Can you use hair gel on your beard? [Answers from science]

Every bearded grower looks inside their bathroom cabinet and sees a range of different styling products. Some of them are for your hair lost others for your beard and mustache. Which products can you actually use on your beard as well as your hair? If you are lucky enough to have long luscious locks as well as a big bushy beard, you may be tempted to use hair gel on your beard. In this article, we are going to go over the science behind what hair gel is made of and whether or not you can use it on your beard. We will also cover all of the issues with using hair gel on your beard and look for better alternatives that don’t cost a fortune.

It is advisable not to use hair gel on your beard as it can cause your beard to dry out and irritate the skin underneath the beard. If you are using a stronghold gel it is not malleable enough to withstand the daily touches and will become flaky. It may also cause allergic reactions in some people.

Trying to control your beard is a full-time job. Even if you have a short beard it can take a lot of products as well as tips and tricks for making it stay in exactly the place you wanted to stay. If you want to know more about how to tame a short beard check out my ultimate guide – click here.

Hair gel, on the surface, looks like the perfect product to use if you want to get your beard staying in the same position throughout the day. However, there are a ton of reasons why should not be gel on your beard and that you really have no other option. It is not formulated for the hair on your face and can cause dryness and skin irritation because of the types of ingredients and chemicals that are typically used in hair gels.

What is hair gel made of?

A 2011 scientific study found that ancient Egyptians used a fatty material as a hair gel. Using some form of fat in the hair during the mummification process allowed the ancient Egyptians to style the hair, as personal appearance was very important to them, and it allowed the hair to stay in place after their death.

Since the ancient Egyptian times science has developed a much better way of styling hair and has moved away from fatty ingredients to polymers and other additives.

Modern hair gel is known as a colloidal suspension of particles. This is just a sciencey way of saying that there are things floating around in a liquid.

The thing that is floating around in the liquid is cationic polymers.

We are all familiar with the term polymer – it just means plastic – at the molecular level it means long chain molecules which wrap around each other like spaghetti.

The difference with a cationic polymer is that it is positively charged all over. The positive charges on the flexible polymer chain causes the polymer to stretch and interact more making the gel very viscous and thick. When applied to the hair, these interactions are stronger than the natural curvature and bending of the hair fibres which allows the hair to be held in shape.

The positive charge of the polymer also means that the gel effectively binds to the negatively charged amino acids on the surface of the hair – which is made up of keratin molecules.

This combination of stickiness and stiffness makes gel a perfect formulation for hold throughout the day.

A typical hair gel contains:

  • water – this is the main ingredient which everything else is dissolved in.
  • Polymers – this is what provides the majority of the hold, as discussed above,
  • Emulsifiers – this is to dissolve any non-water-soluble components into the water. Think of it like a soap.
  • Thickeners – these change the viscosity of the hair gel which means that it stays in place while it is drying. You wouldn’t want it running down your face before it had dried.
  • Fragrance – quite often a fragrance is added so that consumers like the smell while it is drying on the hair.
  • Preservatives and additives – extra ingredients are added to the hair gel which allows for extra shelf life as well as other properties upon drying such as an extreme shine or protection from harsh UV rays.

While these are the common ingredients for a hair gel there are many combinations of different types of polymers and preservatives and additives in each hair gel to balance the effects and hold of all of the ingredients.

For example, some polymers are too brittle when they dry but provide a perfect film on the hair. This can’t be balanced out by using a polymer that is more flexible and does not cause flaking once the hair is bent upon drying.

Different climates will also affect the ingredients differently and it is desirable that a hair gel maintain its properties in a wide variety of temperatures and environmental conditions which will require different formulations for different types of environments.

A very difficult task!

The issue is that the formulation of hair gel is affected for use on the head and not the types of environments and hair that you find growing act of your face. Because of that there are a range of reasons why you shouldn’t use hair gel on your beard.

