A flat iron is a flexible styling tool that has come a long way from the scary torture devices of ages past. Flat irons today are safe, gentle on your hair and can be used not only to straighten, but also to make quick curls and flips. Like any tool, the key is knowing how to use it.
Styling products, grease and dirt that build up in your hair every day must be thoroughly cleaned away before you use a flat iron or your hair will stick, clump and easily damage.
For manageable hair that responds well to styling and remains healthy afterwards, you'll need to shampoo and condition first.
Use quality hydrating shampoos and conditioners that will prime your hair for the rigors of styling. This can be right before using a flat iron or the previous night.
While hair is wet, use a thermal spray or heat treatment. Using it on wet hair is allows it to distribute
evenly and soften hair as it dries. This treatment will protect your hair, and increase the life of the style you're after
Then blow your hair dry - even flat irons that are "safe" for damp hair will not produce the best results without completely dry hair. (Don't be concerned at this point with straightening your hair; just dry it.)
A professional ceramic flat iron, unlike cheaper consumer flat irons, will have a ceramic heater and thick ceramic layers baked onto the plates. ("Nano-ceramic" means there are only small particles of ceramic; many lower grade irons use this technique or apply a light ceramic coating that easily scrapes off.)
Any ceramic flat iron produces negative ions and far infrared heat which is much more gentle to your hair, seals hair follicles to preserve moisture and ultimately conditions hair for added shine and health. A tourmaline flat iron or a titanium flat iron combines these elements with ceramic to increase the ionic output & shine.
As long as you go with a professional quality ceramic flat iron, you're making the healthiest choice for your hair - but you still need to pick the right size.
Flat irons with plates 1" - 1.5" wide are fine for most hair types, as long as your hair is short-medium length. For finer hair, a narrower plate is sufficient. In general these smaller irons are lighter and easier to control.
Flat irons with 2" plates or larger are great if you have long hair and a smaller iron would just make your styling more tedious.
You can also use larger plates for thicker, curlier hair and they might save some time, but you'll sacrifice easy maneuverability - which might not be worth it if you use your iron frequently.
Plates with rounded edges are superior for curls and flips - and won't leave any "dents" in your hair.
You don't want to use more heat than necessary when styling your hair. If your iron has variable temperature settings, you have more styling flexibility and control.
For thick, coarse, or extra curly hair that is hard to style, a higher heat setting between 350-400 degrees F will be more effective.
For fine, damaged or chemically treated hair, use lower heat settings, below 300 degrees F (but start with the lowest heat setting and work up if necessary).
Normal hair can be heated at around 300-380 degrees F.
Choosing a Flat Iron
Now that you know what you're looking for, you have a lot of choices in front of you. These days you can choose by colors (basic black, blue, green, purple, silver and yes - the famous pink flat iron - no longer limited to the pink CHI flat iron!
Well established name-brand tools like the CHI flat iron, FHI flat iron or Corioliss flat iron might cost more, but many people find it worthwhile to know what they're getting into from the numerous reviews and magazine endorsements that can be found.
Of course, price & features matter to most of us and will probably be the most important factors in your choice. See our flat iron comparison chart to easily compare features & prices and choose the best flat iron for you!
Using A Flat Iron
Check out our Salon Secrets video series (also featured on this page) to see expert tips from a licensed hairdresser on professional straightening and styling at home!
Unless using a wet-to-dry flat iron, make sure your hair is clean and completely dry before styling. Any moisture could cause it to frizz right up. If it feels cool to the touch, it's probably still damp.
Use a comb and get all the tangles out of your hair - then make sections no wider than the plate size of your iron. Use clips to keep your hair separated while you style. (See our combs and clips.)
Keep sections small! The most common mistake women make with flat irons is to try to iron too much of their hair at once. This leads to uneven heating and therefore uneven styling. Small sections mean less passes with the iron and straighter hair!
Too much hair in the iron also leads to another mistake - heating your hair longer to get it to straighten. Not only will it not have the desired effect when the section is too big, this prolonged heating leads to damage.
Once you have a manageable section, press it between the plates close to your scalp and, maintaining gentle pressure, draw the iron down to the tips of your hair. Your movement should be even and moderately fast - don't allow the iron to linger on any spot for long. With some practice you'll see how much attention your hair needs to get it just right.
Flipping with a Flat Iron
This technique is the same as straightening with a flat iron; except when you near the tip of your hair, turn the iron in the direction you want the flip and glide it the rest of the way through. Experiment with starting at different points along your hair for different volumes of flip!
Check out the video to the left for tips on perfect flips - and some helpful do's and don'ts that'll get you a style that looks like you paid big bucks for it!
Curling with A Flat Iron
If your flat iron has rounded or curved plates, it's easier to create curls. Check out the third video in our flat iron styling series for a step by step professional demonstration!
Unlike a curling iron, you aren't wrapping your hair around the iron and curling up to your head. Instead, clamp a 1" section of your hair close to your scalp with the iron and turn the flat iron about 1 and a half turns in the direction you want to curl.
Firmly hold the flat iron at this angle, and pull it through the length of the strand of hair while maintaining the flat iron's position.
Repeat for the rest of your curls - if you have long hair, you can pin them up as you go to make sure they stay until the finishing process.
It may be tedious the first few times you curl with a flat iron, but once you get the hang of it, you'll be curling quickly and easily.
Protect Your Style
To keep your hair styled perfectly for the whole day or night, use a lightweight finishing spray to keep your hair in place.
Take good care of your flat iron! It's a great piece of equipment and not exactly cheap to replace, so simply storing it in a heat proof pouch - or using one for safe travel - will help you protect your iron and keep using it for a long, long time. You can also set your iron down on this heat proof surface during styling to protect counters from possible heat damage.
Clean your flat iron from time to time - frequently if you use leave in conditioners or heat serums, every week or so if not. Build-up on the plates can cause your hair to snag and shorten the life of the plates themselves. Heat your iron and then wipe it down with a non-abrasive cloth - use a flat iron cleaner if you use leave-in treatments frequently, but avoid chemical solvents not meant for cleaning your iron.