Hair Products: What, Why, and How-To


There are a lot of questions in this life that seem to be largely unanswerable. Is there such a thing as 'fate'? Why do 'good' people do 'bad' things? What rhymes with orange? (Note: “door hinge” does not count.) Is there such a thing as listening to too many episodes of NPR’s RadioLab and WILL I OVERDOSE? Will anyone ever agree with me that House of Cards was kind of overrated? Why do every attractive pair of shoes make my feet hurt? Why me? (/Why not?)

Happily, friends, today is not about these questions. Today is about questions that are all too easily answered, and which, as a result, seem to so often not be asked. I’m guessing it’s collective embarrassment, so, you’re welcome, because I took all that on the chin. (I’m supposed to be a beauty editor, for chrissakes. I’m supposed to know things...:-/) Which brings us right around to the point: what the hell are we supposed to do with all of the hair styling products out there? Back in the day, the hairstylist Danilo waxed philosophical with me for a minute: “I really don’t think most people have any idea what to do with product,” he said. “They use too much and think it’s heavy and horrible or too little and don’t think it does anything.” Consider that an idea planted in my mind-soil, which is now coming to sprout into a big bountiful tree of knowledge with fruit for everyone (...mind-fruit?), myself included. Let's eat, shall we?

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF HAIR PRODUCTS (cue rapturous applause), gleaned from a few people who, well, know:

1. Know Thyself (and streamline your arsenal): “Regardless of how simple or elaborate the hairstyle you want may be, using too many products, most of the time, is a disaster,” Serge Normant says. (Sidenote: he has one of those GREAT phone voices; I tried to keep him on the phone for an awkwardly long time.) “What is most important is knowing what kind of hair texture you have, and what you want your hair to look like as a result. Do you want frizz control? Do you want volume? Do you want shine? Is your scalp very dry? Is your hair very broken by highlights and color? You have to get to know your hair and evaluate its qualities and what you need. And then you just need one to two products. I usually say if you feel like you need more than two hair products to actually do something with your hair, chances are you’re using the wrong products.”

2. Know Thy Products: A quick cheat sheet for your viewing pleasure:

Mousse: Everyone can use it, in quantities ranging from a tennis-ball to softball-size puff depending on your hair length. It’s an equal-opportunity boost in a can (it's lighter than a cream, and you’ll end up using less hairspray as a result), when distributed evenly throughout your hair. Brush it in and blow dry for weightless, root-lifting magic. (We like Color Proof’s LiftIt Foam.) Wax: Being maximum hold, and, you know, wax, it's best for those with choppy pixie or shag-length cuts. It can be tough to wash out, but, on the upside, won't disappear by the end of the day. Pomade: You might recognize it as a slightly 'goopier' (i.e. 'greasier' or 'creamier') version of wax—if you o.d., just imagine CrybabyPomades, like American Crew's version, give weight and impart texture (piece-y-ness) like a wax but also pack a bit of shine. Don’t use more than a penny-size drop, and remember to rub the product between your palms before applying it. Ye Olde Volumizer: Available in many shapes and forms (sprays, foams, etc.), the basic idea of a volumizer is to add height at the roots. They’re best for those with straight, limp locks or curly hair that tends to fall flat (so, saturate your roots at the scalp). People with fine or slightly wavy hair looking to amp up volume can look to texturizers—those’d be your salt sprays (Julien Dy’s DIY or Bumble’s), your gritty creams (Sumotech), your styling products that advertise a change in, well, your hair's texture. For those with medium to thick hair that lacks luster, rub a pea-sized drop of a shine serum or spray (Sachajuan has a greaaaat one; Tigi Headrush is an excellent spray; and Kérastase's Elixir Ultime is the gold standard) on in. If you blow dry your long curls or waves straight, you’re going to want a ping-pong-ball-sized amount of straightening balm, post-bathing (like Bumble's Straight Blow Dry), from the ends up—it can protect your strands from heat damage and frizzy texture. Hair lotion (a.k.a styling lotion, and we love Pantene’s Ultimate 10 BB Crème) is for thick and straight, or coarse and curly hair to produce a light, softer hold (and is usually alcohol-free). You can use a whole palmful, depending on your hair type—warm it in your palms and work it into wet hair from roots to ends. Hairspray is for all y’all (should you choose to accept it) if you want to lock in your style —and, after all this effort, why the hell wouldn’t you? Depending on the hold (soft, medium, strong) hairspray can be brushed out later, if you feel like you’re going to want to go from updo to beach waves within a five-hour period. (I’m all about Pantene’s Touchable Volume spray). If you want long and strong, well, snuggle on up to some Elnett.