Issues with using hair gel on your beard

There is nothing stopping you from using hair gel on your beard if that is the only thing that you have available at the time. There are plenty of other options which are specially formulated for the beard and the moustache hairs which are very affordable and inexpensive.

One of the worst examples of issues that can arise if you use hair gel on your beard is an allergic reaction.

Allergic reactions

I looked at the science and found a number of acute allergic reactions from hair gel use.

For example, one of the earliest examples is from a 1985 publication which talks about the use of Diazolidinyl urea as a preservative used in hair gel which caused an acute allergic contact dermatitis in a 42-year-old man.

The 42-year-old man had no history of eczema or other allergies but turned up with acute dermatitis on his face and neck which had been there for over five days.

If you start using a new product and you notice any reddening or changing of your face you should reach out to your trusted medical professional since this acute allergic reaction caused the patient to be admitted to hospital.

In another example, published in 2015, allergic contact dermatitis was caused by methylisothiazolinone in hair gel. This chemical has been used in association with other cosmetic ingredients and before this publication was not considered a cause of allergic reactions.

However, in this study they report on for patients who present with allergic contact dermatitis of the scalp and face caused by this ingredient. The diagnosis was particularly difficult as the researchers noted that none of the patients declared using hair gel Intel specifically asked.

“The diagnosis in our 4 cases was difficult, as none of our patients declared using hair gel until specifically asked. All of them reported using different brands of shampoo or make-up, which did not contain MI, but, according to them, hair gel could not be responsible for their dermatitis…”

Allergic contact dermatitis caused by methylisothiazolinone in hair gel

They tested different ingredients on the skin of the patients and found that they gave positive results.

The typical area for the contact dermatitis was the ears and the scalp or neck and if you were to use this on your beard it would be on a much more prominent part of your face.

Strong hold

Besides the risk that hair gel will cause an allergic reaction on your face, the actual physical properties of the gel can be problematic.

The stronghold of the gel can cause a significant amount of undue stress to the hair follicles and hair shafts as they are held in place upon drying of the gel.

The stronghold can also be incredibly uncomfortable as you talk or eat and move your facial features.

Flakiness

Hair gel containing a wide variety of different polymers. Some of these polymers are not very flexible once they have dried on to the surface of your hair.

This means that when they are bent, they will crack and flake off your hair leaving you with a serious case of what looks like beard dandruff.

Unlike the hair on your head your beard is touched many times a day. I’ve never counted how often or how much I touch my beard but I would say that it is many hundred times a day. This means that your beard has got the potential to be moved much more than your head hair resulting in the hair gel becoming flaky.

Also, the hair on the front of your face is subject to much more environmental exposure due to its location on your head. This means that the gel could dry out quicker and become flaky much quicker than if it was on your head.

No one wants to have a bad case of beard dandruff and, therefore, using a beard farm or a beard wax that has been specially formulated for the face and the beard hairs will be much better than using hair gel on your beard.

Skin irritation

Besides the extreme allergic reactions which can be a part of using hair gel on your beard, some of the ingredients in hair gel can cause a significant amount of skin irritation on your face.

The facial area is a much more sensitive area than the top of your head.

You have to make sure that you are only using organic and very subtle and soft chemicals on your beard hair. This means using products which have been formulated for your face.

Before using anything on your face you should test it on another sensitive part of your body such as your wrists or behind your ears.

Drying and dehydrating the hair

Because of the polymer components in the hair gel the film which dries on to the hair shaft can quickly drive out the hair underneath.

This is because the polymer film which remains still wants to have some water associated with its structure. If it cannot get that moisture from the air it will draw it out from deep within your beard hair.

The only way to replace the moisture which is removed from the hair by the hair gel is by using a leaving conditioner and refraining from using any sort of product that coats the hair for a few days.

Gel build up

Another issue with gel is that it is relatively hard to remove completely in one wash. This can leave you with gel in your beard for a longer period of time than you would want and can cause extra irritation and dryness if left for long periods of time against the skin.

