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Flat Iron User’s Guide

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It’s hard to beat a flat iron in terms of functionality and capability. Even a standard device can straighten, curl, do waves, and create volume. And that’s just a standard device. There are wet to dry irons, curved irons, and more.

If you’re interested in learning more about flat irons, here is our comprehensive guide about how to use one and how to choose one.

Basic Technique

When it comes to getting good styling out of any hair tool, the technique you use is equally as important as the device you’re using, if not more so. Here are some basics guides to help you understand how to style your hair the right way.

Method:

Regardless of what style you’re going for, the method for using a flat iron is the same. You start by sectioning out a small bit of hair. With your free hand (or whatever hand isn’t operating the flat iron), pull the section of hair taught, away from your head. Clamp the flat iron with the section of hair between the plates, right up near the scalp. You want to get as close as you can, but you also don’t want to burn your scalp. Use caution, and always start lower if you’re uncertain.

From there, you can use your free hand hold the hair taught until you have to straighten the ends, or you can release the hair and use your free hand to help guide the flat iron. (Just keep in mind that the exterior of the flat iron does get hot, so you may want to use a protective heat glove.)

Once you’ve got that sorted out, gently glide the flat iron down the section of hair at a steady pace, applying light pressure. You shouldn’t pause at any point, until you reach the ends of your hair. When you do reach the ends, you can pause for an extra second to straighten them. If you’re curling or flipping your hair, you don’t have to pause.

And that’s it! It’s one, smooth motion down each section of hair, and you’re done!

Speed

When it comes to getting perfectly styled hair,  speed makes a huge difference. If you move too quickly with a flat iron, the heat will only reach a few strands of hair. Since you’ll have to go over the hair again to straighten the rest, you’ll likely wind up burning parts of you hair as you make pass after pass. Moving too quickly also puts you at greater risk of having hair catch on the plates and breaking. If you move too slow, you’ll just be frying you hair. It will definitely get straight, but it will also be burnt and crispy.

The key is to find that nice middle ground. Unfortunately, what that looks like really depends on your hair type. If you have coarse or very thick hair, you will need to move at a more sedate pace in order to limit the amount of passes you have to make. For thin or fine hair, you want to move a little faster to avoid damaging you hair.

Obviously it’s difficult to give an exact speed, but here are my general recommendations, just to give you an idea of where to start.

For medium length hair, ending at the shoulder or just above it:

  • 5-6 seconds a pass for fine, thin hair.
  • 7-10 seconds a pass for coarse or thick hair, depending on the size of the section you’re using.

(Use less time for shorter cuts, and more time for longer cuts. Both of these times include pausing to straighten the ends, so if you are curling your hair, subtract one second from the time.)

Again, these are just general numbers to get you started. When you go to style your hair, make a few experimental passes, adjusting the amount of time you take as you go. With any heated styling, you always want to expose your hair less, not more, so your goal should be to take as little time as possible, while still only having to make one or two passes over a section of hair. After styling your hair a few times, you should be able to determine the perfect speed that’s not too fast, but also not too slow.

Amount of Hair

Like the speed, the amount of hair you use really depends on your hair type. With thin, fine hair, you can use a larger section. With thick, coarse hair, the smaller the better.

In order to get a good starting point, there is one easy trick you can do. Take a section of your hair between your index finger and thumb. Press down lightly, until the pads of both fingers are almost touching. Whatever you can hold there comfortably, without too much falling out, is about how much a 1″ flat iron plate can handle. Start with that amount and then adjust from there.

Prep

Before you go to style your hair, there are a few things you can do to make it easier. The first thing you should do is detangle your hair. It’s not easy to work out and straighten knots by the time the flat iron reaches them, so take care of that before hand. You can also detangle each section before you run the flat iron over it.

From there, apply any products that you want to use, such as heat protectants or moisturizers.

Afterwards, part your hair into around four sections, working to separate the left and right side, and also the top from the bottom. As you work, release one section at a time. Divide the larger sections into smaller sections, style the hair, and then move on to the next large section.

Style Guide

There are a few different looks that you can achieve, depending on your flat iron. Here are some quick guides for how to do each of the four major ones.

Straight

Here is the basic technique for straightening:

  1. Prep your hair by using the appropriate products, detangling, and sectioning.
  2. Grab the bottom of a small section of hair, and hold it out, away from your head, at approximately a 45 degree angle.
  3. Put the section of hair between the plates of the flat iron, and clamp down. Slide the iron down that portion at a steady pace.
  4. As the ends of the section pass through the plates, pause and hold them there for no more than one full second.
  5. Continue to slide the flat iron down until all the hair is free. Take another portion of hair, and repeat.
  6. When you are finished with a larger section, put it to the side and release another section, until all your hair is straight.