3. Scrub [a dub dub!] Smart. “I always say, two shampoos, one conditioner,” says Janelle Chaplin, the creative director of cult Aussie brand Original&Mineral. “The first shampoo is to exfoliate the scalp and remove the world”—so really get in there and get all ‘90s Herbal Essences ad with it, which not only feels amazing but is scalp-stimulating—“and the second, to treat your type of hair [whether fine/thick/processed/etc]. The conditioner is to moisturize, from your mid-lengths to your ends. You don’t need to put conditioner on your roots.” Normant, on the other hand, is more of a one-and-done type of guy, but advises keeping a brush in the shower for even distribution of both shampoo and conditioner, and using about a quarter-size of both products—almond-sized if your hair is fine and shorter. (Ed note: Sulfate-free shampoos don’t foam, so you might need to adjust your method/amounts accordingly. Also, here's a pair we like, and we love Phylia de M.)

4. Step by Step: “There are three stages to styling your hair," Chaplin explains. "Step one: hydrate. That’s when you apply a product straight out of the shower—a leave-in conditioner, a detangler, or something like that to seal-in the moisture. Then, you leave your hair to air dry or blow-dry it until it’s about 80% dry, which brings you to step 2: Your foundation product, such as a mousse or a volumizer, which all should be used a little closer to the scalp. You can be relatively heavy-handed with these [see Commandment #2 for size guidelines]." She continues, "Step 3 includes your hairsprays, texturizing products, and sea-salt sprays or any shine serum or paste, applied from the ends to the mid-lengths of your hair. Style and go!” (She makes it sound so easy.) Why that order? Think of it like makeup, or skincare: you’re building from lightest to heaviest, to ensure the best blend. Try to also keep that in mind when you’re siphoning out portion sizes; the heavy, strong stuff is always used last and in the smallest quantities.

5. Go Slow, Start Small: Less is more. “If you want a smoky eye,” Normant says, “you don’t start out with full raccoon-eyes, you gradually build. It’s the same thing with hair. Use a little bit of a product and build up. If you don’t know the product that well and it’s some kind of a paste or a cream, start on the ends and go up towards the roots. Most of the time, your roots are the healthiest part of your hair, so, anything that is too texturizing, or too greasy should be kept away.” This doesn’t apply to volumizers and mousse, which are intended for use all over your head, in a thin layer. “People have a tendency to apply hair product like they would apply cream to their face—they just slap it on and rub it all over. But that's a mistake. You have to start from the bottom up, and if, at the end, you feel like you haven’t used enough product, you can add more—if you're hair is still wet, you still have time to add more product.”

6. Read the Rules: I have never been good at dry shampoo, which I always assumed to be largely idiot-proof (and subsequently, proof of my idiocy). I like 'day-after hair' as much as the next girl, but spritzes of the dry stuff always left me feeling like I had grimy strands, producty and clotted. This, Normant told me, while not entirely my fault, was a casualty of my inclination to take bottle directions more as “suggestions.” “This sounds really cliché,” he says, “but you really have to read the directions. Dry shampoo is not the easiest product to use and it never was—often the bottle says 'shake before using,’ and you have to do that, to mix its elements. Use it underneath your hair and focus it on the roots and just a little bit on the lengths. There’s a distance [from which to spray at your head] that’s specified on the bottle and there’s a reason for it—ten inches or so away from the head is optimal for the product to diffuse itself. Then, brush it out and use a blow dryer to remove the excess powder. And don’t expect your hair to feel squeaky clean, because it isn’t. Dry shampoo is meant to extend a blow dry for a couple of hours, maybe a day."

