Styling Aids for Grooming the Canine Coat by Barbara Bird

by Barbara Bird CMG

The use of styling aids for the canine coat is gaining in popularity, whether it is to achieve perfection for the walk into the show ring or for the walk out the door of the grooming salon. In the human beauty industry, hair styling products are the most rapidly growing segment. For decades, those grooming show dogs have turned to human products to give them the finishing edge needed to complete their styling. Nowadays, it is not necessary to turn to an off-label product; there are plenty of choices right in our own marketplace. Mousses, setting gels, and hairsprays can be used to make a fluffy coat fluffier, help a limp coat to have body, build high, firm topknots, shape eyebrows and beards, keep hair out of the eyes, and hold the whole thing in place.

Styling aids are widely incorporated by hairdressers. Most contemporary human hair stylists have an array of products at their stations to help them get the finished look they want to see walk out of the door. That fabulous result that the salon client yearns to duplicate but never can quite achieve is often due to the savvy use of styling aids. A master stylist may incorporate more than one styling product during the process of creating and finishing a hairstyle. It’s not unusual for a human hair stylist to use two or even three styling aids per “head.”

The process of “styling” is the same for canine hair as human hair. The hydrogen bonds that determine the shape of the hair are naturally broken down when saturated with water during the shampoo or pet bath. The stylist then reshapes a “beta” shape to the hair, using styling tools (remember hair rollers?) and products. Hello! Groomers have been doing that for years, straightening curly coats for scissoring. Now, with the assistance of styling aids, we can create lift, volume, body and shape way beyond the simple act of straightening. Want a cute little Westie head that doesn’t lay flat on the crown? Work some gel into the hair before drying. While drying, brush or blow the crown from back to front and front to back to encourage it to stand up. After trimming to the desired length, spray and scrunch the top of the head with a setting spray as the final touch. The head will have an adorable tousled look and the height you have been yearning for.


The closer one looks at the ingredients of hair mousse, setting gel, and hair spray, the more one discovers the similarities are greater than the differences. All three types of styling products contain hair fixatives, usually polymers. The differences are not so much a matter of the styling ingredients as they are differences in the delivery systems.

Mousse combines hair fixatives, foam builder and propellant to create a light-weight, spreadable foam that lightly coats hair from the roots out. It builds body and volume, and generally leaves hair with movement. Mousse delivers light hold. It is usually applied to wet or damp hair and dried into the desired shape. Mousse may contain a quaternary conditioning agent or silicone to reduce static and tame frizz.

Setting gels are also most often applied to wet or damp hair, and deliver a bit more fixative and holding power. They are used to create texture and to form shapes, such as terrier eyebrows, beards. Setting gels can be used for spot applications, such as molding hair around the eyes of drop-coated breeds. Examples are Havanese, Lhasa Apso and Bearded Collie. Gels usually consist of water, hair fixative, gelling agent, humectant (to keep the product from drying out), pH adjuster, fragrance, solubilizer (to mix fragrance), preservative and designer additives.

Hairsprays can be formulated for flexible-hold or firm-hold, and can be delivered by aerosol or pump spray. Most hairsprays are alcohol-based. They usually deliver the most hair fixative and are designed to hold hair in place and resist the effects of humidity. Humidity undoes the efforts of styling, whether the hair has been straightened or shaped. Moisture breaks the newly formed hydrogen bonds and allows the hair to return to its natural state. In addition to the alcohol medium, hairsprays contain propellants (if aerosol), fixative polymers, pH adjuster, fragrance, possible silicones, and designer additives.


Hair fixative polymers: A polymer is defined as “a substance composed of one or more large molecules that are formed from repeated units of smaller molecules. “ Reader’s Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder, 1996, p. 1155. This linking together allows the cosmetic chemist to create extraordinarily lightweight compounds that coat and hold the hair shafts together. This gives the hair body, strength, resilience and hold. These properties are called “film forming” and “plasticity”. In the language of chemistry, “plasticity” refers to moldability and flexibility.

There are a number of hair fixatives available to the product formulator for use in hair styling products. The same fixatives may found in mousse, gel and spray. The differences are in the amount of fixative in a formula. There are polymers created for light hold and others for stronger hold. Each has its own character. Each chemical supplier has a number of hair fixative ingredients to offer. Among the hair fixatives commonly found in canine hair styling products, are PVP (polyvinylpyrrolidone), PVP/VA copolymer (VA is vinyl acrylate), acrylates copolymers (descriptive of several acrylate combinations), PVM/MA copolymer, Polyquaternium-4 (or -11, -46, or others).
Aminomethyl Propinol: Wherever hair fixatives are found they will be accompanied by Aminomethyl Propanol (AMP). It serves several purposes, including balancing the pH, keeping the polymers mixed in the solution (emulsifier), and controlling the water-solubility of the delivered product, giving it the desired humidity-resistance. AMP is also an anti-corrosive substance that helps to protect the integrity of spray cans.

Alcohol: We have heard that alcohol is drying and have seen alcohol on hit lists of ingredients to avoid, so why is it present in hair styling products? A). Because it is fast drying, evaporates quickly and leaves the fixative ingredients in place. Too much water in a styling product adds drying time and makes hair limp. B). Alcohol in hairspray is not as bad as it is made out to be. Negative hype is the drama that is created to help market alternative products. Paula Begoun, aka, the “cosmetics cop” states that, “In reality, alcohol in hairsprays evaporates too quickly to impact the moisture content of the hair.” (Don’t Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me, pg. 93).