Curly

Curling with a flat iron can be a little tricky. I’ve had many an instance where I used the proper technique to get a gorgeous spiral, but wound up with a straight, limp section instead.

If you’ve ever used scissors to curl ribbon for gifts or packages, you can think of the technique as being similar to that. You’re essentially curling your hair by pulling it taught against a flat edge.

Here is the basic technique:

  1. Prep your hair.
  2. Using a small section of hair, clamp the flat iron near the scalp, the same way you would if you were straightening your hair. Slide it down about 1/3 of the way down the section of hair, just until you have enough leverage to comfortably wrap or rotate the flat iron.
  3. At that point, you have several options. The method that works best for me, is the following: Holding the flat iron horizontally, use your free hand to wrap the end of the section tightly around the top of flat iron ONCE. It should only cover the exterior of the top arm of the flat iron. Afterwards, rotate the curling iron 180 Degrees, so that the arm with the hair on it is now facing downwards.
  4. When you’ve wrapped and rotated the iron, glide the flat iron through the hair with the same basic method you would use to straighten it. The main difference is that you want to keep pressure on the edge that you are using to curl, so make sure to go at a steady pace, and pull slightly as you go. If you pull too hard you can damage your hair, so make sure you don’t wrap the hair too tightly. If you’re finding that you have to keep tugging in order to move the flat iron, slide it horizontally to remove it from your hair. Use a smaller section of hair, and adjust your technique so that it glides through with just a little extra pressure.
  5. When the curl is free from the flat iron, you can preserve the spiral buy placing the bottom of the curl in your palm and then clutching your hand upward, to gather the curl together. (Think of it as pressing a spring or a coil into a more compact shape.) You don’t want to slide the curl horizontally too much, as that would flatten it, so be gentle. Hold it in that position for a few seconds and then release. The hair will be hot, so be careful. You can also skip this step if it’s too much work, or if your hair is naturally good at holding a curl.
  6. Repeat with the next section of hair, wrapping and rotating in the opposite direction so that you can have alternating curls. You can also vary the amount of hair you curl in each section, to create a more natural look.

For more ideas on how to achieve a variety of different curls, check out our flat iron curl tutorial.

Wavy

There are a few ways to make waves with a flat irons, so I recommend looking up some video tutorials to see the variety of looks that are out there. The guide below is for what I consider to be the easiest way.

  1. Follow the same steps that you would to curl your hair with the flat iron.
  2. When you finish a section of hair, don’t try to persevere the curl. The goal is to have it loosen up, so you can just let it hang there. If you want really loose waves, you can go ahead and run your fingers through the newly formed curl once or twice. You can also pull downward on the bottom of the curl to lengthen it.
  3. When all of your hair is curled, take a wide tooth comb (preferably a wooden one) and gently comb out your curls. I would only make one or two passes per section, though if you want them to be really loose, you can certainly do more. The goal is to separate those perfect spirals so that they break up a bit more.

These steps will give you gentle waves, but keep in mind that it will be a polished style. If you want something more natural looking, try a different technique.

Flip

With some haircuts, it’s nice to add texture with a light flip at the ends, especially with cuts that are layered. The technique for this style is very similar to curling, but with less of a rotation.

  1. Place the flat iron about 3/4 of the way down the section of hair you’re working with.
  2. Slide the iron down until you reach the point where you want the flip to start.
  3. Curl the flat iron inwards. Since the goal is just to get a slight lift on ends, you want to focus on gently turning your wrist inward, towards the hair. Again, the turning motion should be subtle. If you go too far inward or use too much pressure, you’ll end up with a weird half curl on the ends instead of  a cute little upturn.
  4. Slide the flat iron down the length of the section, until all the hair passes through completely. Do not pause on the ends.

The above guide works if you want the hair to flip upwards. If you want the hair to turn inwards, with a very subtle curl just at the ends, you can use the same technique with some minor adjustments:

  1. Place the flat iron about half way down the length of the section. (You may need to go 3/4 of the way for shorter hair.) You need to have enough room to maneuver the device, so try not to get it too close to your scalp. If you need extra room, hold the section of hair further away from your head.
  2. Rather than gliding the flat iron horizontally down the hair, flip the flat iron vertically, so that the tips of the plates are pointed up. (They don’t have to be straight up, but they should be angled upwards.)
  3. Gently turn the flat iron inwards, as if you were going to curl the section, but do not complete a full rotation.
  4. As you turn the flat iron, slide it in a downward motion, down the length of hair. The hair still needs to be between the plates while your pulling it downward, so make sure you’re moving carefully. The goal is to complete one full rotation slowly, as you move the device downward, so make sure that you’re also turning as you glide the device downwards.
  5. Slide the flat iron (rotating as you do so) all the way down the length of the section. Do not pause on the ends.
  6. Repeat with the next section, alternating the direction of the curl for a more natural look.

