Hair Tools 101: What You Need, Why You Need It

Photographed by Ben Ritter.
You’re in the hot-tool aisle, virtual or otherwise, staring down barrel after barrel of hair dryers and rows of flat irons that promise to make your hair the shiniest in the land. As you assume the shrugging emoticon position and roll your eyes, you ask yourself, How many tools do I really need in my arsenal? and Is expensive always better? and Seriously, what is an ionic generator? Choosing "The One" can be daunting. But we're here to help.

You Only Need 3
When you're overwhelmed by anything in life, the first step is to simplify. According to Devin Toth, a hairstylist at Salon SCK in New York City, the three primary tools you need in your collection are a curling iron, a blowdryer, and a flat iron.

Consider this trio the equivalent of red, black, and nude heels (or flats). Each will claim maximum rotation in your daily life and help you complete virtually any look. Extra tools — such as crimpers, curlers, other contraptions that could double as torture devices, and travel versions of all of the above — are simply not necessary. But if you are tempted to invest in another tool, be sure you'll find time to use it at least once or twice a month.

The Blowdryer
Choosing the perfect blowdryer depends on three key factors. First, it should be relatively lightweight. Heavy or bulky blowdryers are a pain to use and occupy valuable space in your carry-on.

Second, a dryer should be customizable. Not all hair is the same, so chances that a one-size-fits-all tool is going to work perfectly for you are slim. The more you can adjust the heat, speed, and ion output, the better.

Speaking of ions, you should always opt for a blowdryer that has ion technology over one that doesn't. They create an output of negative ions, which break down water molecules on the hair shaft to help it dry. "The faster your drying time is, the less opportunity for your hair to frizz, and therefore the smoother and longer-lasting your hairstyle will be," says Toth.

As for all those oddly shaped attachments? Their goal is to regulate both the direction and the intensity of your dryer's airflow. For example, small, thin nozzles — known as concentrators — force the air into a hot, dense stream ideal for smoothing the cuticle over a round brush.

Diffusers, the big wide attachments with prongs, on the other hand, "allow the airflow to come out wider, less dense, and softer," explains Toth. "This is great for gently drying curls without making them separated and frizzy."
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The Curling Iron
Curls, curls, curls. Depending on the size of the barrel and the way you use it, a curling iron can provide tons of body. You can opt for one with a clamp, which is the classic version, or a clampless model, otherwise known as a wand.

Both come in multiple sizes. The smallest (around 3/8" wide) gives you the tightest, springiest curls, while the largest (around 2") creates barrel-like waves and body. A good middle ground for those of us with medium to long hair is an iron between 3/4" and 1 1/4" wide.

You should also look for a curling tool that heats quickly and evenly. Note that some have adjustable heat settings, which may be particularly useful if you have either very fine hair (which requires lower heat) or very thick hair (higher heat). Additionally, the curling iron should ideally be ceramic or tourmaline; these give off negative ions and protect the hair shaft better.


The Flat Iron

Finally, let's talk flat irons. All the rules that apply to curling irons are also true of these. Choose a product that heats evenly and quickly, and is coated in tourmaline or ceramic for better hair protection and a sleeker finish.

You'll notice that flat irons come in various widths. Stick with the standard size (about 3/4" to 1") unless you have extremely long or extremely short hair. Wider widths will cover more ground for longer and thicker hair, while shorter hair, naturally, requires a smaller tool.

When To Upgrade
"Ultimately, a hair tool is a winner if it makes your life easier," says Toth. It should help you create beautiful results while minimizing hassle, styling time, and heat damage. "If it feels like you’re hopelessly struggling every morning just to get your hair to come out okay, then chances are your hair tools need an upgrade."

While more expensive products aren't always better, they often do mean better quality. Research, design, and testing go into pricier products, which means they're more likely to have the best technology and materials. No, we're not saying buy a $700 blowdryer. Just follow the advice above and, if your budget allows, spend a little extra. You'll save time and frustration in the end.
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