Silicones and Quaternary Conditioning Agents: Some mousses, gels and sprays may contain small amounts of silicone ingredients to aid in combing and styling the hair and to add shine to the finished result. Silicones also speed up drying and thereby reduce the amount of alcohol needed in the formula, and they help resist the effects of humidity. These silicones might be Dimethicone, Dimethicone Copolyol, Peg-8 Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone (aka, cyclopentasiloxane), Quats, or quaternary ammonium compounds, are sometimes also added for anti-static property. Examples are, Polyquatenium-4, Polyquartium-7, PPG-9 Diethylmonium Chloride.
Designer Additives: These are the “goodies” that are added to provide the marketing image for the product. Some companies have signature additives. For example, Pantene has Panthenol in nearly every product. Aussie products all have Australian botanicals. Products marketed as “natural” may have 1-5 botanical extracts. There may be some additives that are easily recognized as “good”, such as Aloe Vera Gel. Generally speaking, all of the additives add up to no more than one percent of the formula, and any one may be present in such a small amount as to have no conceivable function in the product. Some manufacturers refer to these additives as “fairy dust”.

Propellants: All aerosol products need a propellant system to produce the pressure that forces the liquid concentrate from the container. Isobutane and Propane are hydrocarbons that have low toxicity and good chemical stability. The downside is that they are highly flammable and are VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), which carry environmental concerns. For this reason, the amount of hydrocarbons allowed in human consumer products is required to be less than 55% in some states. Hydroflourocarbon 150a is a costlier propellant but is less controversial. Hydroflourocarbons are not thought to destroy the ozone layer, but may play a role in global warming. Dimethyl ether is replacing hydrocarbons in many human styling aerosols, as it is more environmentally friendly and allows for lower VOC formulations. It is, however, a more expensive ingredient.


The first aerosol hairsprays that were introduced to the mass market used Chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) as propellants. They were popular with formulators because of their low flammability and good solvency. In the 1970’s, it was discovered that CFCs can contribute to depletion of the upper ozone layer, and they were eventually banned. No hairsprays use CFCs today, although some labels still proclaim “No CFCs” as a marketing gimmick to imply that other products might contain these disreputable ingredients.

Chloroflourocarbons were replaced by hydrocarbons, especially Isobutane and Propane. However, it was then discovered that aerosols that use a combination of ethyl alcohol and hydrocarbons emit vapors called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that generate ozone in the lower atmosphere and trap pollutants, creating smog. California and New York have passed laws requiring that products contain no more than 55% VOCs, and many human hair sprays are now formulated to this specification. USA Federal regulations and European Union standards require no more than 80% VOCs in aerosols. Most human hairsprays are now formulated to the 55% requirement, so they can be sold in all states.

In order to comply with present-day regulations, hairspray formulators have substituted some alcohol in the product with water. Reducing the alcohol content lowers the VOCs, but also makes for a less effective product. Dimethyl ether is becoming a popular propellant, as it does not release VOCs. It is, however, highly flammable and costly. Another advantage is that it works well in the presence of an alcohol/water combination. It is unknown to what extent manufacturers of canine cosmetics products are adhering to the regulations established for the human cosmetics marketplace. On the whole, animal products are much less scrutinized.

Pump sprays vs. Aerosols. It would seem that the environmentally friendly choice would be to forego aerosols for pump sprays. Pump sprays do not emit VOCs or any other questionable emissions. They do not, however, dispense as fine a mist, often resulting in the application of too much product and large droplets. They are not as efficient as aerosols, and often suffer from clogged nozzles. Products in pump sprays do not have the extended shelf life of those in pressurized aerosol cans. When application performance is the priority, aerosols are the preferred system. In the beauty industry, we see some manufacturers, such as Suave, offering both aerosol sprays and pump sprays to give consumers a choice.


Groomers have been straightening canine coats, a basic form of hair styling, for decades. Products that assist in reshaping hair and defining structure and form of hair can be helpful in creating professional results that walk out the salon door with pizzazz, or walk into the show ring with a winning attitude. Mousses, gels, and sprays share common ingredients, primarily hair fixative polymers that coat hair shafts and hold them together. This gives more texture, body, volume, and shine to the appearance of the hair coat. Final use sprays help the created look stay in place.

How long will the effects of styling products last? That will depend on the amount of fixative applied and the relative humidity of your environment, among other factors. Styling products will give your results more life, but it’s temporary. An extra dab of this or spritz of that can bring breathtaking results to your styling efforts. Styling products are your liquid tools, and the more you use them, the more you realize the advantages.

Reader’s Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder, 1996, Oxford University Press.
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Aerosols for Apprentices, Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry, Third Edition, Allured Books, 2009, pgs. 259-270.
Begoun, Paula, Don’t Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me, Beginning Press, 2004.
Halal, John. Hair-Care Product & Ingredients Dictionary, Delmar Learning, 2004.
Dr. Vittoria Signori, Aerosol Mousses and Hair Fixatives, Formulation, Tips and Introduction of a New Polymer, Cosmetic Science Technology, 2005.
Lochhead, Robert Y. and Huisinga, Lisa R. Advances in Polymers for Hair Styling,