Hair straighteners, also known as flat irons, are a pretty standard piece of kit for many women and men these days, but perhaps surprisingly, up until the 1990s when sleek, straight hair became fashionable, they were rarely seen outside of professional hair salons.
Modern hi-tech hair straighteners are very different to the original devices invented in the late 19th century. There are tales of improvised versions fashioned from heated iron rods, or even the actual clothes irons, flattened and then pressed onto either side of the hair! In 1912 Lady Jennifer Bell Schofield, a Scottish heiress in her ‘30s rebelled against the trend for 1980s-like big curly hair styles and invented what was to become the forerunner to modern flat irons – metal plates with a hinge which allowed the user to catch and release sections of hair. Read more about the history here. None of these methods were without risk as they used fire rather than electricity as a heat source, but it didn’t deter women from pursuing their goal.
Modern hair straighteners
Thankfully things have changed quite dramatically over time, in fact, these days there are so many different hair straighteners on the market that choosing the best one can easily become a time-consuming puzzle. Being an electrical item it’s always best to go for a reputable brand, avoiding cheap imports which may not meet ideal safety standards, but even then there are still dozens to choose between.
This handy guide to hair straighteners should help you wade through the options and make a confident purchase, because ultimately alongside quality it’s important to buy the type that will best suit your hair.
How to identify the best quality hair straighteners
- Look for temperature control options
Straighteners work by flattening the hair follicle, so choosing the wrong type could easily damage your tresses. Thick, curly, or coarse hair needs a high temperature to work well, while fine or thin hair does better with a cooler setting. If the hair straighteners are to be used by several people a pair with digital and adjustable temperature control is essential.
- Consider the material they are made from
A hair straightener’s plates are typically either ceramic, Teflon, or titanium, though some are simply coated with these substances, sometimes with added tourmaline. Each of these reacts differently to particular hair types. Created from a gemstone, tourmaline plates have the advantage of creating negative ions and FAR infrared rays which make the heating system more effective, reduce frizz and trap natural moisture in hair. They also work very well at low temperatures, making them the best choice for hair which is thin, fine or damaged. Ceramic plates are great at reducing frizz and creating a very smooth look too.
Titanium plates are very durable, heat up quickly, and can take high temperatures which are evenly distributed through the plates – reducing the risk of hair burning, making them both efficient – most hair only needs one pass through, and they are great on coarse and curly hair. They are, however, the most expensive type of hair straightener.
The material on the plates is important because it directly impacts on the speed they heat up, and how heat is distributed to the hair. Ceramic straighteners hold the heat well and deliver it evenly across the plates, so are suitable for most types of hair. Be aware though that straighteners with only ceramic coated plates may become much less effective over time as the ceramic wears off.
In general ceramic or titanium plates are considered to be off better quality than those with Teflon plates.
- Plate size
Always check this carefully as different sized plates are designed to best suit different types and lengths of hair. They range from the smallest at around half an inch – good for styling short or spiky hair and bangs, to the largest models at 2 and a quarter inches, which are the easiest to us on longer or thicker hair. Anyone with coarse or thick hair needs a straightener with plates measuring at least 1.5 inches in width, while fine hair does better with narrower plates as the wide ones tend to apply too much heat.
- Plate shape
Hair straighteners with curved plates are said to be more efficient than those with square or angled shaped plates, which can cause kinks which then need to be straightened. Curved edge plates are more versatile too, as with practice they can be used to create waves, flicks, and curls as well as straightening hair. In general any non straight styling works best with a smaller size plate.
- The length of the warranty
Although this doesn’t directly impact the actual quality of a product a decent manufacturer will have confidence in their product, and therefore are more likely to offer a decent length warranty to go with it. This should be valid for at least a year.
- Heat distribution
Look for hair straighteners which boast even and consistent heat distribution to avoid being forced to work with smaller sections of hair and use only part of the plates. Ceramic and titanium hair straighteners are the most reliable for this. For this style you are going to need a flat iron, to avoid damage to your hair we recommend buying a decent pair and not heating your hair for too long or to often. We also recommend you look at this hair straightener guide to help choose which flat iron is right for your type of hair.
- Where the controls are positioned
This is something that can make or break the usefulness of any hair straightener. In some cases they re awkward to reach, making adjustments more tricky, but in others they are placed right where the average person would hold them to use, making it easy for setting to be accidentally changed. This could cause heat damage to hair before the change is even noticed.
- The heating system
Where possible choose a hair straightener with adjustable heat settings, which allows for some experimentation until you find the level of heat that best suits your hair. Some higher-end models have special sensors in the plates which detect and maintain the temperature you desire. On average the ideal temperature ranges are as follows:
- 100°C – 140°C for hair which is very thin, brittle, weak or damaged.