7. There is, Sometimes, a Need for Speed: I wouldn’t say that I’ve always avoided hair gel, because I don’t think I ever thought about it enough to avoid it. There’s the whole There's Something About Mary thing , for one, and the peaked prows of boys heads in the early 00‘s (when that whole flipped up “perma-hair-visor” thing was hot), but sure, there’s a time and place for it. It’s one easy way to get that enviable rocker girl texture look, or the so-sleek-you-could-bounce-a-quarter-off-it pulled back pony or chignon. Gel is all about control, friends. It’s like your slightly overbearing boyfriend who might be bad for you in the long run but sometimes really does have your best interests in mind.  And when the occasion calls for it, Normant noted, time matters. “A gel dries faster than other products, and if you don’t apply it evenly everywhere you could have a bit of an issue,” he said. “With long hair, it usually gets deposited right away on the front part, which is where most people start”—for the shorter of ‘do who are looking for a polished pixie, it’s easier, just try to spread it evenly—“you have to be quite fast to dry your hair after you apply it, otherwise it gets crunchy and you have to slightly re-wet it in order to style. But sometimes when your hair is really flat and has a really hard time to lift, a gel can be great.” But be aware, it can flake (yeesh).

8. Some Things Are “Classic” for a Reason: Reconsider hairspray. Sure, it may remind you of your mother/grandmother/ballet instructor, and sure, what about the ozone layer/aerosols?! And sure, there’s the charm of the insouciant, rumpled, sexy bed-head thing we all know and love, but guess what? Hairspray does not equal helmet head. Hairspray lines the counters backstage at every single fashion show. It's in the kit of everybody who works with hair. It’d be a 'secret weapon' but it’s so obvious that we can’t even pretend it’s a 'secret.'  “Nowadays people don’t use it as much,” Normant says, “ but I LOVE IT! I work all day on set, and from the first picture in the morning to the last of the day, you want the hair to look fresh, so I use quite a bit of medium-hold spray, and I just keep brushing it out and spraying it again. The key is to not spray it too close to the head, to keep the distance dictated on the bottle, and if it has a little UV protection? Perfect. In the summer, it gives you a little humidity control, and in the winter, you spray it on a brush and quickly, quickly whisk it through before it dries and no more static. It’s a very good tool.” Ya heard.

9. Your Hair is Part of You, and It Should Move: “One reason to not go overboard when it comes to the products is that you want your hair to be gorgeous and healthy and have that movement to it,” Chaplin notes. Way back when, the one-and-only Julien D'Ys told me hair "should always be touchable.” (Seems we’re all big into ‘touch’ in this hair game.) Normant concurs: “More than anything else, I’m into hair that you can see moving around and being alive. ‘Wanna touch’ hair is an important thing.”

10. Ask an Expert: Clueless? Whipsawed by your wandering eye in the beauty aisle? When all else fails, grab a glossy magazine and hightail it to the salon. “Find an image in a magazine of someone with hair that’s similar to yours, and do not hesitate to bring it to a hairstylist,” says Normant. “It's helpful!”

Or, you know, you could always ask us. No such thing as a 'stupid question,' and all that—or, anyways, we’ll always ask one for you.

—Alessandra Codinha

Illustrations by Karleigh Sherman

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Patty

    I loved it!
    I’m posting looks from Los Angeles and accessories:

    • mikal

      I am agree.

