Now, gel’s main gig is to provide hold, which is why many traditional options do include alcohols to help the formula dry down quickly—but that’s how gel earned its reputation for being stiff. “Definitely avoid [alcohols] because that’s what dries the hair,” celebrity hairstylist Camille Friend, founder of Hair Scholars, tells mbg, especially if your strands are already prone to brittleness and breakage.
Michelle Sultan, celebrity hairstylist and Imbue ambassador, seconds the advice: “Most hair gels have alcohol within them to set the hair in place, but now there are new and improved formulas that have little-to-no alcohol but provide the same setting power,” she says. “And as any curly person worth their salt will tell you, try to avoid products that contain wax-based silicones, parabens, and petroleum, as prolonged use on the hair can cause damage.”
Rather, she recommends seeking out elevated players like aloe and flaxseed, which have that viscous, jelly texture and a host of antioxidants and hydrating benefits. Sea moss, too, thickens formulas and coats strands in moisture; it contains high amounts of polysaccharides (called carrageenans) that form a protective yet non-occlusive film over the strands.
Another up-and-coming ingredient in the hairstyling world? Okra. If you’ve ever cooked with the nutrient-rich delicacy, you’re likely familiar with the translucent goo coating each pod—great for thickening up gumbos and stews, and your hair gel, too. “When you think about okra, you think of that fibrous [texture],” says Friend. “It’s something that wraps around the curls and makes it so that they’re not going to frizz.”
The bottom line: Those crispy, sticky gels of your teenage years are long gone. These days, you can find options that rely on a host of innovative botanicals and compounds to create defined, bouncy curls without the crunch. It’s also great news for those partial to a sleek bun or ponytail—your slicked-back styles will feel smooth yet malleable (as opposed to a helmetlike shell on top of your skull).