I've worked at least a dozen expos/hair shows and I get the most bizarre questions about hair care.
For example, a black woman in her 50's came up to me and said...
Lady: How do you get your hair curly like that?
Me: Oh, I just use the gel to define my curls.
Lady: *Reaches for my hair and grabs a curl* No, I mean how do you get it to grow like that...like in an afro and kinky and puffy?
Me: *Incredibly confused with a wrinkled brow* Ummm, it grows like that.
Me: Yup, you know a lot of women of color have hair that grows up, and out, and making a puffy and kinky texture.
Lady: Oh, wow! I didn't know that.
I was floored. At first, I thought she was pulling my leg, then I realized she was VERY SERIOUS.
For this reason, I don't assume that anyone knows anything about hair.
Our society's beauty standards are so twisted, many of us grew up not even knowing what our own hair texture looked like.
Quick Story - My granny was half Mexican and half Native American. She was clueless about doing black hair but she was the one who cared for me when my mom went to work every day. When I was 5 or 6, she relaxed my hair without my mother's permission. Needless to say, my mom was furious.
After that, I kept receiving them for the next 13 years. It wasn't until sophomore year in college that I realized I didn't know anything about my real hair texture. I didn't know how it curled, how it felt, or how to take care of it. When you think about it, it's kind of bizarre. That's when I decided to go natural.
That said, I am going to share everything you need to know when buying a new gel.
Some of the information I'm sure you've heard before but I can guarantee you'll learn something new.
TLDR (Too Long Didn't Read)
Only read this section if you don't plan to read the whole blog. It's crazy informative but a good 5- 10 min. read.
Water Based Always - Water should be the first ingredient in any gel.
Protein Sensitive or Not? Many gels have a protein base, if you're protein sensitive, this could be why it doesn't work for your hair.
Thickeners & Binders - What thickening agent is best for my hair? See 6 that are commonly found in gel products and learn about how they are derived.
Function & Quantity - Why type of gel product works best for a certain style?
Product Pairings - How do I know if I can pair my gel with my leave-in conditioner?
1. WATER BASED ALWAYS
If a product is labeled "Gel" on the front, but when you read the ingredients, it doesn't say one of the following in the first ingredient...
Aloe Vera Juice
Then put it down sis.
It is not a good gel for you. I wouldn't consider it a hair gel, it would automatically be placed in another category, for me.
Most hair gels are 70%-90% water and you want them to be. Otherwise, the product will be heavy, sticky, flaky, and/or lack the moisturizing qualities that you desire.
2. PROTEIN SENSITIVE OR NOT?
Many of the cheaper gels you find in Walmart, Beauty Supply stores, and sometimes Target, have "Hydrolized Wheat Protein" in the top 5 ingredients.
It's not a "bad" ingredient for your hair per se. It helps to strengthen and moisturize the hair. The problem arises if you're protein sensitive.
How do I know if I'm protein sensitive?
Experiencing dry, stiff, and brittle hair after using a product with protein or high amounts of protein is a good indicator that too much in present in your hair, which compromises the protein and moisture balance.
Too much moisture creates limp hair that is too elastic. More times than not your sensitivity is actually just protein overload. It should not be a daily application, so check the ingredients label, as products with protein or high protein contents should be monitored. Source - NaturallyCurly.com
3. THICKENERS & BINDERS
After testing some of everyone's favorite gels and examining the ingredients, these are the main ingredients used to create the "Jelly" feeling in gel.
Again, many of these ingredients aren't "bad" thickeners as they aren't chemically damaging to your hair. But based on your lifestyle, you may not like how they are derived. For example, if you're vegan, then gelatin is not a good thickener for you because it's animal collagen.
For most people, it also comes down to a matter of preference of how it "feels" on your hair.
(Derivative of Fruit) It is produced commercially as a white to light brown powder, mainly extracted from citrus fruits, and is used in food as a gelling agent, particularly in jams and jellies. It is also used in dessert fillings, medicines, sweets, as a stabilizer in fruit juices and milk drinks, and as a source of dietary fiber. Source - Wikipedia.com
I don't like this gel because of the "pie filling" feel it gives my hair. I already have low porosity hair and have issues with my hair drying within 24 hours. Products with Pectin are my least favorite because my hair doesn't dry and it has a SUPER gummy feeling that I hate.
Think "Pie Gel" for hair.
This product has a pectin base. Some people LOVE it, but it's just not for me.
(Derivative of Wheat, Soy, or Corn) - is a polysaccharide (sugar) with a wide variety of uses, including as a common food additive. It is a powerful thickening agent and is also used as a stabilizer to prevent ingredients from separating. It can be produced from a range of simple sugars using a fermentation process and derives its name from the strain of bacteria used in this: Xanthomonas Source - Wikipedia.com
I like Xanthan Gum because it's reliable as a thickening agent and works when added to products at only 1% or less. That means its almost nonexistent in the product but has a huge effect. I also like the body that it gives and it doesn't leave my hair feeling like it has goop in it.
It's also VERY safe as it is a food additive in dressings, cold salads, and a number of other foods. Many people don't know it but they likely consume products with Xanthan Gum on a weekly basis.
Don't freak out because it is derived by way of fermentation, it is just like wine. ;-)
CurlMix Pure Flaxseed Gel is made with Xanthan Gum. Yes, we have a 70% + Flax Seed base, but we also add Xanthan to properly emulsify/combine all of the ingredients.
