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The Truth about Flat Irons

Need help sorting flat iron fact from fiction? We've got your back.

“Ionic” flat irons are better than ceramic flat irons.

The word “ionic” is commonly used in the styling industry to refer to negative ions only. Ceramic flat irons use ceramic heaters, which produce negative ions when heated - no matter what.

An ion is an atom that's gained a positive or negative electrical charge. Think about magnets – opposites attract, because neutrality is the natural state of stability, wholeness and health.

Damaged hair is positively charged – from static electricity, chemicals or metal heated appliances. The positive charge keeps hair follicles open, dried out & brittle.

Negative ions neutralize the charge, closing hair follicles and smoothing the hair shaft. All ceramic flat irons produce them, while materials like tourmaline & titanium boost their output.

Aside from the cheapest ceramic irons, professional ceramic flat iron plates are made of pure ceramic.

Most ceramic flat irons on the market use plates that are made of aluminum or titanium, then coated with several baked on layers of ceramic. Even high end, professional ceramic flat irons use this technique (they may have more ceramic layers). That's because pure ceramic is much softer than metal-reinforced ceramic - easier to crack during manufacturing (or with rough use). However, with prolonged use, ceramic coating can peel or chip, exposing the metal below and causing the plates to heat unevenly or damage hair.

There are flat irons with pure ceramic plates, like the high priced FHI Runway flat iron used by celebrity stylists, and the lower profile but highly comparable Hana Elite flat iron. The benefits of pure ceramic are real: expect far more even & diffuse heating, smooth handling, and no fear of ceramic peeling or chipping away over a lifetime of use. But be warned - never clap the plates together and handle the iron gently. If you can afford it, pure ceramic irons are of exceptional quality and receive excellent ratings from stylists and consumers.

Look for “far infrared heating” technology when shopping for a ceramic flat iron.

Like the “ionic” label, “far infrared” heat is a general description of the properties of heated ceramic. All ceramic flat irons use far infrared heating. (You'll sometimes see it spelled "far inferred" - it's the same thing).

The far end of the infrared spectrum of light is invisible to the eye, but penetrates further than visible wavelengths because it “radiates” – directly heating objects in an area without heating the entire space - through a process of direct light conversion into heat. This is the same way the sun heats (consider how cool it is in the shade), but far infrared heat lacks the dangerous UV rays and other wavelengths that are bad for us.

Far infrared heat is also unique because it can penetrate human skin and hair cells, bringing heat within. This style of heat has been explored in the East for its curative properties and ability to restore good circulation - often seen in saunas and other spa treatments. And it's the most efficient, gentlest way to heat hair - but any flat iron with a ceramic heating element will deliver.

"Nano technology" – always a good thing.

Well, it depends. Nano means “small”, but it’s used to describe the very small - tiny particles imbedded in your flat iron’s plates. When you see “nano” as a description for a flat iron, pay attention to what word it’s attached to. For instance, nano-ceramic means it’s the ceramic itself that’s only present in tiny particles – not what you want if you’re looking for a salon quality ceramic flat iron. But other elements you’ll only see in nano form – nano silver, nano titanium, nano titanium oxide.

Nano silver inhibits bacterial growth – great if you like to share, if you’re a stylist or if you’re really scared of germs. Nano titanium causes heat to spread more evenly and adds shine by boosting the negative ion output of the plates. Nano titanium oxide inhibits chemical build-up that cause funky odors – again, most useful if your flat iron gets around. Tourmaline is one thing that’s always “nano” though it’s not always described as such – similar to titanium, it adds negative ions to produce smoother, sleeker results.

The best flat iron for black hair is different from the best flat irons on the market.

Choosing a flat iron for African-American or other ethnic hair types is not much different from choosing a flat iron that will work well on thick or curly hair – the difference is in the preparation and treatment needed before and after straightening. Ethnic hair tends to be coarse, but African-American hair is the most porous – meaning it is easier to lose moisture & sustain heat damage. Using moisturizing conditioners regularly is more important when heat styling black hair, before and after styling. Additionally, black hair may require the use of a high end iron that are more protective and less likely to dry the hair and we would strongly recommend one of the products in the best flat iron section.

Shine-enhancing products commonly used on black hair are not the best choice when using a flat iron – spray laminators or oil based products can literally fry on hot surfaces, so use sparingly or not at all (tourmaline or titanium will add natural shine by smoothing hair). Other than that, much like coarse hair of any ethnic type, the trick is in straightening small sections at a time, looking for wider plate sizes (1 1/2" & up), and practicing to find the right heat and technique.

For more on using a flat iron to straighten African-American hair, check out our article, "How to Flat Iron Black Hair"!

When looking for a flat iron, choose the one that gets the hottest.

Never begin with the highest heat setting on your flat iron. It may be true that curly, thick or ethnic hair requires high heat to retain a style, but work up from a lower setting and stop when results are good. Most people will never need a temperature above 400°F to see professional results. If your hair is fine, damaged or chemically treated, work up from as low as possible and resist exceeding 300°F.

Flat irons with fixed heat settings tend to be fixed in a heat range appropriate for normal-to-thick hair. If you have problem hair (damaged, fine or very thick), you need the fine control offered by variable heat.

Ceramic flat irons/ionic heat/far infrared heat cause no heat damage to hair.

Ceramic flat irons cause considerably less damage to hair than less expensive flat irons that use metal or plastic heating elements (or have less ceramic on their plates). But the hard truth is this: regular, prolonged exposure to heat – especially if your hair is already damaged, chemically treated or thin – will cause some stress to your hair structure.

Titanium vs Ceramic Flat Iron - there's a clear winner

The debate beween the titanium vs ceramic flat iron is one that has many proponents and opponents on both sides. Many stylists typically like titanium because it is faster and the heat transfer is more immediate. However, many stylists that even use titanium in their salons may recommend their customers use a ceramic iron at home because it is generally less damaging and is more suited for daily use.

Update: Some of the newest high-end Titanium irons are now designed with Pure Ceramic Heating elements with tourmaline to greatly reduce the damage that concerned most users. At the top of this list of titanium irons is the HANA Titanium Ionic Flat Iron which manages to protect the hair while providing the same remarkable performance of titanium. But the final takeaway point is that as technology improves the rules of which is better: titanium vs ceramic flat irons is an argument that will continue to swing back and forth.

The impact of heat styling can be lessened by using conditioners daily – and if you notice tress stress, try deep conditioning once a week (even with home remedies like egg, avocado or olive oil hair treatments). Before heat styling, use heat treatments to prepare your hair for the process (let dry completely before styling). Make sure your hair is as clean and dry as can be - damp hair in a flat iron will sustain more damage than dry hair and could instantly frizz up.

Unless, of course, you use a wet-to-dry flat iron - safe for use on damp hair, with the added benefit of eliminating the need for blow drying (you’ll still need to towel dry thoroughly and comb your hair out before ironing). And if you’re still using a traditional metal heated hair dryer, upgrade to one that uses ceramic elements as well – any professional hair dryer uses negative ionic heating to help protect hair, and dries much quicker so heat exposure is lessened.

One final tip: give your hair a break from heat styling on days when you don’t really need it! It’ll look that much better when it’s time to shine.

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