Curling Irons

Gold-plated curling iron with large barrel.
Gold-plated curling iron with large barrel.

Curling irons are essential hair styling tools not only for individuals with straight hair, but also people with curly hair who want to tame their curls into a new look. There are many different types of irons, however, and by knowing which features they offer and how to properly use them, you can choose the exact type to create your perfect curls.

Essential Features

As with any beauty tool, there are multiple different brands and features to consider when selecting an iron. Basic features include:

  • Barrel size: The small barrels create tight curls, whereas large barrels create waves. Some models offer multiple attachments to change the barrel size to suit different styles. Barrel sizes typically vary from 3/8-2 inches. The size of your curling iron's barrel is the definitive factor in determining the shape and size of your curls as well as the styling versatility of your iron. The smaller barrel sizes will create tight curls whereas the largest barrel sizes are used less for curling and more for creating volume.

Large barreled irons of two inches or more can be run along the hair to straighten specific sections, curling them under at the ends. Indeed, these larger utensils can create curls, but these curls are more akin to the effects of large Velcro rollers rather than producing tighter even curls. Medium size barrels are perfect for the solid traditional curls which represent the most common use of a curling iron.

  • Heat settings: Coarse, thick hair requires higher heat settings, whereas very fine hair curls easily at lower temperatures. Lower heat is generally less damaging. Irons may have from 1-30 heat settings, and some models allow the user to set the exact temperature.
  • Heat timing: The time allotted for your curling iron to produce optimum heat is also a purchasing consideration. Newer models can generate styling-appropriate heat in half a minute's time.
  • Safety features: An automatic shutoff, ready indicator light, and safety grip tip for two-hand use improves the safety of the iron to prevent accidental burns and misuse. Other safety features include a swivel cord to prevent tangling and built-in stands to provide a steady resting place.

While these are essential features for all irons, there are several luxury features that many users appreciate, including ergonomic handles, steam settings to help lock in curls, cordless variations that run on rechargeable batteries or butane, and dual voltage models that are suitable for international travel. A popular type of iron is a curling brush, which has regularly spaced prongs around the barrel to provide more volume with a less precise curl. Many regular irons come with brush and other attachments.

Barrel Platings

The most noticeable difference irons is the type of coating on the barrel. There are three general types of plating: chrome, gold, and ceramic. Chrome plating is the most common and least expensive, and is suitable for most uses. Gold-plated irons are more frequently found on professional tools because they heat more evenly and have less tendency to overheat when left on for long periods of time. Gold-plating may be a better choice for individuals who use irons frequently.

The best choice, though it is also the most expensive, are ceramic-plated irons. Ceramic-plated irons have fewer hot spots than metal-plated irons, and they combine heat with ionic and infrared technologies to seal hair cuticles for a smooth, shiny finish. This helps preserve hair's moisture, and is frequently recommended for color-treated hair because it can help the color last longer.

Notable Brands

Some of the top brands within the category of curl-oriented heat-styling technology are:

  • Sultra The Bombshell 1: A smooth ceramic rod barrel provides consistent 360 degree heat while infrared rays mitigate cuticle damage. Retails for approximately $130.
  • Enzo Milano: A brand featuring clip-less ceramic curling irons. The clip-less feature eliminates any crimping associated with heat-styling. Products release negative ions to create healthy consistent curls. Retails for approximately $116.
  • Conair The Infiniti You Curl: Uses Tourmaline ceramic technology and heats in as little as 30 seconds. Is also clamp-free. Named one of Good Housekeeping's 2010 top 10 beauty products. Retails for approximately $50.

Each of these products employs ceramic plating technology and can be purchased at retailers such as Sephora or Amazon.com.

Should I Buy More Than One?

Individuals who like to change the curls they wear and who enjoy creating different looks may want to consider purchasing multiple irons to suit their different needs. Similarly, if you use your iron every day, it is wise to purchase a cordless iron or one suitable for travel so you can keep your look wherever you go.

Some travel irons, in fact, are small enough to fit in a purse, making them perfect if you need an emergency touch up. On the other hand, if you only use an iron occasionally, you should consider a mid-range, versatile model that can create a few different styles without breaking the bank. Most styling irons range from 10-30 dollars, though professional models with multiple attachments can be as high as $100 or more.

Using the Iron

Hair should be thoroughly dry before using an iron, otherwise the resulting steam may cause severe burns. Furthermore, the iron should be kept away from the scale and delicate roots to prevent scalding. To properly use your iron, follow these basic steps:

  • Divide hair into sections. Thicker sections will have less precise curls, while thin sections will curl tighter and more quickly.
  • Place one section into the iron's clip and slide the iron gently to the end of the hair.
  • Roll the hair upward evenly around the iron. Stop rolling approximately an inch from the scalp or wherever you want the curl to end.
  • Hold the iron still without releasing the clip for 5-8 seconds. Harder-to-curl hair may require a longer hold, but take care not to scorch hair.
  • Unroll the hair by reversing the rolling motion and release the clip to release the hair.
  • Let the curl sit 1-2 minutes to cool and set. If a looser curl is desired, run your fingers through it while setting to remove some of the tightness.
  • Style as desired.

Keeping Your Curly Style Beautiful

Curling irons apply both high heat and tight pressure to hair and they can be stressful to your locks, particularly with daily use. To keep your hair looking its best, choose leave-in conditioner formulated for heat-treated hair and use it daily. Occasional deep conditioning treatments are also recommended. Be sure to clean your iron regularly to prevent chemical buildup from hair spray and other styling products.

Another useful product for preventing heat-styling damage is the thermal protectant spray. This product is manufactured by many hair care lines. A thermal protectant spray, such as Alterna's Caviar Rapid Repair Spray, serves to coat the hair with a conditioner-like element, the effects of which are enhanced by exposure to heat. It is applied to the hair prior to styling and is activated by heat-styling utensils such as a blow-dryers or iron. Thermal protectant products are widely available at drugstores, salons, and beauty supply stores.


Curling irons are useful tools to create fabulous waves and curls in any type of hair. By choosing the model that best suits your needs and using it carefully, you can have beautiful curly hair every day, no matter what your hair type or style.

Curling Irons