Image Source: Getty / Axelle/Bauer-Griffin
Hairstyling techniques are like the superhero movies of beauty — debut a blockbuster, build a franchise, abandon it after a few years, then reboot it as better than ever five, 10, 50 years later. Shiny blowouts, air-dry-don't-care, and braids for days have all held their place at the zenith of styling 10 times over, each iteration with its own new approach and result. Well, watch out, Spider-Man, because the next big blast-from-the-past revamp is coming at you. Enter: the wet set.
Yes, the retro method your grandma and her squad of biddies were total pros at is making its comeback into our modern hairstyling repertoire. Never heard of it? Well, a wet set is exactly what it sounds like, explains Pantene celebrity stylist Danilo: "Traditionally, it's setting your hair while it's wet and letting it dry into formation." That can mean anything from the classic technique of rollers to more modern moves like tissues, braids, knots, and twists. "It basically coaxes the hair to dry in a shape without the [use] of abusive heat," he noted.
In the past, a wet set was properly wet — freshly washed hair was done up in sponge curlers at night, slept on, and undone the next morning when it was dry. There was a serious time commitment to the method, obviously (not to mention it was probably very uncomfortable to sleep on).
"It basically coaxes the hair to dry in a shape without the [use] of abusive heat"
Today's wet set is meant to be done on damp, semidry hair, which allows it (unless you have superthick or curly hair) to dry within an hour and still hold a shape. It also creates a softer, more touchable texture that moves naturally rather than lying rigidly in place.
While there are many ways to do a wet set, each requires surprisingly little product. Danilo recommends a volumizing lotion, a flexible hairspray, and a detangling spray — he raves about Pantene's Daily Moisture Mist Detangler ($8) because it's "lightweight in what's coming out of the bottle (the product itself) and how it comes out of the bottle."
By that, he means a light and even mist rather than a "spitty," heavy spray. He suggests adding a volumizing lotion to your towel-dried hair if you have fine strands that need some oomph, followed by your leave-in conditioner spray. Then, create your set and mist a very thin layer of hairspray over the top to add some hold to the set and make sure it doesn't just fall flat when you undo it.
Now, as for those actual sets, Danilo says there are myriad ways to do it. For a traditional glamorous red carpet look, you can't beat a good ol' sponge roller. Just remember that the smaller the roller, the tighter the curl, so if you are looking for that Old Hollywood glossy wave, opt for the large size.
But as demonstrated by many a YouTube tutorial, you can also get creative on your definition of a roller. In general, you want to use anything that's "lightweight, comfortable, and absorbs the moisture," Danilo said. That moisture absorption is key because it will speed up the drying process. This can also mean paper towels and t-shirt strips, which help create a very undone, tousled set.
If you want to make your look a bit more deconstructed, Danilo says to leave the ends of your hair out of your rollers, which will give you that "contemporary wave with straight ends."
Image Source: Getty / Karwai Tang
Another option? Pull your hair up into buns to dry. Many of us already do the lazy version of this with a haphazard yoga knot that adds some wave to your style when you undo it, but Danilo says that by placing a few more around your head, you can create a polished wave when it dries. "If you part your hair and place knots all over, each one of these knots is going to be more curl and more wave. Plan it right, and you start to get wave patterns as well," he elaborated.
Your hair doesn't even need to be completely dry; as long as it's holding the shape you want, you are good to go.
And while that might make it seem more time-consuming than heat styling, a wet set actually saves you time in the long run. Unlike a blow dryer or curling iron, you can multitask, because it's a hands-off technique. Apply your product, pick your set style, then go about your a.m. routine while your hair dries. Get dressed, have a bagel, put on your makeup, then undo your mane and head out the door.
Your hair doesn't even need to be completely dry; as long as it's holding the shape you want, you are good to go. Another plus? "It tends to last somewhat longer because the hair itself is dried into that shape," Danilo said.
The overall appeal, and most likely the reason the wet set is gaining popularity again, comes down to a desire for minimal fuss and maximum versatility. "There's a simplicity to it," Danilo explained. And who doesn't want to make their lives simpler?