curly hair, adds Strahan. “When applied to wet hair, it encases the curls and forms a shell as it dries, so the curls can maintain their consistency,” he explains. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, curly girls relied on mousse for big volume and defined waves — leading to that crispy, crunchy look that gave mousse a bad name. “It was all about keeping curls intact (and not moving),” Strahan says. Most mousse at the time also contained a good deal of alcohol, making hair brittle and dry.

These days, mousse tends to be made with conditioning ingredients and little or no alcohol, giving the hair a lighter, more flexible feel while creating plenty of volume. Just like the old days, says Cutler, a “golf ball-sized” amount of product is the recommended dose.

Strahan suggests brushing mousse through totally wet hair. “The water left in your hair allows the product to move through the hair for more even distribution,” he says. Wrap your hair in a towel to squeeze out excess water, then finish by drying your hair with a diffuser attachment to “boost volume and curl.” Strahan recommends Herbal Essences Naked Volumizing Soufflé, R+Co Chiffon Styling Mousse, or Living Proof Curl Enhancing Styling Mousse.
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The Product: Gel
Use It For: Slick, grown-up ponytails and chignons

“There are so many new types of gel products on the market today,” says Cutler, whose clients have included Emma Watson and Toni Collette. The light hold and hybrid formulas (gel-mousse, gel-texturizer) you’ll find on shelves today dry to a more natural-looking texture — defined and controlled, but not crunchy — than the products that came before them.

Strahan and Cutler love gel for creating the slick, “wet” looks you’ve recently seen on runways and style-setting celebs like Lorde and Kim Kardashian. To create a grown-up, smooth ponytail, follow these tips from Cutler: Squeeze out a quarter-size amount of product (he recommends Redken’s Velvet Gelatine 07 Cushioning Blow-Dry Gel). Section your wet hair and apply the product from roots to ends. Blowdry your hair away from your face, then sweep it high or low and tie it with an elastic band. Finish by rubbing a pea-size amount of gel into your hands and running them over any flyaways.

If you’re still worried gel is going to make your hair look too stiff, try “cocktailing” it with a little hair serum. “Serums and oils really help to limit the stiffness you can experience with gel, while still giving you the control or hold that you are looking for,” says Strahan.
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The Product: Hairspray
Use It For: Pinterest-worthy updos and smooth blowouts

Hairspray is no longer the stuff of your sticky, helmet-hair nightmares. “The modern hairspray is used mostly for adding a flexible finish to any style, whether up or down,” says Cutler. Strahan agrees: “There are hairsprays out there that are more lightweight and will give you hold without leaving your hair sticky or stiff.” Gentle-hold formulas are super-easy to find — just look for products that include words like “flexible” or “touchable” on the label.

Once you’ve found the right product, apply it evenly and with a light touch. “When using hairspray, think of casting a net over the look to hold it in place,” says Strahan. To finish an updo, like a braid or bun, make sure to spray evenly around the head, explains Cutler. “When applying, don’t keep the bottle close to your head," he says. "Spray a good 12 inches away, at least. By spraying from a far distance, you achieve just a mist of spray.”

Doing an at-home blowout? Hair spray adds the perfect finishing touch to help smooth down flyaways. “Spray the comb first, [then] use the back part of the comb to gently push down your fly-aways,” says Cutler. You can also use hairspray spritzed on an unused toothbrush or makeup brush, suggests Strahan. Try R+Co Outer Space Flexible Hairspray or Tresemmé Perfectly (Un)done Ultra Brushable Hold Hairspray.
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The Product: Pomade
Use It For: Lived-in, textured waves

You might be surprised to know that pomade — one of the oldest styling products (take Murray’s Original Pomade, which has been on drugstore shelves for almost a century) — isn’t just for Don Draper fanboys and girls with pixie cuts. “Pomades can...help create separation in naturally curly and wavy hair, which tends to be on the drier side,” says Strahan. Another pomade bonus is its pliable hold. “It doesn’t dry, [so] you can continue to mold and form your hairstyle throughout the day,” says Cutler.

Solid pomade is easiest to apply on short hair, but by diluting pomade with hair oil or serum, or using a hybrid product — like R+Co Aircraft Pomade Mousse — you can create relaxed, beachy waves. “Flip your hair over when wet and apply the mix lightly in a scrunching motion, focusing on the mid-shaft and ends,” Strahan suggests. Finish by wrapping sections of hair around an iron or wand. “The heat helps to smooth the product over the cuticle,” he adds.

If you don’t want to use pomade on your ends, use it to smooth flyaways or to create definition in an updo. “It's really effective to get those baby hairs to lay down,” says Strahan. “I take a tiny bit and warm the product in my hands or fingertips before smoothing over the hair.”
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The Product: Volumizer
Use It For: Lightly teased, ‘60s-inspired fullness

In days gone by, volumizing products worked by coating hair to create the illusion of thicker strands. They made hair bigger, for sure — but also greasy and gunky. In the past few years, new products have emerged with a breakthrough molecule called Intra-Cylane that thickens the hair by increasing the diameter of hair fibers from within — not lacquering hair with buildup. (Try Kérastase Matéraliste or L'Oreal Professionnel Volumetry Anti-Gravity Volumizing Root Lift Spray.)

“You can still use a volumizing [spray] without looking like you stepped out of 1985,” says Strahan, who loves combining volumizer with a little teasing for a contemporary baby bouffant. “The key to teasing your hair in a modern way is first thinking about exactly how much volume you want and where you want it before you dive in,” he explains.

First, spray or smooth the volumizer on wet hair, then blowdry. Working with 1/2-inch sections of hair, back-comb the hair underneath each section from the mid-shaft back toward the scalp in circular motions, says Strahan. When you flip the section down, use the comb to smooth the top layer of hair. “This will ensure both a smooth finish with the added volume you want.”

Unlike a lot of hair products, volumizer should be massaged right into your roots. “Get the product directly on your scalp — that will help achieve maximum results when blowdrying,” says Cutler.
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