Curling Iron User’s Guide

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Check out our guide to making perfectly coiffed curls or waves with your curling iron!

The classic, clip curling iron may seem difficult to master, and limiting in the styles it can achieve, but don’t underestimate these versatile styling tools. With a little practice and background knowledge, you can create a variety of styles easily and effectively.

See our guide below to help you get the most out of your classic curling iron.


(This guide is for the typical curling iron with clip. For information on clipless curling irons, see our articles about curling wands.)

For this type of device, the basic method that you use to curl your hair will remain the same no matter what style you’re doing, but other than that there’s no steps that you absolutely must follow. There are a lot of ways you can maneuver a curling iron, so try to find the one that’s most comfortable for you, and work with that.

If you’ve never used a curling iron before, here’s a basic guide to get you started.

Safety First

Keep in mind, a curling iron is different from a flat iron in that the heating elements are fully exposed. The entire circumference of the barrel will be hot! As such, you need to use caution. Don’t put the device too close to your scalp or ears while styling. It’s also a good idea to pick up a heat resistant glove. They’re cheap and can help keep you safe. There are even devices that include them as an accessory.

Of course, even with a glove, you should never grab or hold the barrel. Most device have non heated tips, so use that if you need to guide the device.

How to Hold the Device

The general way to hold a curling iron is to wrap your hand around the non-heated grip at the bottom of the device. You can steady the device with your thumb at the back of the handle, and maneuver the clip with your index finger at the front.

Your free hand will be used to pull out different sections of hair, and to help you guide the iron by holding it on the bottom or grabbing the non heated tip. You may also need to use this hand to adjust the hair on the barrel, but please use a protective heat glove if you find the need to do so.

How to Curl

  1. After detangling and sectioning your hair, take a small section of hair and hold it out, away from your head at around a 45 degree angle.
  2. Hold the barrel parallel to the section of hair you’re using. The clip should face forward, and the back of the barrel should face behind you. Open the clip and place the barrel halfway to 1/4 of the way down the section. Adjust so that the hair is situation at the middle of the barrel, and close the clip.
  3. From there, you need to wrap your hair all the way around the barrel, which takes some careful maneuvering. Start by pulling the curling iron away from your scalp, rotating as you go. The device will need to make at least one full rotation, so don’t worry about holding on to the clip for this part. You can use your free hand to either grab the bottom or the non-heated tip to help you rotate. (Keep in mind, if you wrap your hair too tight, you won’t be able to move the barrel. Focus more on getting as much hair as possible in contact with the heated portions, rather than wrapping it tightly.)
  4. As you rotate, if you find that your hair won’t slide under the clip easily, you may need to toggle it open. Simply use your index finger or thumb to press it open slightly, pull your hair through, and then close it again.
  5. Stop rotating when the ends of the hair are either in the clip, or just about to pass under it. If the majority of your hair is now in contact with the heated barrel, you can move onto the next step. If your hair is long, and you find that you have a large portion of it near the scalp that’s not being curled, you can rotate the device back towards your scalp. Wrap the leftover hair around the exterior of the clip and the barrel. (It doesn’t need to pass under the clip.) Again, you want it to be in contact, but it shouldn’t be too tight.
  6. When all of the hair is in place, hold the barrel still for between 5 to 10 seconds, depending on the temperature you’re using, or how stubborn your hair is.
  7. After that pause, open the clip and gently pull the device downwards and away from your hair.
  8. Repeat with the next section.


Getting the right speed down is tricky. You don’t want to expose your hair to too much heat, but curling is a slow process, and you need to make sure that you’re giving the hair enough time to set.

The first part of curling, (steps 2-5 in the guide above), should be fairly quick. Once you get the hang of it, it shouldn’t take more than two seconds. You don’t want to waste time during this portion and risk damaging the hair that’s in direct contact with the barrel.

The last part of the curling process (step 6), is where you want to focus your time. The hair needs to sit there for at least a few seconds in order to get a good hold. If you don’t pause, the curl won’t form properly, and you’ll end up having to go over the same section again anyway. In the long run, this is more damaging to hair, since you’re giving it double the heat exposure.

