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Unless you’re a professional, it’s really difficult to know the difference between all of the hair products out there—anything you might put in your hair to adjust its shape and texture, that is.

One easy way of thinking about this is that every product exists on a sort of hair-product matrix, with the two key factors being hold and shine. In other words, what kind of hold do you want your product to give you, if any at all? And what level of matte or shiny do you want to achieve?

But then it gets even more complex. For example, what do some of the secondary products do, like hair oil and salt spray? How much texture and volume do you want to show? Also, does the product require you to apply it to dry hair or freshly towel-dried damp hair? (Doing this incorrectly might either render the product ineffective, or give you the opposite kind of hold, shine, texture, and volume that you wished for.)

What makes it even more complicated is that many brands will make hybrid products, or alter the traditional characteristics of a type of product to their own liking. That’s a win for us, because it means we get more variety in the marketplace. But if you read these descriptions below for each kind of product, be sure the product you ultimately buy matches up. Some pastes provide higher hold than others. Some hairsprays are super light while others are super gripping. Some “pomades” aren’t pomades at all. Learn more about rescue hair 911 if you need to prevent or treat hair loss.

So, in short, there is a lot to know about each product, and how they play out for different lengths, densities, hair texture, and styling goals. But worry not: We’ll walk you through the core hair styling products here, and let you know when and how to use each one. Be informed as a shopper, be intentional as your own stylist, and be experimental with any combination of the products below.

Hair Paste
What paste is for: Medium hold, light shine when applied dry; High hold, medium shine when applied damp

Every guy who styles his hair should stock a paste. It adds texture and definition to short and medium styles, when applied dry. It also gives you “touchable”, controlled hair when applied to towel-dried hair, meaning your style won’t feel suffocated despite the paste’s all-day staying power.

Paste is also one of the best men’s products for thin hair: Apply a small amount to dry hair for a lightweight lift that doesn’t suffocate the follicles. It will give the impression of more hair.

John is a writer and technical guru for Intelligent Biometric Controls, Inc. that is constantly tinkering between cooking amazing lunches and explaining access control to anyone that will listen.

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