Adding Volume

This isn’t a particular style, but it’s worth mentioning that you can also use flat irons to build volume near the roots. This is especially important for fine textured or thin hair, since it tends to stick to the scalp and look flat and limp. However, it also works with curly styles, which tend to weigh down hair at the scalp.

  1. Section off your hair so that you have easy access to the layers that are right near your part.
  2. Gather the hair that sits on top, directly near your part. Pull this hair up, and clip it away from the hair beneath it.
  3. Taking a smaller section of the bottom layer of hair that’s now exposed, place the flat iron as close to your scalp as you can get it without burning yourself. Use caution, as even the exterior plastic of the flat iron get hot.
  4. Use the same gentle turning motion that you would to flip your hair, but instead of curling outwards, curl it inwards, rotating it slightly towards your scalp. Again, use caution.
  5. As you turn, slide the device down the length of the section, moving no further than one inch down. The goal is to get a subtle upside down u-shape, so you don’t need to move down much further past the scalp. You also don’t want to turn too much, or apply too much pressure, or else you’ll end up with a weird bump shape on each side of your part.
  6. As soon as you get the right shape, open the plates just enough to slide the device off the section of hair and away from your scalp. You can also loosen the plates and simply guide them down the length of the section, for a subtler look.
  7. Repeat until the bottom layer of hair, at the top of your head near the part, as been processed.
  8. If the curve is too dramatic or noticeable, you can run a wide tooth comb or your fingers near the scalp to relax the look. You can also go back and straighten those sections to get rid of it entirely.
  9. Use hairspray to lock the style in place.
  10. Release the top layer that you clipped away, and use it to cover the bottom layer. You’re hair should look fuller and elevated away from your scalp.

If you do want to use a flat iron specifically for creating volume, I would check out a curved plate straightener, or a 1/2″ plate flat iron, as both of these can make it a little easier.

Temperature

There is no perfect temperature for using your flat iron, as much as we would all love that. The most effective temperature will change depending on your hair type, as well as the style you’re trying to achieve. Here is a general guide based on hair types.

  • 300-350 degree Fahrenheit for fine hair.
  • 350-375 degree Fahrenheit for medium hair
  • 375-425 degree Fahrenheit for coarse hair

The temperature ranges are based on hair texture, regardless of hair density. For fine hair, it’s important to remember that the each individual strand doesn’t have a lot of layers, and is therefore very delicate. It won’t require much heat at all in order for the hair to hold it’s style. For coarse hair, you have a lot more layers on each strand, and will require more heat to get any actual styling done.

When you’re trying to find the ideal temperature for your hair, always go with the lowest possible temperature that’s still effective.

I don’t like to recommend temperatures over 400 degrees, however, as a person with thick curly hair, I understand that sometimes you just need a little extra heat to get your style to hold. As much as possible though, stick to anything 400 degrees and under.

You may be asking why they would make flat irons that go to up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit if you’re not supposed to use that temperature, and that’s a good question! That high of a temperature is meant for salon use, to activate certain types of chemical styling such as keratin treatments.  It’s absolutely not meant for casual styling at home.

Materials

There are a surprising amount of materials for flat iron plates, anything from copper, to volcanic lava. There’s even devices using silver.

For most flat irons, there are three different materials you’ll find: titanium, ceramic, and tourmaline.

Titanium

This is the most common type of metal plate available. People like titanium because it generates negative ions, which can help eliminate frizz and add shine while styling. They can also help lock in hair’s natural moisture, which means better overall hair health. Titanium also has a high heat transfer rate, which means heat will reach each strand of hair more effectively. This makes it the ideal material for coarse hair.

One downside of using metal for flat iron plates, is that it can develop hot spots. This can be damaging if you’re not careful, since you’re hair will be exposed to more heat than you’re expecting.

One way to avoid this is to make sure that the heating elements in the device are good quality. Ceramic heaters are a good option, since they will distribute heat evenly, which can eliminate most of your issues. You can also make sure to use the lowest temperature possible for your hair type, so that any flare ups won’t be too serious.

