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Still associating hair gel with the days of crunchy, “scrunched” hair? If you instantly cringe at the thought of that throwback, it’s time to give the age-old styling product another chance. Because the year is 2022, hair products have come a long way since you last plastered your strands with palmfuls of green goop.
Not convinced? We had a feeling, so we grabbed some extra reassurance from celebrity hairstylist Marcus Francis, the master behind the chairs of stars like Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder. So what makes for an A-list-worthy gel, you ask? Francis says the key to finding the perfect formula is to avoid those that contain alcohol, which is responsible for the dreaded 2000s crunch. And always start out with a lower hold; simply add more product if needed. “If it’s too strong or firm, it could leave the hair flaky or crusty, and there may not be much flexibility with the styling,” he says.
His favorites? Read on for a few of the hair products he trusts on his clientele, plus a handful of the best hair gels we trust with our hair too.
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BEST FOR UPDOS
Motorcycle Flexible Gel
- Great for updos
Although Francis says he could never pick just one go-to gel, he’d pick R+Co’s Motorcycle Gel if he absolutely had to. “It isn’t crunchy, and if you want more hold, you can use more, or if you want less hold, you use less,” he says. “It’s great for making hairlines clean when doing an updo or ponytail.”
BEST FOR SHINE
Rich Kid Coconut Oil Gel
- Shine may not be ideal for all hair types
The coconut oil might have tipped you off, but Francis loves this formula because of its ultra-hydrating properties. Plus, he says, it “has lightweight hold, and it’s great for doing high shine or wet looks.”
Style Holding Gel
Francis loves this gel because it “has hold without being crunchy. It’s great for curly hair and creating piecey, lasting texture. And it’s vegan.”
Gel À L’Hibiscus Styling Gel
Also a favorite of Francis’s due to its nice shine, this alcohol-free gel is perfect for shaping and creating a “wet look” finish without being crunchy.
- Can be heavy on fine hair
- strong scent
Developed by curl queen Tracee Ellis Ross, this medium-hold gel delivers definition and hold, and has aloe vera and coconut oil to nourish curls.
BEST FOR CURLS
Hydro Style Flexi Jelly
- Comes with a learning curve
The secret to gorgeous curls? Hydrated curls. Packed with hyaluronic acid, this weightless hold gel will deliver just that.
BEST FOR HUMIDITY
Curl Anti-Humidity Gel
- Gel-oil formula
- Great for medium-to-coarse hair
Humidity? Not a problem with this Bumble and bumble favorite, which shapes curls and controls frizz in even the stickiest of situations.
BEST FOR NOURISHMENT
Curl Charisma Rice Amino + Quinoa Frizz Control Gel
- hydrating and sulfate free
Free of sulfates, silicones, and parabens, this curl gel is a dream for hydration and nourishment, while also taming coils and keeping frizz at bay.
Best for Scalp
- Good for scalp
With ultra-light hold, this targeted Davines gel works to nourish your hair and scalp, giving you extra strength and a bit of style.
Snot Gorilla Gel Punk
- Only for very structured hairstyles
You can do a lot with just $3—and it all happens to be in this (admittedly goofy) banana-shaped bottle. Hairstylists swear by this extreme-hold formula, which will shape any head of hair into whatever near-solid sculpture you wish.
Advanced Hairstyle LOCK IT Extreme Style Gel
- Can make hair feel crunchy
This non-sticky gel also delivers mega hold, but it’s more of an everyday formula for high-maintenance styles. Plus, it claims to last a full 24 hours, if that’s something you’re into.
GREAT FOR SHORT HAIR
Pure Clean Styling Gel
- strong hold
- no white flakes
A little goes a long way with this gel, which one user loves for its no-flake finish. “Garnier’s product is very light, nicely scented, and it stiffens my hair in place with a very natural look,” she adds.
Signature Gel Serum
- not crunchy
- Lightweight, comfortable hold
We love a hair serum—and the fact that this gel is disguised as one. It should be no surprise that Oribe’s formula is ultra-luxurious and infused with flecks of gold, transforming every thought we’ve ever had about what hair gel could be.
BEST JELLY FORMULA
True Textures Twist and Coil Jelly
- Great for very curly hair
Curls, you’re welcome. This jelly is infused with nourishing oils like coconut, olive, and marula oils to hydrate and tame each tendril to perfection.
BEST EFFORTLESS PRODUCT
Sculpt Hair Polish
We’ll take a fancy, no-fuss hair polish any day. Aesop is no stranger to products that smell as good as they work, so we’ll go ahead and put money on this lightweight, sculpting gel’s ability to make hair look (and, yes, smell) absolutely unreal.
BEST LIGHTWEIGHT CURL GEL
Light Defining Gel Soft Hold No-Crunch Styler
- From curl experts
- no crunch
DevaCurl is the expert in curls, and for good reason. This lightweight gel shapes curls perfectly with zero crunch or dryness. The result? That effortless, stop-you-on-the-street perfection.
Frequently Asked Questions
How should you be using hair gel?
Francis, “A lot of the time, people apply product to the front first and it takes on the most of the product at once. That area has the finest hair and doesn’t need that intensity of product right away (with gels, creams, lotions, or mousse).” Instead, he says, “Start at the top or back, then work your way to the front. Sometimes you have to add a little bit more if needed. But generally, people don’t use the proper amount—either too much or too little.”
Should you always apply gel on wet hair?
Yes, Francis said. “Because it’s a water-based product, it will distribute much better, giving better coverage and desired style execution.” If you need it for serious styling help, he says, “You could use a tiny dot of gel on dry hair if you have stubborn flyaways that you would apply with the tips of your fingers.”
What should you look for in a hair gel?
“Non-alcohol-based gels are best, as it won’t have the crunchy factor. Or if it does, have it be further down on the list of ingredients,” Francis says.
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