Men's Hair Care Essentials

The must-have products for a smarter, no-fuss style routine.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 12, 2012
4 min read

These days, just about every hairstyle seems to be in fashion at once -- long, short, in-between, Beatles-like locks, Mohawks, ponytails, and military buzz cuts.

Some men wear one style at work (parted and combed conservatively to the side) and another (spiked up with styling gel, for instance) when they go out. No matter how you style your hair, a few products can help you look your best.

For cleaning, just about any basic shampoo will do. "There are dozens of brands with all kinds of things -- like botanicals and antioxidants -- added. But there’s no real evidence that one is better than another," dermatologist Dee Anna Glaser, MD, says. "If you like the smell and feel of the shampoo you’re using, that’s all you need to care about."

A special shampoo is important if you have dandruff. Not sure if you’re a candidate? If combing your hair releases a flurry of white flakes, you probably need it.

"Dandruff may be an overreaction to normal yeast found on the skin that leads to inflammation of the scalp and flaking," dermatologist Carolyn Jacob, MD, says. Dandruff shampoos can quickly relieve the problem.

Products on the market contain a wide variety of active ingredients, including ketoconazole, salicylic acid, zinc, selenium sulfide, and tar. Experts say all of them are equally effective.

Use a dandruff shampoo three to four times a week for a month. "If your dandruff isn’t under control, switch to a product with a different active ingredient," Jacob says. Make an appointment with your doctor if flakiness persists. You may need a prescription-strength dandruff shampoo.

Conditioners, like shampoos, come in a confounding number of formulas. All work the same way -- by coating your hair so that it’s less likely to tangle. Conditioners that promise to add extra body simply add more coating.

"If you have straight or very short hair, you probably don’t have to use a conditioner at all, or you can get away with using a combination shampoo/conditioner," Glaser says. "But if you have curly, kinky, or long hair, you may want to take the time to use a separate conditioner."

Experiment with different brands until you find one you like. In many cases, inexpensive brands perform just as well as pricier products.

Thinning hair and bald spots are more than just a blow to your vanity. They also increase your exposure to damaging ultraviolet rays, which can cause premature aging of the skin and increase your risk of skin cancer.

"Most men know they should use sunscreen, but they often forget to think about their scalps," Jacob says.

Look for sunscreen lotions with an SPF of 30 or more if you have distinct bald spots.

If you have thin spots and don’t want to put lotion on your head, look for sunscreen in spray form. Or buy hairspray and styling gel with SPF protection built in.

Products containing minoxidil, the medicine shown to reverse thinning hair, are now available over-the-counter. Unfortunately, most men need prescription-strength formulas to see real results. Even prescription forms of the drug work in only about half the men, Glaser says, and usually they take about six months to show results. If they do work, you have to continue using them indefinitely.

Try using an extra-body conditioner and a little dab of styling gel to make a thinning patch look a little thicker.

Another way to give hair body and shape is using a styling gel. Men’s hair care companies have flooded the market with different varieties of styling gels and waxes. Here are the main choices:

  • Water-based gels consist of polymers that form a film around individual hairs, making them easier to shape.
  • Spray gels deliver tiny droplets of polymers.
  • Pomades are oil-based and give hair added shine.
  • Hair waxes clump individual hairs together to create a firmer hold.
  • Paste is a combination of oil and wax.
  • Hair creams blend oil, wax, and polymers for maximum control.

Whatever you choose, use the product sparingly, especially if you have thinning hair.

A little bit goes a long way, stylist Julio Rodriquez, owner of Jules Cooper Color & Design in Montclair, N.J., says. He recommends starting with a dime-shaped amount in the palm of your hand.

Look for a styling gel without alcohol if you have trouble with dry scalp and dandruff. Alcohol tends to cause dryness.