Curling Irons: What to Look for When Shopping for One

What to look for, how much to pay & styling tips

girl using curling iron
mammuth / Getty Images

Every woman who wants to change up her hair on occasion should own a curling iron. Here, I show you how to shop for the perfect curling iron. Find out what you should look for in a good iron, the right-sized barrel for your hair length and the best brands. 

What To Look for In a Curling Iron

Make sure your curling iron is a ceramic iron, which conducts heat more evenly than metal. Ceramic irons (this goes for flat irons, too) also cause less frizzing and damage because they emit negative ions which keep your hair from going all static-y and frizzy.

Because curling irons can reach to temperatures up to 250 degrees, they can be very damaging to hair. Buy a curling iron with an adjustable heat dial and try to avoid the highest heating setting. Medium will usually do the trick.

The good news is you can find good ceramic irons with heat dials in all price points. A basic curling iron that won't break on you costs around $40. 

See my list of The Best Curling Irons on the Market.

What Size Barrel Works Best for You?

Curling irons also come in a variety of barrel sizes and you'll want to pick the one that best fits the curl you're going after. Smaller barrels create tighter curls and are great for giving already curly hair definition. Medium barrels create medium curls and work on all hair textures. The largest barrels are used for a variety of looks including loose waves, large, voluminous hair with a little curl and beachy waves.

If you have curly hair, you can use a curling iron to add definition to your already curly hair.

Use a curling iron with a 3/8 inch barrel to create tight curls on the top of your head that match the tighter curls under your top layer.

Focus on curling the strands around your face and don't miss a few sections in the back. You can  alternate between this small barrel curling iron and a larger one (say, about 1/2 - 1 inch) for more natural looking curls.

Use a higher heat setting to create tighter curls.

How to Create Tight Ringlets

For tight ringlets, you can use either a 1/2-inch or a 3/4-inch barrel. You'll need a higher heat setting for tighter curls.

To get this look, curl in sections that are about 1/2 inch wide. Place the end of each section in the iron and wind the hair up along the barrel of the curling iron. Hold for 3-4 seconds, then gently unwind. Don't touch the ringlets or you'll lose that ringlet definition.

The Secret to Beachy Waves

One of the most popular hairstyles for the past few years running is beachy waves. These loose, just-from-the-beach waves work best on straight to wavy hair. You can get beachy waves from simply spritzing towel dried hair with a salt spray (see this salt spray recipe) and then scrunching hair as it air dries, or, if you don't have time for that, you can use a 1-inch to 1-1/4 inch barreled curling iron.

See The Secret to Beachy, Wavy Hair for directions on how to use a curling iron to get gorgeous, sexy waves.

For the Most Natural-Looking Curls

If you want curls that look effortless, you need a curling iron that's at least 1 1/2 inches in diameter. If you have super fine hair that won't hold a curl for long, you can get away with using a 1-inch barrel.

Get Big, Loose Waves

For curls that can be brushed out into big, loose waves, go for 2-3 inches depending on your hair length (the longer your hair, the bigger the barrel). You can use a lower setting for looser curls.

See How to Create Soft, Loose Waves for step-by-step direction.

Always Use a Styling Product

If you use a curling iron, you should always prep hair first with a product. The product will keep curling hair from frizzing and straight hair from losing its curl. But most importantly, the product will protect hair from the heat of the iron.

Best products paired with a curling iron include:

  • Thermal protector: The ultimate in heat protection, a thermal protector should be sprayed on damp hair and then combed through from roots to ends before blow drying and then using a curling iron. InstaNatural Thermal Protector Hair Spray gets great reviews. 
  • Styling spray: A styling spray is meant to set and style hair before a blow dry, flat iron or curl. Spritz on towel-dried hair and then blow-dry hair in sections. My hands down favorite is the Shu Uemura Texture Wave.  
  • Defrizz serum: This is for curly hair that tends to frizz. Put a few drops of a defrizz serum in your hands and then palm it through curls once you're done curling hair. Bumble and Bumble DeFRIZZ is a great option. 
  • Volumizing spray or mousse: For fine hair that won't keep a curl very well. Spray or apply on the roots and at the crown before blow-drying. Don't apply the product on top of the head or you risk weighing hair down. I swear by Bumble and Bumble Thickening Hair Spray

Always use a conditioner on your hair if you use a curling iron on a regular basis. If you have already damaged or dry hair, get the damaged hair cut off before you attempt to use a curling iron and never hold the curl in the iron long or you risk more damage.

Loved this? You may also like:

  • 10 secrets to styling naturally curly hair
  • My list of the best curling irons
  • Hair products & tools I couldn't live without