(Derivative of Animal Collagen) - is a translucent, colorless, brittle (when dry), flavorless food, derived from collagen obtained from various animal body parts. It is commonly used as a gelling agent in food, pharmaceutical drugs, vitamin capsules, photography, and cosmetic manufacturing. Source - Livescience.com
If you've ever eaten Jello, then you have experienced Gelatin. I don't find it in hair products often because there are so many other options to use, but you may find it in some. Make sure to read the label. I haven't used it in hair products because it is an animal product but I know some makers do.
It contains several proteins that are good for your hair, such as Keratin.
Here is a product that contains Gelatin.
(Bean) - is a substance made from guar beans which has thickening and stabilizing properties useful in various industries, traditionally the food industry, but increasingly the hydraulic fracturing industry. The guar seeds are dehusked, milled and screened to obtain the guar gum. It is typically produced as a free-flowing, off-white powder. It is classed as a galactomannan.
Guar Gum would be my favorite because I like how it's derived from a bean and it gives a ton of slip to the hair without feeling so gummy as it sits on my hair.
The only problem is that it can be iffy when I'm using it in products. Sometimes things emulsify properly, other times they separate. It's too tricky for me.
Here is a product that uses Guar Gum.
(Derivative of Wood) - is a modified cellulose polymer; used as a gelling and thickening agent. It is a non-ionic rheology modifier derived from cellulose (wood), a renewable raw material. Like all polymers (gums), the use of Hydroxyethylcellulose in your personal care products will change the flow properties of water. This can benefit a variety of personal care products allowing you to create crystal clear serums, softer creams and lotions, and enhanced cleansing systems. Source - Ingredientstodiefor.com
I, myself, have never made a gel using this ingredient but it was recommended to me by a fellow scientist. Despite how scary the name sounds, it is fairly safe.
(Derivative of Acrylic Acid) - is a term used for a series of polymers primarily made from acrylic acid. The Carbomers are white, fluffy powders but are frequently used as gels in cosmetics and personal care products. Carbomers can be found in a wide variety of product types including skin, hair, nail, and makeup products, as well as dentifrices. Source - Cosmeticsinfo.org
Acrylic acid is produced from propylene which is a byproduct of ethylene and gasoline production.
The Carbomers help to distribute or suspend an insoluble solid in a liquid. They are also used to keep emulsions from separating into their oil and liquid components.
Carbomers are often used to control the consistency and flow of cosmetics and personal care products.
I've never actually made products with carbomer in it, but now I don't think I will. If you're reading this and you know a thing or two about cosmetic chemistry, please share it in the comment section below, I am all for learning.
Here is a product with Carbomer as the second ingredient.
4. FUNCTION & QUANTITY
FOR WASH N' GOS & TWIST OUTS
FUNCTION: For a really good wash n' go, you need a creamy (moisturizing) gel with high-quality ingredients. The product needs to add moisture, define your curls, dry clear, not flake, and easily "rake" through your hair to help you separate curls.
Thick heavy gels like Eco-Styler that have a carbomer base won't do the trick. They weigh on the hair and have very stiff results. You'll need to pair them with a water based moisturizer to counteract the crunchy feeling of the gel.
This type of gel leaves your hair bouncy and beautiful but it won't be "laid to the gods" as some would say.
QUANTITY: You'll need at least 2-4 oz of product per use to cover your whole head but your results will last for multiple days without reapplying if you get the good stuff and wear a bonnet at night.
FOR "LAID" EDGES
FUNCTION: This is for styles where you need our edges "laid". This could be a bun style, an updo, or even a blowout/big hairstyle, that you want to look super clean.
The mistake many people make is applying this directly to the hair straight from the container without adding any water. Edge controls are made like a gel paste without the water you'd normally add to a gel.
In order to work best, you need to add a little moisture to help the product spread, so it doesn't leave a huge glob of product in one section of your hair. I like to take a dab of edge control, smear it into my damp palm, rub it around and melt the product in my hand, and then smooth it back on my edges. This way, the product is distributed evenly and not leaving clumps of residue.
QUANTITY: You should take months to go through a 4oz jar of edge control. It should last you a while because you should only use a little at a time. I try to minimize the attention I give my edges because "Less IS MORE". Leaving them alone is truly the best thing for them.
FOR PONYTAILS & BUNS
FUNCTION: This is a gel you use when you need your hair to stay in place and not move even the slightest bit.
If you're a dancer and you wear buns, you're probably using a gel like this. It's like an Eco-Styler or Fantasia Gel.
I like to call them the "Beauty Supply Gels". They are super cheap, translucent, and they get the job done.
But whatever style you put it in, you have to leave it that way until you're ready to wash your hair, unless you want your shoulders to look like snowflake-city.
QUANTITY: Because these gels are used for a full style and not just your edges, you'll need quite a bit. They usually come in 12oz - 32oz containers. This can last you 3-6 months, depending on how often you style your hair.
5. PRODUCT PAIRINGS
Last but not least, pairing your products together.
We have all done it, layered our hair with a leave-in conditioner, and then a gel, thinking it would give us the perfect ringlets, only to have white balls of product forming in our hair.
Here is how you can prevent this mishap. Watch this video to learn how you can avoid mismatching creamy products with your gels.
I hope I have been able to shed some light on the products you're using and helped you consider the ingredients in your favorite gel.