  • Komal

    This is so fantastic! I've been inspired by this article about Karlie Kloss to go short and I have a feeling I'm going to need a whole new arsenal of products!

    • heather adair

      Dear me, yes. I (also inspired by Karlie) chopped all of mine off a month ago, and my product arsenal went from "occassional dry shampoo" to an entire LIBRARY of stuff.

      Mousse, root-lifter, volumizer, hairspray, texturizer....and that's just to make it LOOK like there's "nothing in it."

      Expensive haircut......!

      • mikal

        Very smooth and style hair care.

  • babs

    I currently don't use any product in my hair and this article has me reconsidering.

  • Jacqueline Fonte

    Gahhhh, so happy to read the bit about dry shampoo. I wish the rest of the world understood that dry shampoo doesn't replace, but simply extends.

    I actually started using cornstarch instead of my usual dry shampoo, because it is so much easier on my scalp.

    Also, that bit about two shampoos has me fascinated and my scalp terrified.

    • Lauren

      I wasn't sure if it was about shampooing twice? Or using two shampoos?

      • ITGAlessandra

        She is recommending shampooing twice, with two different shampoos. (Different strokes for different folks, I guess?) x

        • Jacqueline Fonte

          She's probably right about shampooing twice. If I've gone awhile- like longer than my usual couple of days without shampooing- I occassionally wind up washing once just to get the grime off and once more to get my strands squeaky clean. I've never tried two different shampoos though. I regularly use two different conditioners twice though and it's AWESOME!

    • Nina

      Exactly, it doesn't replace shampoo. Last year I tried to go a full week between washings because it seemed to be "the cool french girl thing" to do according to beauty editors and bloggers, ha ha. This routine went on for a couple of months and my poor hair and scalp were suffocating. My hair got so dried out because the dry shampoo stuff was clogging the follicles or something like that. Never again! I'm back to washing every second day now.

  • Ophélie R.


    • ITGAlessandra

      I'm blushing. x

    • Jacqueline Fonte

      FOR REAL.

  • Marsi

    This was SO good, and the illustrations are great -- so different in look and feel from the usual fashion illustrations. Well done all around!

    • MoseyM

      Yeah, those illustrations are awesome!

  • Zoe Gruss

    Fantastic article! With so many hair care products on the market, it is important to know which products to use and how best to use them to suit your purpose.

  • Haute Inhabit

    Love this post. Find a hairstylist, yes, but a reputable one.

    Would love to know what you guys think of the Keratin treatment.

  • Hope

    This is awesome, but how does it change if you don't heat-style your hair?

  • hollygoeslightly22

    1. I was thrilled to see Allesandra's name attached to this article! Welcome back girl.

    2. Elnett is the best hairspray. Ever.
    was a great piece because I think so many of us buy products and go
    home and look at it like "what the hell do I do with this now?" and it
    ends up gathering dust in the bathroom. I took me a long time to realize
    that I required different products depending on what I was doing with
    my hair that day (straight, wavy, etc). I have learned that less really
    is more when it comes to product. I stand by Kerastse shampoo &
    conditioner for color treated hair (yes it's pricey, but a lot goes a
    long way!) and B&B thickening spray, surf spray, and styling creme.
    All good stuff that really holds the style you create.

    I've brought products to my stylist and asked for her advice on how to
    use them - there is no such thing as a dumb hair question. They've
    heard/seen it all, folks.

  • Katherine

    Any answers for someone who is interested in a keratin treatment but has dandruff? There doesn't seem to be any sulfate free dandruff shampoos.

    • heather adair

      Baking soda.
      Either "wash" with a straight baking soda paste every few washes, OR, mix it with your favorite shampoo -- it's like an exfoliation for your scalp. Not great if you have color-treated hair (it tends to strip color more quickly), BUT, I managed to kill my "irritable scalp syndrome" (flakes!) by adding baking soda to the mix. Seems to slough off problem stuff, gets rid of product buildup, and (*bonus!!!*) is CHEAP AS HECK.

