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Birchbox’s Indispensable Hair Product Glossary

Here’s a question we know you’ve asked, probably as you were staring at a full bathroom ledge: How is anyone supposed to know the difference between a mousse, a crème, a mask, and a kabillion other formulas? (We’re positively swimming in products, and even we get confused sometimes.) That’s why we created this easy-to-use reference guide. You’re welcome.

Oil: These nutrient-rich formulas, often created with moisturizing plant oils, smooth and strengthen strands while also amping up shine. Need a quick fix for lackluster hair? Take a dime-sized amount for short hair and a nickel-sized drop for longer strands, rub palms together, and lightly run through mid-lengths and ends.

Our Pick: Ojon Rare Blend Oil packs in nourishing antioxidants, proteins, and minerals, making even processed hair look like it’s never seen a hot tool.

Serum: Though similar to oils, serums also often feature restorative properties that repair damaged strands by smoothing down cuticles. They’re also pros at tackling seemingly unconquerable flyaways. Apply a coin-sized amount when hair is dry or wet to soften and protect from heat styling.

Our Pick: Kerastase Fiber Architecte gives hair a mirror-like finish by mending the tiny fibers in each individual strand.

Mousse: These foaming formulas are designed to add volume and give strands extra hold while you’re styling them. Today’s versions accomplish their goal without any unfortunate crunchiness (cf. the 1980s). Massage a golf ball-sized amount into damp strands, then blow dry to desired style.

Our Pick: Shu Uemura Ample Angora for its enticing floral-scent and power-packed ability to protect strands from humidity, heat and UV rays.

Styling creme: Like a mousse, this frizz-fighter adds volume to limp locks and adds significantly more hold and texture. Squirt a dollop into hands and work through wet or dry hair, then blow dry to desired style.

Our Pick: Number 4 Texture Styling Crème uses vegetable proteins to strengthen and protect strands and silicone polymers to detangle wet hair and smooth out dry hair.

Gel: Grab this goopy liquid when you’re ultraextraserious about keeping hair in place—say, an updo for a big event. These slick formulas have the strongest hold of any product, and are best suited for situations in which you need to ensure that nary a strand will stray. Apply to damp hair and style as desired.

Our Pick: Number 4 Firm Hold Gel’s non-sticky formula prevents premature graying and hair loss with a dose of vitamin B5.

Hairspray: Use these mists to set your look and tamp down flyaways. They also come in handy when you know you’ll encounter patches of steamy humidity or rain showers—like a spring or summer wedding. Once you’ve styled hair, lightly spray all over or just on the single section you want to keep in place. Gently shape strands and blow dry into place.

Our pick: Serge Normant Meta Luxe Hair spray adds volume, repairs damage, and protects hair from UV rays while keeping hair perfectly coiffed for hours.

Texturizing Spray: These mists are great for adding—yes—texture to thin or slippery strands. We especially like using them before curling or teasing hair to ensure extra oomph. And no, they’ll never leave hair sticky.

Our Pick: Oscar Blandi Pronto Texture & Volume Spray. When we’re in the mood for a dose of Jessica Rabbit-style sultry locks, we spritz this protein-packed formula. And it’s even good for colored strands.

Dry Shampoo: Designed to soak up oil and de-grease strands quickly, dry shampoos refresh hair and also add sexy texture. Choose a powder formula for particularly oily or dirty days, and use a spray for quicker touchups (or when you need extra volume). Always apply to your roots, and remember that the key to avoiding white residue is blending the product completely.

Our Pick: Klorane Dry Shampoo’s gentle formula uses a mixture of oat milk extracts, corn and rice starches to sop up excess grease and sweat—we’re particularly big fans of its all-botanical formula.

Leave-In Conditioner: Great for particularly dry, damaged, or brittle hair, these nutrient-rich formulas straighten tangles and replenish lost moisture. After you’ve showered, shampooed, and conditioned, lightly spritz into hair and let the formula sink in, then dry and style hair as normal.

Our Pick: EVOLVh StartSmart’s water-based formula also uses rice bran and cumin seed oil to protect hair against heat styling.

Hair Mask: Use these thick, creamy formulas to rehydrate dull locks and restore shine. Try applying 15-minute treatments once a week in place of your conditioner, and see the most overprocessed locks magically transform into silky strands.

Our Pick: MALIN + GOETZ intensive hair mask’s rich mixture of antioxidant-packed grapeseed and sweet almond oil repairs damage while adding back hair’s natural shine.

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