Like many other beauty-obsessed tweens, I had a penchant for hair gel in middle school. Each morning, I would squeeze some product into my palms and scrunch with abandon, which would often leave my curls straw-like and brittle. Clearly, I had no idea how to use the product properly (this was way before I had a roster of hair experts to turn to with all my styling questions), but I’ll admit that every time I think of gel, my mind flashes to those stiff strands.
If you’ve had a similar experience growing up, let me just say: Gels are not synonymous with crunchy, crispy curls. Especially now, when a bevy of options come infused with hair-loving hydrators that result in soft, juicy waves, curls, and coils. The gels of today are truly top of the line, brimming with innovative, crunch-free ingredients—sixth-grade me is absolutely squealing.
What ingredients should you look for in a gel?
Now, gel’s main gig is to provide hold, which is why many traditional options do include alcohols to help the formula dry down quickly—but that’s how gel earned its reputation for being stiff. “Definitely avoid [alcohols] because that’s what dries the hair,” celebrity hairstylist Camille Friend, founder of Hair Scholars, tells mbg, especially if your strands are already prone to brittleness and breakage.
Michelle Sultan, celebrity hairstylist and Imbue ambassador, seconds the advice: “Most hair gels have alcohol within them to set the hair in place, but now there are new and improved formulas that have little-to-no alcohol but provide the same setting power,” she says. “And as any curly person worth their salt will tell you, try to avoid products that contain wax-based silicones, parabens, and petroleum, as prolonged use on the hair can cause damage.”
Rather, she recommends seeking out elevated players like aloe and flaxseed, which have that viscous, jelly texture and a host of antioxidants and hydrating benefits. Sea moss, too, thickens formulas and coats strands in moisture; it contains high amounts of polysaccharides (called carrageenans) that form a protective yet non-occlusive film over the strands.
Another up-and-coming ingredient in the hairstyling world? Okra. If you’ve ever cooked with the nutrient-rich delicacy, you’re likely familiar with the translucent goo coating each pod—great for thickening up gumbos and stews, and your hair gel, too. “When you think about okra, you think of that fibrous [texture],” says Friend. “It’s something that wraps around the curls and makes it so that they’re not going to frizz.”
The bottom line: Those crispy, sticky gels of your teenage years are long gone. These days, you can find options that rely on a host of innovative botanicals and compounds to create defined, bouncy curls without the crunch. It’s also great news for those partial to a sleek bun or ponytail—your slicked-back styles will feel smooth yet malleable (as opposed to a helmetlike shell on top of your skull).
“Great hair starts in the shower,” Friend declares. After using a hydrating shampoo, conditioner, and leave-in, she suggests squeezing out excess water with a soft microfiber towel before applying your gel. Work the product into your strands from the ends up to the roots, either by raking it through with your fingers or with the prayer technique to further minimize frizz. Sultan prefers the latter method: Rub the product between your palms, clasp a section of hair, and gently pull from the roots to the ends.
If you’ve got a buttery curl cream you adore, you can always cocktail the two products before applying to your lengths. Just make sure both products are water-based, or you might end up with flakes.
After you fully coat your hair, Friend then suggests using a detangling brush “just to fluff it a little.” Then comes the hard part: Don’t touch it. As any curly girl will tell you, the more you fiddle with your strands, the frizzier they wind up. Wait until the curls are completely dry before you separate them and break the gel cast (some experts recommend scrunching with an oil for this step). And there you have it: soft, springy, never-crunchy curls.
Hair gel is having a bit of a comeback (in fact, it never left), and these days, you can find a variety of options that deliver definition without sacrificing moisture. If you have yet to make gel the hero of your styling routine, I suggest you snag one of the formulas above for great hair days ahead.