    • hollygoeslightly22

      For dry/flaky scalp I started using coconut oil. I take about 1/2 teaspoon, rub it between my palms, and apply to dry hair before shampooing - starting at the ends and working my way up to the scalp. I then wash with shampoo & conditioner and it leaves my hair shiny and flake free. It took a few times for the coconut oil to hydrate my scalp but it works very well and doesn't leave a greasy mess (which is honestly what I was expecting!)

    • Sylvie

      Apple cider vinegar rinse after shampooing a couple times a week should help. Let it sit in your hair for a few minutes before rinsing (sometimes I don't even rinse it out). (Baking soda irritates my skin and gives me worse dandruff, but experiment and find what works for you!) (Acure is a great sulfate free line, and I've heard Yarok is good too.)

    • Kattttt

      I completely agree with both of the answers above (below?) - as in, doing both. Slough of all the flakiness, apply coconut oil to the scalp and go to bed. In the morning, apply shampoo to dry hair and wash. I did this a couple of times, and completely got rid of the problem. The coconut oil works whether it is actual dandruff - because of its anti-fungal properties -, or just dry scalp, as it is a great moisturizer.
      The happy thing about sulfate free shampoos is that once your scalp is healthy, it is much more likely to stay that way :)

  • kneelbeforetigers

    Original & Mineral (O&M) is THE GREATEST. I never repeat products, but I am on my second bottle of both shampoo and conditioner. Easily the most conditioning and pure products I've ever used. My Black girl hair is in LOVE!!!!

  • Michelle

    Love this post! I'm really loving using the Oribe Dry Texturising Spray at the minute :)

  • Holly

    Wow, this was insanely helpful! As always, Alessandra, thank you so much for the 1) info and 2) well-written way by which that info was delivered.

    Not to sound haughty or anything, but I know a lot about skincare and beauty products, but I am HOPELESS with hair care, styling, styling products... I don't even know what "type" of hair I have, let alone know what frizz or volume truly are.

    I still wish ITG did consultations for the hair-ignorant like me, but this guide has provided some much-needed enlightenment.

  • Ona_in_Barcelona

    Alright, I want to know what products to use to curl hair that is a) naturally very straight and b) FRIZZY! Like, fluffy-frizzy. I've got the curling part down (more or less), but I feel like the final spritz of hairspray just adds to the frizz.

    Anyone else get this???

    • hollygoeslightly22

      Have you tried hot rollers? I've noticed they reduce the frizz. I also work in Bumble & Bumble styling creme while my hair is damp and I try to let it air dry as much as possible before blow drying and using rollers. This usually leaves hair soft and touchable. Or, perhaps, a leave-in conditioner may work to reduce frizz?

    • Elaine R

      I try to use as many base products (mousse, creme) as possible instead of finishing products (hairspray). Use mousse all over your hair for some hold and then add a bit of smoothing creme to the ends before you blow dry and curl. And if you still feel like you need hairspray, a bunch of hairspray brands have a lot of water in them which causes frizz, so get a good reccomendation from a hairstylist!

      • Ona_in_Barcelona

        SO helpful, thank you so much!
        I actually did try using mousse the other day for the first time in years, and it definitely held the curl better than using lots of hairspray after the fact. So now I think I need to experiment with how much mousse to use/finding a water-free hairspray to finish.

  • Lara

    Nice one. I always wonder though what us fine haired but lots of haired girls should use with hair that is also dry and frizzy? The dry hair stuff diesn't fit (too greasy/heavy and the fine hair stuff is over kill too (we do not need volume!).

    • Kattttt

      For me, sulphate free shampoo made a huge difference, especially when air drying. Nothing is weighed down, but the dryness and frizz is cut down a lot.

  • claire

    Hey mlle p! try calling the company your interested in trying and ask for a sample. I just recently tried with rene furterer and they were more than willing to send me some samples! they even went further to do an over the phone "hair assessment" to determine which products were best.