Make sure that you get yourself a good quality beard so which can easily remove the built up polymer from the strands of your hair and from deep within the bulk of the beard.

If you want to know more about the best beard soaps check out my other article – the best beard salts and the ultimate products – click here to be taken to the article.

best beard soap

Alternatives to using hair gel on your beard

Leave in conditioner

Using a dedicated beard conditioner means that your hair is going to be as unruly as possible. The conditioner will not necessarily allow you to style your beard and provide long lasting hold but it will give your beard hairs the best possible chance of being held in place because they are well nourished and conditioned.

After you have used a leaving conditioner you can use a product like beard wax or a beard balm.

Here are some of the best reasons that you should consider using a dedicated beard conditioner:

  • It nourishes and moisturizes the beard – one of the biggest benefits to your beard – it makes it lovely and soft and will make your wirey hair much easier to manage.
  • It helps softens the stubble on the face – If you are not one for growing a long beard but prefer to keep it close to the skin the it’ll help soften the ends of the hairs and make it way less spikey!
  • Imparts a healthy shine – A well-conditioned beard is one with a nice healthy shine to it. If you want to find out more tips and tricks to making your beard shine – check out my other article.
  • It makes combing and styling easier – having hair that doesn’t grip the comb and sits well after it is brushed into place is an achievable outcome if you use a beard conditioner regularly.
  • It reduces irritation and dry skin – the skin under a beard is not easy to look after. However, the regular use of a conditioner will leave the skin nourished and irritation-free. If you are worried about bacteria and a smelly beard you can also use a beard conditioner with essential oil that has antibacterial properties.
  • They leave a nice fragrance The last and maybe one of the strongest effects noticed by others is that a good beard conditioner will leave your beard smelling lovely! Choose a beard conditioner that has a smell that you like and, if you have a significant other, make sure that they also like the smell! There is nothing quite like a lovely smelling product!

So, there are the main benefits of using beard conditioner on your beard!

Beard balm

The magic of a beard balm and what makes it great and good for your beard hair is what is in it. As I’ve outlined above, there are some common ingredients in beard balm such as Shea butter, essential oils, carrier oils, and beeswax.

It is this combination of moisturising agents (Shea butter and carrier oils), therapeutic oils (essential oils) and ingredients that provide a certain level of hold (beeswax) makes beard balm and incredible addition to your beard routine.

Each one of these ingredients is vital in providing the moisturising, hold, and nourishing action that people love about beard balm.

The great news is that making your own DIY beard balm is as easy as mixing and heating some common ingredients together. If you can bake a cake you can definitely make your own beard balm. I’ve done it for a number of years and it has saved me so much money that I would never go back to buying a commercially available beard balm – unless it had some secret ingredient that was magical for my beard!

Here is everything you need to and purchase to create your very own, inexpensive, and customised beard balm which is guaranteed to make your beard more manageable, softer, and easier to style.

Beard Wax

If you find that beard balm is not providing the level of hold that you want you should consider using a beard wax. A beard wax is like a beard balm but it contains a very high portion of wax and it is typically used to hold handlebar moustaches in place.

Do not overuse a beard wax because it will quickly make your beard look heavy and oily – that is not something that you want for your beard!

Summary

In this article, we have answer the question: can you use hair gel on your beard. In summary, I would recommend that you do not use anything that is formulated for your head on your face. You could end up with a significant amount of irritation and even an allergic reaction due to the sensitive skin that is found on the face and the harsh products which are typically found in hair gel.

There are plenty of other products that you can use in place of hair gel such as beard balm and beard wax which have been specially formulated for the conditions of your face and you can even make a DIY beard balm at home if you do not want to buy a commercial product.

The Author


Andy Stapleton

Andy is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. He is an avid beard grower and after many years of growing and trialing different beard styles, he started this blog to share the tips, tricks, and science that he has learned along the way!