Ceramic

Ceramic can be used in a variety of flat iron parts: plates, heaters, and plate coatings. It’s popularity comes from the fact that it heats evenly. This makes it better for hair health, since you won’t have any hot spots. As such, ceramic is a great material for fine hair.

One potential downside is that ceramic isn’t as durable as titanium. It can develop chips, which can snag hair and lead to breakage. If you purchase a ceramic device, make sure you’re careful with it to preserve the plate surface for as long as possible.

It’s also important to note the difference between ceramic plates, and ceramic coating. Ceramic coating over metal plates will still have some benefits, but they won’t be as effective as full ceramic plates. However, ceramic plates can be expensive, so ceramic coating is a budget friendly alternative.

Tourmaline

Tourmaline is actually a gemstone. It’s common in jewelry, and becoming just as common in the beauty industry because of it’s composition. It emits a ton of negative ions, which are great for hair health and appearance.

Because it’s a gemstone, this material is most often crushed and used as an additive to the plate coating. This is why you often see devices listed as “tourmaline ceramic”.

Important Features

Flat irons can come with a lot of different capabilities, but there are a few basics features that you will encounter no matter how fancy or specialized your device is. When shopping for a flat iron, here are the main features that you need to take into consideration.

Plate Width

Plate width can vary on a flat iron, but generally you’ll find options that are between .5, 1, and 1.75 inches.

  • .5 inches is ideal for short hair, or just for adding volume. You can also use this width to make tight curls, although it will take you a long time to do a full head of hair.
  • 1 inch is the most common plate width. This one is ideal for curling, and for straightening. It works well for just about every hair type and length, excepting very short hair.
  • 1.75 inches is the typical size for wide plate flat irons. These devices are great for people with very long or very thick hair, since the larger surface area of the plates can help you get through more hair faster. For medium length or shorter hair, a 1 inch iron may be preferable. The main downside with this size is that it makes curling difficult, so don’t purchase a wide plate iron if you plan on trying out multiple styles.

Temperature Range

Most flat irons have multiple temperatures, but the amount can vary. Some may have as little as 3-5, while others can have as many as 30. Devices that have a lot selection options are usually better since they give you more control. Although, if the device has five or less temperature selections, just make sure that one of the options is suitable for your hair type.

The common max temperatures for devices are either 400 or 450 degrees Fahrenheit. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a device with a lower maximum temperature unless you have fine, delicate hair.

There are some devices such as travel or mini flat irons that do not have any temperature options. They only heat up to the max temperature. For these, just make sure that whatever that temperature is, it’s suitable for your hair type. They tend to range from around 350 degrees to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Safety Features

You need to use caution with any heated styling tool, but there are some additional features that some manufacturers put in place to help keep you safe.

One such feature is auto shut off. this feature will automatically turn off your device after a certain amount of time, usually between 30 minutes to 1 hour. This means that you don’t have to worry about forgetting to turn the device off after styling.

Ease of Use

If you want a straightener that’s easy to use, check for these key features:

  • A 360 degree swivel cord can help make it easier to reach every part of your head without having to contort your arms and wrist.
  • Speaking of the cord, you want to get one that’s long enough to allow you to use it wherever you’re most comfortable. Many of the longest cords are 9 feet, so anything around that is a good length. (There are also such things as cordless flat irons, although they tend to be travel sized.)
  • Floating plates are another feature that help maneuverability. This type of plate moves with you as you put pressure on whatever section you’re styling. It makes it easier to move the iron down a section of hair without pulling and tugging. This also makes it better for hair health, since less pressure means less accidental hair loss or breakage.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is the best flat iron?

Unfortunately, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. What will work best for you depends on your budget, hair type, and purpose for purchasing one.

As such, don’t think of it as purchasing the best general flat iron. Think about purchasing the best one for your specific needs. You may want one that’s super efficient at straightening, or one that’s good for fine hair, or one that’s good for curly hair. Each of those will have different features and materials in order to best suit their purpose. Because of that, the best iron will be whichever one works best for your needs.

And keep in mind that more expensive is not always better in this case. You will pay more for higher grade plate materials and heating technology, but many of the cheaper devices are also effective.

With all of that in mind, review the temperature, Materials, and Important features sections mentioned above, to help you narrow down your search.

Any recommendations for what to put on hair before flat ironing? 

If you want to know what to use before straightening hair, there are a few products to consider.

The most important product is a good heat protectant. These are specialized sprays that they make specifically to protect hair from exposure to high heat. Flat irons have some of the hottest temperatures you can find in a styling tool, so you definitely want to use one. There are so many options out there, including cruelty free ones, so you’re sure to find one that you like.