  • sloane

    I have a question- when she says two different shampoos does that mean use your shampoo twice in the shower or use two different shampoos in the shower?

  • Becky

    Yes on the hairspray bit! My hair started looking 100% better when I embraced hairspray, and now I'm a little obsessed. My favorite is the Big Sexy Hair Volumizing hairspray--it brushes out really nicely. Sometimes I even use three different hairsprays for a certain style, which may be overkill, but I can't stop. Also, full disclosure, I am a Texas native, so the hairspray love and big hair may just be in my blood.

  • Jacqueline Fonte

    I've never had it get sticky on me. It's kinda like baby powder on steroids, minus the baby powder scent (not a fan of that, personally).

    Over the past year, I've really tried to switch to more natural products because I have psoriasis and have found that it helps for my skin.

    • Ashley

      I've found a recipe for a dry shampoo for brunettes that works really well. You mix cornstarch, baking soda, and cocoa powder together until you get a ratio you like. I make a small bowl and it lasts FOREVER! And better yet, I get to enjoy the smell of chocolate the next time I shower.

  • Sofia

    Carol's daughter hair milk is my life saver. I have curly hair and it's the only thing I always use, it has never failed me.

  • Leetoki

    Now cannot stop thinking about the 00s face prong hair style. The boy I had a mad crush on in school had those, and I'm fairly sure my crush was only because his were the best done. Nowadays I screech at my man when he uses too much product out of fear.

  • Georgie

    I need to expand my hair product wardrobe, stat! I only have 2 products at the moment (but I love them both dearly) B &b brilliantine and texture (un)dressing creme.

  • Anne

    I like this. Very informative. Thanks!

  • Monique Brown

    thank you for the info and the tips, I use argan oil from pro naturals which reduces the frizz and keeps my hair soft and healthy.

  • turmeric

    fabulous article! (and fabulously written!) i have naturally curly hair--not super tight curls, but on the kinkier/frizzier side--that i often blow out halfway to try and acheive loose waves. can anyone recommend products or processes that help curly girls transition to wavy girls? thanks!!

  • Marlys

    I love bumble and bumble because they have little samples of everything!

  • Kelli

    I am lost for what shampoo and conditioner to use and what volumizing mousse. Everything makes my hair itch, but I don't even have an itchy scalp!

  • Dbakeca Italia

    Fabulous ideas! I'm definitely going to try some of these!

  • Curly

    Enjoyed your informative and cleverly written article. Can you help me choose some hair care products for my type of hair? I have thick, coarse, curly, color treated hair that I let air dry. I need curl-frizz control, moisture and some shine. My hair and scalp tend to be on the dry side.

  • Judy Carroll

    What can I do to get volume to my baby fine hair???

  • JP040305

    I shower at night so my hair is always dry by morning. Any styling creams out there I can use on hair that's not wet or damp that will tame flyaways? Looking for light hold.

  • Urjasi Dutta

    Super helpful!
    Much love xo

  • Rachel

    Hi I had a question if anyone can answer. I have three products that say they all need to be used when my hair is wet so what 9rder do I use them in?


Bumble and bumble
Bumble and bumble Straight Blow Dry
Bumble and bumble
Bumble and bumble Sumotech
TIGI Bed Head
TIGI Bed Head Headrush Shine Mist
Kérastase Elixir Ultime
Sachajuan Shine Serum
L’Oreal Elnett Hairspray
AHAlife Holdings Inc.
Phylia de M. Conditioner Cream
AHAlife Holdings Inc.
Phylia de M. Clean Shampoo
Phylia de M.
Phylia de M. Connect Treatment for Follicles
Pantene Pro-V
Pantene Pro-V Ultimate 10 BB Crème
Procter & Gamble
Pantene Pro-V Stylers Hairspray – Flexible Hold
Aesop Classic Shampoo