Nothing quite says “I spent $60 on a professional blowout” (without actually having to spend $60 on a professional blowout) like knowing how to curl your own hair. Once you know how to give yourself effortless bends or bombshell waves, you’ll want to style your hair yourself all the time. (For free!) And with the right curling iron on hand, that newfound hobby won’t result in damage to your strands.
Because, in breaking news to exactly no one, too much heat is bad for hair. Heat can crack your cuticle (the outermost layer of a strand), which can result in proteins leaching out. This leaves hair dry, frayed, and brittle. While you’d be hard-pressed to find any sort of hot tool that’s actually good for your hair, there are certain things you can look for to lessen damage. Keep scrolling for the best ways to protect your hair from heat.
How to protect your hair from a curling iron
Even the safest curling irons on the market still run the risk of doing some damage to your strands, so it’s important to take certain precautions during the styling process.
1. Prep ahead of time: “If you know that you are creating a hairstyle that uses hot tools like a curling iron, you should prep your hair the day before to avoid heat damage,” says Garnier hairstylist Millie Morales. “I always recommend applying a hydrating mask and blowdrying hair the day before to have it ready for the curling iron.” Her pick? Garnier Fructis Hydrating Treat 1 Minute Hair Mask + Aloe Extract ($6), which she says will leave hair “soft and hydrated” even after it goes under the iron.
2. Use a heat protectant: Putting a curling iron on raw, unprotected hair is going to garner the same results as trying to cook something in a non-greased pan—there’s a potential for it to stick to the rod and burn. “Heat protectant is a must,” says Linsey Barbuto, owner Perlei Salon. “Many people don’t realize how much heat damage your hair takes with hot tools. Using a heat protector will not only help keep your hair healthy, but it will prevent breakage.” Apply a serum like Oribe Royal Blowout ($69) or IGK Thirsty Girl ($28) before you blow dry to make sure your strands are protected.
3. Make sure your hair is completely dry: It doesn’t take a haircare wizard to know that the crackling sound a curling iron makes when it comes into contact wet hair is not good news. “Make sure your hair is completely dry with zero dampness,” says Glamsquad Creative Director Giovanni Vaccaro. “This will protect your hair follicle, as hair is most vulnerable and prone to damage when wet.”
4. Don’t go too hot: “A lot of people put their curling iron on too hot, you do not need to put the curling iron all the way up to the highest heat,” says Stephanie Brown, NYC Master Colorist at IGK Soho. She suggests staying between 300 and 380 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on how thick and how processed your hair is), and controlling the heat intensity as needed. The general rule is the thicker hair is, the more heat it can tolerate; however, the more processed it is, the easier you need to be with it.
5. Don’t hold for too long: If you’ve seen that video, you know what can happen when you hold a burning hot iron on your hair for too long (spoiler alert: it can burn it clear off of your head). Stylists suggest wrapping your hair, counting for five to seven seconds, then moving onto the next section.
How to find a curling iron that won’t damage hair
A harsh truth, straight from Vaccaro: “There are no curling irons that are actually good for your hair,” he says. That said, “there are definitely irons that are less damaging to your hair than others.” To ensure you’re getting something that will protect the integrity, there are a few key elements you can look for—namely, the right materials and temperature controls.
“Don’t go cheap on your blow dryer, flat iron or curling iron,” advises Brown. “The cheaper tools don’t usually have temperature settings or a lot of power, so you are using them longer and over-heating.” Here, the stylist-approved picks for the best curling irons that won’t damage hair.
1. For thicker hair, try titanium: Bio Ionic Stylewinder 1”, $135
“Since titanium is a lightweight metal, it heats more quickly and evenly,” says Barbuto. “This means you get to hold your hair on the iron for less time for the same style.” And of course, when it comes to preventing damage, the less time you’re spending with a hot tool, the better. Stylists recommend titanium irons for thicker hair types, since they distribute heat faster. It’s also extra long, which is helpful for those who have hair past their shoulders.
This adjustable titanium wand heats up quickly (in under 30 seconds, according to the brand), and combines a titanium barrel with a ceramic heater for uniform heat throughout the iron. Pro tip: For natural-looking waves, start your curl in the middle of your head, hold for a 10-count, and release.
3. For thinner hair, try ceramic: BaBylissPRO Porcelain Ceramic Spring Curling Iron, $50
If your hair is on the finer side, you’ll want to look for something with a ceramic barrel. These don’t get as hot as their titanium cousins, and stylists say they’re safer for thin or processed hair that might suffer when coming into contact with excess heat. BaByliss’s techy irons have been favorites among stylists for years. This one, in particular, combines the heat distribution capabilities of ceramic with infrared and ionic technology to cut down styling time while still being kind to your hair.
4. GHD Curve Wand, $199
“I love GHD irons, they are extremely user friendly and the curling irons slide through the hair so easy because there is low tension in the hair clamp,” says Aaron Grenia, co-founder and master stylist at IGK Soho. This tool in particular uses ultra-zone technology, which keeps the heat consistent throughout the iron for an even curl pattern. It also goes into “sleep mode” after 30 minutes of non-use, so you’ll never have to stress about leaving it on after you’ve left the house for the day.
5. For everyone: Dyson Airwrap, $549
This curling iron falls into a category of its own, since it’s really the only curling device on the market that doesn’t use an actual iron to get the job done. “It uses air [like a blow dryer] instead of heat to style and shape your hair,” says Vaccaro, who calls it one of his “favorite tools for women to use at home.” The $549 price tag is undoubtedly hefty, but you can’t beat the safety it gives strands. Plus, you’re technically getting eight hair tools for the price of one… in case you need more of a reason to invest.
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