Overall, Curling hair is a slow and careful process, so give yourself plenty of time to style your hair before you have to go out.

Different Curls

While the basic method for using an iron will be the same regardless, there are a few different ways you can wrap your hair in order to give you some variation in the look of your curls. Here are the three basic wraps to get you started.

  • Flat Wrap: this is the standard method of curling, in which the section of hair lays flat on the barrel. This gives you large, springy spirals.
  • Spiral Wrap: like the name suggests, to get this style, twist the section of hair tightly before you wrap it around the barrel. In order to style the section, open the clip as far as it will go, wrap the hair around the barrel, and then close the clip.
  • Combo Wrap: this is a combination of both wraps, in order to create a wavy, natural looking curl. Start to by twisting the section of hair near the top, like you would with a spiral wrap, but don’t twist the whole section. Leave half or three quarters of it out. Wrap the hair around the device like you would for a spiral wrap, but for that last portion that’s not twisted, lay it on like a flat wrap.

Again, these are just the basic wraps. Once you get the hang of them, you can experiment with all sort of different styles. For more ideas, check out tutorials like this one or this one.


With curling, it can be tempting to use a higher temperature in order to get a good hold, but that’s not always the best idea. Your hair will be exposed to heat for longer than it would with something like a flat iron, so you should be striving for the lowest possible temperature that’s still effective. Here are some starting temperature ranges that you can work with to discover the ideal temperature for your hair.

  • Fine hair: 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Medium hair: 300-375 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Coarse Hair: 335-400 degrees Fahrenheit

Again, these are just some very broad guidelines. What works for your hair is going to depend on your hair’s thickness, as well as the technique you’re using. When you go to style your hair, experiment with the temperature you’re using until you fine the one that’s low, yet still effective.

Styling Tips

Curls as a style are notorious for loosening up or disappearing altogether as the day wears on, especially for people with fine hair, or straight hair. If you want to get the most out of your curling experience, here are a few things you can do.

Before You Style

There are a few things you can do before styling to get the best hold.

The first thing you can do is wash your hair. You want to make sure your hair is clean and free of old product buildup. If your hair is particularly stubborn, you can use a curling defining mousse while your hair is still damp.

You want to make sure that your hair is dry before styling, so blow dry it, or let it air dry. For blow drying, remember that the point is to keep the hair as close to it’s natural state as possible, so don’t straighten or flatten it while drying.

Another product to use is a heat protectant. This can help keep your hair from suffering heat damage during styling.

With that out of the way, you want to make sure that you detangle your hair and section it before styling. Shoot for 4 larger sections (a top and bottom one on each side of your head) that you can let them down and style as you go.

While You Style

During styling, there are a few things you can do to the individual curl to change the look.

One method of maintaining perfect spirals is to hold the curl up as it cools. As soon as the curl is free from the iron, place it in your palm and cup your fingers around it. Push up with your hand, so that the curl folds in on itself vertically. Hold it in you hand until it cools. (It will probably be hot, so you can use a protective glove for this step.) This will help the curl maintain it’s shape.

Alternatively, you can take the end of the curl and pull downward. This will loosen it up for waves, or just a more casual look.

And if you’re still not getting a good hold, you can also spray hairspray on each section before curling it. Just make sure that the product specifies that it’s a flexible hairspray. (This can also be done beforehand, by spraying hairspray over all your hair at once. This is a better option for anyone who wants to use less product, but you won’t get as strong a hold as spraying the individual sections.)

After You Style

If you’re going for waves or a more messy, natural look, brush out your hair with a wide tooth comb or gently with your fingers, as soon as you’re done styling. When you’ve got the curls the way you want them, finish it with another shot of hairspray, if desired. You can also use other finishing products at this point, but keep in mind that you don’t want to weigh your hair down. Try to avoid oils or heavy creams.

Important Features

With all the styling know-how out of the way, it’s time to turn to the device itself. Curling irons all have the same basic shape, but there are a few features that will vary between devices. Here are the main ones to look out for.