When thinking about what to use on hair before flat ironing, you also have to keep in mind the importance of a good hair routine. Keeping your scalp healthy and your hair properly moisturized and conditioned will help it look better, and put you at less risk of severely damaging it while styling.

What is the best way to straighten hair with flat iron or straighteners? 

There’s one basic method that works for flat irons. Check the beginning of this guide to read more. You can also check the styling section for a step by step guide.

For more information and tutorials check out our flat ironing for beginners article. 

What is the best flat iron to curl your hair? 

There are two features that I find most important for curling with a flat iron: the plate width and the temperature range.

You want a flat iron with 1 inch plates, since this is closest in size to the average curling iron. You also want to make sure the max temperature is high, since curling typically requires a little more heat than straightening.

With these two features in mind, choose the one that has materials suitable for your hair type.

You can also check out flat irons that are designed to make curling easier. There are even 2 in 1 flat iron and curler options available. These devices blend a flat iron and curling iron to allow you to get the advantages of two devices in one.

What is the best flat iron for dry damaged hair:

If you’re worried about causing further damage to your hair, choose a device that has materials that prioritize hair health, like tourmaline and ceramic. With ceramic, if you have room in your budget, go for ceramic heaters and/ or 100% ceramic plates to ensure that the heating is as even as possible.

You can also try an infrared flat iron. (Some devices will have this feature in addition to tourmaline and ceramic plates.) Infrared heats hair from the inside out, so it’s more efficient and less damaging.

Another option would be a steam flat iron. Just like the name implies, these flat irons have the capability to emit steam while they straighten. Steaming the hair can help add moisture and prevent further dryness.

What do I need in order to straighten my hair?

If you want to know what to use when flat ironing hair, there are a few items that can make it easier for you:

  • Comb: A good styling comb can help you part your hair into sections before you style.
  • Clips or elastics: these will make it easier to keep all your sections separate. I recommend using elastics or scrunchies when first separating your hair. As you let down the different sections, you can separate them with clips. I like alligator clips since they work for multiple hair types, and you can still use them to keep the sections you already straightened separate.
  • Detangling brush: before you go to section and style your hair, use a good detangling brush to sort out all the knots. This will make styling easier and more effective.

What is the best product for straightening hair with flat iron or straighteners? 

What products you need to use while straightening depends on your hair type, but there are a few that apply to everyone.

Besides starting with a proper heat protectant, you can also use an additional moisturizer before straightening. It’s important to consider adding moisture back into your hair, especially if you’re blow drying before straightening. Just be sure to get a light moisturizer that won’t weigh your hair down.

Before, during, or after styling, you can consider other products like a volumizer or texturizing spray. These can help your finished style look more natural by adding some lift back into your hair. (Although there’s nothing wrong with a perfectly styled, pin straight look either.) This is particularly useful for thin or fine hair types, since they can get flattened out by straightening.

If you do choose to use these products, just make sure that you check the directions. Some brands are best used before styling, and some are best used afterwards.

And when you finish your style, hair spray is always a good option to help lock it in place.

What to look for in a flat iron. 

The two most important things to consider when purchasing a flat iron are your hair type, as well as your styling needs. To see what features work best with both of these factors, see our guide above.

What is the best flat iron for thick hair? 

In this case, the best option depends on whether or not your hair is fine or coarse.

But generally speaking, titanium is a good choice, since it has a higher heat transfer rate. (You can see our guide about plate materials above for more information on titanium and other options.)

If you’re not concerned about other styles besides straight hair, you can also get a wide plate flat iron. This will allow you to do larger sections at a time, making it easier to get through all that hair.

What to put on hair after flat ironing

After your hair is straightened, the goal is to keep it that way, so you want to avoid any products that are too wet or too creamy, as these can encourage your hair to revert to it’s natural state.

Hair spray can help you preserve your style. Just spray a little bit according to the directions.

If you want your hair to be moisturized, a light oil or spray that you can distribute easily is a good option. Just make sure that you’re not putting too much in any one spot.

Final Thoughts

In truth, most straighteners work for casual styling; it’s rare to find one that is defective, or that doesn’t work at all. In that sense, you can go with whatever you like, or whatever fits your budget.

But if you want to get the most out of your device and your style, choose one that fits your hair type and styling needs. You also need to pay careful attention to how you style your hair, since the right method can make a huge difference, especially in your overall hair health. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to use heated styling tools, but you have to remember that they can be damaging to your hair. By using the right device with the proper methods, you can eliminate a lot of that risk, and keep you and your hair happy.

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