- 140°C – 160°C for fine hair in decent condition
- 160°C – 180°C for normal hair.
- 180°C – 240°C for thick, coarse or curly hair.
- 9. The grip
The ideal hair straightener is one which is the right size to fit comfortably in your grip during use, so to be safe and get the most from it look for a model with a smaller grip if you have petite hands. This may limit the choices to either those with small plates or with a specially short handle. Models advertised as ‘compact’ are worth checking out s these tend to take the length from the handle rather than the heat plates. For the same reason someone with bigger hands should look for a model with a longer handle, to avoid accidentally coming into contact with the hot irons.
- The price tag
Most stores stock hair straighteners that range from really cheap to very expensive, but although it can be tempting to go for those with the lowest price sticker this is false economy if they need replacing fairly soon, or damage your hair, both of which are likely. Unless you only plan to straighten your hair very rarely it’s wise to look at those in the $40+range. [Skip straight to the top end if you plan to use the straighteners in a hairdressing business.]
- Dual duty models
There are several models on the market that claim they can both dry and straighten your hair, but are they really capable of doing either thing properly, never mind well? They tend to do a better job on hair which is just damp rather than very wet as there is no obvious blow dry function. Overall the end result is more likely to be slightly less damp straight hair, so anyone with hair that is even slightly prone to frizz may find these a poor buy.
- Evaluate any extra features
In most cases hair straighteners with extra features will cost more than their regular counterparts, but this can be money well spent if you will benefit from them. Typically on offer are extras such as:
- A steam function – great if your hair is very unruly and difficult to tame. This works along the lines of a steam iron, infusing the hair strands with moisture to reduce damage from the heated plates. A flat iron with steamer will wet your hair as you run the iron through your hair. Moistening the hair this way tends to reduce damage that is normally caused by heat from the plates.
- Swivel cord option – these are generally easier to use than fixed cord styles. You can turn the straighteners up to 360 degrees without getting the cord all tangled and twisted. This is a real advantage to those with limited neck movement, or to reach those difficult spots that tend to get missed.
- Speed – some newer models boast a ‘one time straighten’ promise, which can be especially useful for those with a lot of hair to work on. Another plus point is the reduced contact time your hair has with heat.
- Guide teeth – particularly useful for curly hair, straighteners with guide teeth in the plates help hold the strands in place, making the process smoother, easier and faster.
- Cord length – is it realistically long enough for you to use comfortably?
- Cordless types – great for travelling, or for their flexibility, particularly useful if electrical outlets and mirrors are not conveniently close. On the downside they don’t usually have the same temperature range as regular straighteners do.
- Retractable cords – another time and space saver, but as this is not a common extra feature be prepared to pay a higher price for this convenience.
- Heating speed – some straighteners are deigned to heat up very quickly, appealing for those always running late.
- Auto shut-off – a very attractive safety feature that is worth paying extra for, but check how soon this kicks in after the appliance was last moved.
- Indicator light – some light up when the straighteners are turned on, others when the desired temperature is reached. Ideally the light will stay on until the straighteners are cool to the touch, to avoid potential accidents.
- Multi voltage – useful when travelling.
- Additional attachments – these generally cost more but can be used to straighten, curl and smooth so save having to store and use several appliances.
- Memory function – some models of hair straightener can be programmed to remember the heat setting usually used. This is a bonus if you rarely change the settings, and it saves a little time, but is not really useful if shared with people sporting different hair types.
- Non-slip handles – helpful to guarantee a safe grip on a very hot item.
- Lightweight design – especially useful for those with long hair who may find heavy straighteners are tiring to use. In general those made from titanium are lighter.
- A heat protective case – either as a part of the package or as an extra available to buy can be useful, especially if using the straighteners on the move.
- Plates with silver added to the coating – a fancy extra that is used to keep the plates free of bacteria.
By now you will know that there’s an awful lot more to assessing the characteristics of hair straighteners than you may have first imagined. Ultimately however, which of these make a product the ‘best’ quality is largely down to what an individual is looking for. Hair straighteners that are reasonably priced, reliable, made from materials and with plates which best suit your hair type, are easy to use, to grip and to adjust, and perhaps offer a couple of must-have extras that matter to the buyer are always going to prove to be the best. So long as you do enough research to know what the best straightener for you looks like the end result should be a worthwhile purchase that will do what you need it to in the best way possible.
Thomas Matthys a former world-class track & field athlete and the founder of Swol Headquarters. He graduated from the University of Fordham with a Master’s degree in Science. Matthys is a certified sports nutritionist and personal coach of several professional athletes. Matthys has been involved in various clinical studies within Track & Field including one on the factors associated with muscle recovery and HIIT.