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February 07, 2022

Wait, pomade is pomade, isn’t it? Just stick some in your hair and you’re good to go, right?

Not necessarily. All pomades are not created equal. Different kinds will affect your look, your daily routine, your hair’s health and, of course, your confidence.

Choosing the right hair pomade for you isn’t complicated. It simply requires a little discernment – and discernment is the hallmark of a man who cares for his head hair as much as he cares for his beard.

In this blog, we’ll explain the differences between water-based hair pomades and oil-based pomades.

But first…

What even is pomade?

Pomade is a hair-styling product designed to give your hair the kind of hold you want in order to maintain your styled and defined look. But it’s not just any old hair-styling product. Pomade is definitely not the same as gel or wax or creme or glue, etc.

The key defining element about pomade is that it can make your hair look shiny, glossy, or even slick. Many other hair styling products actually reduce shine.

A pomade is good for many hairstyles, but is particularly effective on looks that are combed, slicked and/or parted at the side – including pompadour and hard part styles.

Pomades typically have a greasy or waxy consistency when they come out of the jar. After that, how they look and feel in your hair can vary a lot, depending on their ingredients. There are oil-based pomades and water-based pomades. And all of them can be very different in their levels of hold, texture, shine and feel.

Difference 1: Their ingredients differ

What goes into the product determines everything else about your experience with it.

Today’s oil-based pomades are based on classic old-fashioned products that your grandpa used, like Brylcreem or hair wax. Their core ingredient is an oily product, typically petroleum or petrolatum, or occasionally paraffin or beeswax or lanolin. In the 1800s, they used animal fats, sometimes mixed with a mashed apple product and perfume. (Pomum is Latin for apple and the root of the word pomade.) Because of the oil, this kind of pomade doesn’t dry or “set” but stays pliable and greasy. Nor does it wash out easily. Some modern oil-based pomades use butters instead, but these are frequently dryer in the hair and have less shine.

Water-based pomades were devised for many reasons that we’ll go into below – they wash out with just water, are easier to style with, etc. They still contain some oils or waxy ingredients, but in minimal quantities. The first ingredient is water, so they’re water-soluble. They act much like oil-based pomades, especially by making a style defined and glossy, but set firmly in place and stay that way throughout the day, which is a big advantage for many dudes.

Difference 2: How they are applied

A water-based pomade is light and smooth and very simple to apply. It scoops out of the jar easily and spreads easily when you rub it between your hands. Applying it is a simple matter of rubbing it in and brushing/combing to your desired style. A water-based product won’t tend to stick in your hair and “tug” when being applied.

An oil-based pomade is heavier, waxier and requires more work and skill to apply. In the jar, it’s pretty solid feeling and it takes time to warm it up in your hands. It definitely requires some heat to make it more pliable. When you rub it onto your hair, you’ll feel more pull and resistance than with a water-based pomade.

Difference 3: The gloss and shine of your hair

If you want a level of shine and slick gloss like in black and white movies of the 1930s, then choose an oil-based pomade. That’s simply because it has oily, greasy ingredients that stay that way all day. But beware. Expect an oil-based product to keep a lot of build-up and sheen in your hair for days.

If you still want a good gloss without the oil-slick factor, a water-based pomade will work great – even if you want to rock a 1950s Danny Zuko style pompadour.

And if you don’t want gloss at all, but prefer a matte finish, simply work a water-based pomade into dry hair and finger style for a more avant garde look.

Difference 4: How they hold

It’s very simple. A water-based hair pomade should set within minutes of applying and keep its hold all day. (Different products have different levels of hold.) That’s great for the “set it and forget it” style. And don’t believe the myth that all water-based products set “crunchy” or “brittle”. A quality water-based pomade will set firmly yet feel soft to the touch.

An oil-based product will stay pliable enough to restyle with brush, comb or fingers. The 1950s Greasers with their combs provided a perfect example. It’s good if you want to restyle or adjust, but not so good if hair moves out of place regularly and has to be tidied up repeatedly.

Difference 5: Residue and washing

This is where water-based pomades really come into their own because they’re so easy to wash out, rinse out, even brush out. Very convenient. No issues with residue on pillows and less chance of clogged pores causing infections and breakouts.

An oil-based pomade takes some pretty serious shampooing to remove its build-up. Sometimes you need to shampoo more than once. If it’s not washed away properly, expect stains on your pillows/sheets and your chances of developing acne on your scalp/neck/hairline increase.

Difference 6: Resistance to the elements

Rain, sweat and humidity can have an effect on any pomade.

Depending on its level of hold, a water-based pomade can deteriorate once it becomes damp or wet. Then you’ll need to apply some more product to restyle.

An oil-based pomade will lose shape in the wet, but the coating of oil won’t be washed away and will remain greasy and pliable for restyling.

So, which is better? Oil based pomade or water based pomade?

It should be pretty clear by now that we personally favor the water-based hair pomade over the oil-based. 

If you’re a bro who prefers to spend less time styling and washing your hair, a water-based pomade is the way to go. You can still get those classic slick looks of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, but without the oily buildup and, at the same time, it's excellent for modern day hairstyles as well. Plus the style can stay more firmly in place. You can even style your hair without giving it a “wet” appearance.

If you don’t mind the greasiness and are OK putting in the extra effort for applying, styling and washing, then oil-based may be for you.

Just be sure you choose a pomade with quality ingredients that will protect your hair like your beard care products protect your face forest.

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