The two main materials you’ll see with curling irons are titanium and ceramic.

Titanium irons are a better choice for coarser hair. They are more effective at transferring heat to hair, which means even thick, coarse hair is going to get styled. The only reason I wouldn’t recommend this material for fine or medium hair is because metal barrels are more likely to get hot spots, since they don’t heat evenly. This increases the potential for heat damage, which can be especially bad for fine hair users.

Unlike titanium, ceramic heats evenly. It’s not as effective at transferring the heat, but the added protection against hot spots is worth the trade-off for fine hair.

Another material to look out for is tourmaline. Tourmaline is typically added to whatever material is already coating the barrel. It’s a good material for curling irons for damaged hair especially, because it generates a high amount of negative ions. These can help hair lock in it’s natural oils, which makes the hair healthier and shinier.

Barrel Width

The barrel width corresponds directly with the the size of your curls, so it’s important to check the width before you buy. The typical sizes are .75″, 1″, 1.25″, 1.5″, 2″, and 2.5″.

Thinner barrels, like the 1″ and 1.25″ options are good for short to medium length hair. (For very short hair, you may need .75″ or smaller.) 1.5″ and upwards are perfect for longer hair.

Of course, the curl size is also important. For tight spirals, go with the .75″. For regular curls or beach waves, go with a 1″ or 1.25″ iron. And for loose waves or large curls, 1.5-2.5″ is good.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What’s the best curling iron for thick hair?

For thick hair, the best curling iron will probably be one with a wider barrel, like a 1.25″ or a 1.5″ device. Even with shorter hair, having more surface area on your device will make it more efficient. To that end, you can also look at purchasing a extra long barrel in a smaller width.

As far as materials, that really depends more on your hair texture. For coarse thick hair, titanium is better. For fine hair, ceramic tourmaline is best. Although, titanium is usually more effective for thick hair, across the board.

What’s the best curling iron for waves?

This really depends on the type of wave you want. For small waves, any curling iron will work, just use the spiral wrap technique mentioned above. For average waves, use a 1″ or 1.25″ curling wand. For larger waves, anything 1.5″ and above will work. (Just make sure your hair is longer than shoulder length to make sure that it can actually wrap around the barrel effectively.)

Getting good waves is also about the technique that you use. Pull down on the curls after curling them, and hold them like that until they’re cooled. This will loosen up that perfect spiral shape, so that you can comb it out into gentle waves.

What’s the best curling iron for big curls?

In order to get big curls, you’re going to need a wider curling iron. How wide really depends on your hair length. With long hair, you can go with a barrel at 2″ or wider. For medium and short hair, I would stick with anything above 1″.

What’s the best curling iron?

Finding the best device is less about the device itself and more about your hair. What works best for your specific hair type won’t work well with another.

As such, it’s important to choose a device based on the strengths and limitations of your hair. The right materials are probably the most important factor in determining whether or not a device will work effectively with your hair. For coarser hair types, titanium is best. For fine, delicate hair types, ceramic and ceramic tourmaline are better. You can see more information about these materials and other features to look for above.

What’s the best curling iron for loose curls?

The process for getting loose curls is two fold. Firstly, you need to get an iron with a wide barrel. I would go with 1.5″ and above. From there, make sure your handling the curls correctly. you can stretch the curls into a looser shape by pulling down on the sections of hair immediately after you cool them. And after you’re done styling, you can brush them out.

For more detailed instructions, see the styling tips mentioned above.

What’s the best curling iron for short hair?

For short hair, you can still use the average 1″ device, however there’s a chance you won’t be able to get those perfect spirals, depending on your hair length. Often with shorter cuts, you end up more with a wave rather than a coil. In order to fix this, you can go with a travel iron, a thin barrel iron, or a curling wand, to help you maximize your styling.  For more information and product recommendations, check out our detailed guide here.

Using Your Curling Iron

The classic curling iron is a versatile device that’s easy to master with a little practice. When you’ve mastered the technique, the key to getting the most from your device is to have a good routine and a device that’s appropriate for your hair type.

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