Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/19/2022
Some guys are blessed with seemingly perfect hair — a full, dense head of hair that just always seems to maintain a natural sense of order.
Others, well, aren’t so lucky. If you’re the type to spend the better part of your morning brushing and styling your hair only to have it reassemble itself into a tangled mess the moment you leave the bathroom, you’re probably familiar with cowlicks.
Cowlicks are the small tufts of hair that either stick up in odd directions, lay perfectly flat against your scalp when the rest of your hair is styled up, or simply refuse to go with the flow and blend in with the rest of your hair.
Think of them as the stubborn nonconformists among your hair follicles. Just when everything looks perfect, you can trust a cowlick or two to pop up and make life difficult.
The good news is that although cowlicks can be annoying, they can be managed with the right combination of haircuts, products and styling techniques.
Below, we’ve explained what cowlicks are, as well as why they can develop. We’ve also shared a few simple techniques that you can use to either style cowlicks more effectively or adjust your hairstyle so that they’re less of a problem.
“Cowlick” is an informal term that’s used to refer to the small, stubborn tufts of hair that don’t fit in with the rest of the hair on your scalp.
For the most part, cowlicks develop as a result of your “hair whorl” — the circular distribution of hair follicles scalp that revolves around a central axis. This is the part of your scalp where your hairs branch off in different directions, usually near your crown.
Most people have one hair whorl, although some developmental and neurological disorders can result in the development of multiple hair whorls at different locations on the scalp.
Your hair whorl is where the growing direction of your hair follicles changes. At this point, which is normally near the vertex region of your scalp, your hair follicles separate into groups that face towards the front, left, rear and right sides of your scalp.
Approximately 84 percent of people have a clockwise hair whorl, while 16 percent have a scalp hair whorl that rotates counterclockwise.
Sometimes, cowlicks can also develop along your hairline, usually at the point where your hairs branch off in different directions, called your part line.
Cowlicks can vary significantly in size and annoyance factor. For some people, they consist of a few stubborn hairs that mostly refuse to go along with the crowd, but can be tamed with the right wax or styling gel.
Other people might have multiple cowlicks that are difficult to get under control, even with some serious styling effort.
While it’s usually easy to style most of your hair in a consistent direction, the area near your hair whorl can be a bit of a nuisance.
Luckily, with the right combination of haircut and styling techniques, most cowlicks can be either corrected or prevented. The key is to understand your hair’s natural growth pattern, then adjust your cut and styling habits to tame those annoying, rebellious hair follicles.
Arguably the easiest way to deal with a cowlick (or several cowlicks, if you have seriously unruly hair) is to keep your hair nice and short.
While cutting your hair short won’t actually get rid of a cowlick, it can make it much less obvious by preventing your hair from sticking up in the wrong direction. Think of it like a freshly cut lawn, rather than a tangled overgrown garden.
Good haircuts for minimizing the visibility of a cowlick include the buzz cut and the crew cut, as well as the nuclear option — shaving it all off. In general, any cut that involves shorter hair close to your crown will make a stubborn cowlick less obvious.
Another way to get rid of prominent cowlicks is to grow your hair longer so that they’re harder to notice.
As your hair gets longer, it tends to relax and become easier to style in a single direction. If your cowlicks are only visible when your hair is moderate in length, try growing it out, then styling it in a mop-top or pompadour hairstyle that makes any change in hair direction difficult to see.
If you have curly hair, simply growing it a little longer can be enough to hide your wayward whorl without any need to choose a specific style.
Alternatively, try embracing the natural chaos of your hair by growing it long, then conditioning to add some extra weight and thickness. This can help to control a stubborn tuft of hair by stopping it from sticking up so much.
It’s always hard to fight nature, meaning sometimes it’s best to accept a cowlick and minimize its visual impact by styling your hair based on its natural pattern.
If you usually style your hair in one direction, try switching things up by identifying the direction it moves in naturally from your hair whorl. Then, once you’ve applied a strong pomade, hair gel or any other hair styling products, comb it in its natural direction.
Instead of trying to fight back against your hair’s natural instincts, this approach makes the most of them by combining the hold offered by your favorite hair products with the orientation of your hair follicles.
To get the best results from this approach, use a handheld mirror to check the direction your hair naturally flows in from your crown, then comb or brush appropriately. Try applying gel and other styling products to slightly wet hair to make taming your hair’s spiral pattern a little easier.
Finally, one other way to deal with a cowlick is to combine the effects of heat, pressure and hold to bring it under your control.
By this, we’re talking about using a blow dryer, pomade, gel, wax and other strong hold products to launch an all-out assault on your unruly cowlick and get it to comply with your styling goals, at least for the better part of the day.
For most guys, this means applying your preferred product to your hair when it’s still damp, then using your blow dryer to force it to point in the right direction. For optimal results, you’ll generally want to choose a medium heat setting and attach a concentrator for targeted airflow.
Once you’ve tamed the pesky cowlick, switch to cool air to lock your hair in place. Just be aware that you’ll need to avoid getting your hair wet throughout the day, as this may “reset” the cowlick and force you to repeat the process from square one.
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While cowlicks can be annoying, there’s no scientific evidence that suggests that they’re related to hair loss in men.
Most men’s hair loss is the result of androgenetic alopecia, or male pattern baldness — a type of permanent hair loss that’s caused by genetic and hormonal factors.
If you’re predisposed to this type of hair loss, a male hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT) can attach to androgen receptors in your scalp and, over time, shorten the growth cycle of each hair follicle.
This can affect your hair growth and eventually damage your hair follicles so much that new hair fails to even penetrate through your skin.
Our guide to DHT and male hair loss goes into more detail about how DHT can affect your hair, as well as why not all men are affected by DHT-related hair loss.
Cowlicks can be an annoyance, but they aren’t harmful or a sign that you’re starting to develop hair loss. Luckily, you can easily deal with them using the hair care and styling techniques we’ve shared above.
Interested in learning more about how to care for your hair? Our list of men’s hair care tips goes into more detail about how you can take good care of your hair, from choosing hair products that match your hair type to avoiding common sources of damage.