Please help me straighten (or decide whether to straighten) my feeble, feeble hair!
December 30, 2007 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I understand that hair straightening irons damage your hair, but currently I'm having to use a hairdryer to get my hair into any semblance of socially acceptable appearance anyway. Might the proper hair straightener, used with the right protective oils and techniques, at least do less (or about the same) amount of damage? If so, what one(s) should I consider?

My hair is horrible. Limp, "fine," and neither straight nor curly (not really what you'd call "wavy," either ... just kinda scraggly). For a long time now the only way I've been able to make it passable in polite society has been to dampen it a bit (when dry) and then blow-dry it on high with a big brush to give it at least a -little- shape and human decency.

But recently I tried out a couple of straightening irons and wow! I love the results! But the last thing I want is to inflict worse damage on my already pitiful hair. I've read what I can find online and understand that they -are- damaging, but what I can't figure out is how these irons compare to my current hairdrying/management practices. If the damage is at all comparable to what I'm already doing, then given how much better the results seem to be I would definitely consider it - but of course I want to minimize the damage in any way I can!

So, does anybody have any input, either on the comparative damage of hair ironing versus daily hair-drying, or on what I ought to look for if I -do- get an iron? What I've read (on sites like this) suggests I'd need one that gets up to at least 120ºC, has ceramic (or tourmaline?) plates, and maybe gives off some sort of infra-red or ionic doojiggers (is there any actual validity to claims made about those technologies?), and that I must get a good hair protective serum to use with it. All well and good, but I'm having a hard time finding trustworthy suggestions for specific iron models or serum brands/formulations so I'm not really sure what to go with. Ideally I'd like to spend no more than ~$100-150USD, and I'd like one I could use at least semi-frequently on my fine, shoulder-length, shampooed-and-conditioned-daily (with cheap Suave stuff), home-colored hair ... ummm ... re-reading that last line, if I ought to change anything about my shampooing or coloring habits I'd consider it, but I'm a grad student with somewhat limited funds so I really don't want to spend money for more expensive products if all I'm paying for is a name brand. Does anybody have any personal expertise or experience they could share?

Argh, life would be so much easier and more fun if we could all just go around in comical viking hats all the time =P
posted by zeph to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Definitely check out the product reviews at They have lots of reviews of both serums and straighteners. I straighten my curly, thick hair about once a week using a HAI straightener - they're ceramic-plated and go up to 400 degrees. I've had it for about 6 months and the ceramic is kind of flaking off the plates so I might have to replace it soon, but it was only around $75 on ebay. I use Redken Smooth-down products (a heat-protective serum and a solid anti-frizz serum) but those might be too heavy for fine hair. I couldn't say how the damage will compare with your current routine, but I would suggest letting your hair air-dry before using an iron to cut down on the amount of heat you're applying. They definitely aren't good for your hair - I have to get mine cut about every 6 weeks because the ends get fried, but the rest of my hair seems pretty healthy. My final piece of advice is to buy the iron on ebay - you'll get a much better deal.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 10:18 AM on December 30, 2007

I've used Aveda's "Hang Straight" and "Smoothing Fluid" with my straightening iron to great success and no damage that I could ever see. I'd apply a small amount of each product (mixed together in my hand) to my hair and straighten as I blew dry. Following that, I'd use the iron, ironing one section of hair at a time.

I use a cheapie Revlon ceramic model on my thick wavy hair and get quite good results.
posted by at 10:24 AM on December 30, 2007

Your shampoo regimen may have a lot to do with your hair acting how it does. I don't believe in paying tons for a name brand, either, but when I stopped washing my hair with the cheap suave stuff I saw a world of difference.

For hair similar to yours, I'd recommend a shampoo like lush's I love Juicy. you can find it at -- don't let the $24.95 price tag scare you off, you only need the TINIEST amount and a single bottle will last you a year even with daily washings.

You may also be over-conditioning your hair, something very easy to do with cheap conditioners. I'd try going without conditioner for a few days and see if that helps.
posted by InnocentBystander at 10:35 AM on December 30, 2007

Best answer: I used to straighten my curly/wavy/unmanageable hair on a daily basis. My weapon of choice was a HAI straightener and it was a beauty, lasted four years and never flaked like Tatiana Wishbone's did.

The ends of my hair did fry and for that I decided to stop with the straightening because I wanted to grow my hair longer. I'm still trying to learn how to manage it and have been trying a SLS free shampoo and a -cone free conditioner. I've liked the results so far, I don't wash my hair frequently and that lengthens the life span of the shampoo and conditioner (both are kinda expensive, $6 each). I've heard of people using oils (olive, coconut, etc) on the tips of their hair to protect against damage but that probably isn't in conjunction with straighteners?

I don't recommend the cheap Revlon models. I used those about four years ago and went through three of them because they kept breaking. And it would pull my hair out. Those might not have been ceramic models though. Either way good luck!
posted by collocation at 10:38 AM on December 30, 2007

I have straight, fine (though not thin), long hair. I blowdry and straighten my hair almost every day and I have no damage. My hairdresser always remarks on how healthy my hair is. I don't know how to explain this. I wash and condition every day (with drugstore products) and after I have blowdried and straightened my hair, I usually use either Aveda Smoothing Fluid or Aveda Emollient Finishing Gloss to remove any remaining frizz and make my hair shiny. I can't remember what brand my straightener is, but it's just a mid-range one.

Though I don't color my hair now, I used to and I wonder if it might be the chemical processing that is damaging your hair. In the late 80's I used to perm my hair and it was in terrible condition - completely fried - and I learned that I was giving it chemical treatments way too often, which led to the damage, perhaps this could be the reason for you? You could be doing it wrong at home.

If you want to continue to get it colored, see if there are any beauty schools in your area. They will usually do treatments for a fraction of the price.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:20 AM on December 30, 2007

Here's a list of beauty schools in South Carolina.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:27 AM on December 30, 2007

There are quite a few products out there but it totally depends on your hair type what sort of lasting damage you will have.

The obvious one is split ends.

I can suggest using Thermasilk. This is great because, as advertised, the more heat you add to your hair, the healthier it looks.

I love this product!!!
posted by ladiorange at 11:46 AM on December 30, 2007

Best answer: Get a CHI! This salon flat iron is pricey but will last for years longer than the junky tools that Revlon and ConAir make. (Hint: buy it for less from Amazon or eBay.) If in doubt, just read the rave reviews at MakeupAlley. Also scour the reviews there for heat protectants and serums that get good ratings.
posted by superfem at 12:04 PM on December 30, 2007

Seconding the CHI. It gets hot, really hot, but I find that the cheaper cooler irons require several passes to get the same results as one pass with the CHI, which means you're pulling on the hair more.

My hairdresser dries my hair to just dry (search "conversion point" for more info) and then irons.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:48 PM on December 30, 2007

i have fine hair that has been dyed every six weeks without fail for the last dozen years or so. i also use a flat iron. i also condition the hell out of my hair (in and out of the shower). and my hair is really healthy.

i recommend you get a great conditioner as well as use a leave-in conditioner. also, you need to get a good ceramic flat iron (i use a corioliss pro but CHIs are really good as well). they are spendy but worth it because the won't damage your hair. blow dry your hair with a brush to straighten it and then run the iron through your hair the way you would a brush so it's not as though you are scorching the heck out of your hair but clamping that thing on sections for minutes at a time.
posted by violetk at 1:45 PM on December 30, 2007

by clamping, not but clamping…
posted by violetk at 1:53 PM on December 30, 2007

This is not a direct answer to your question but have you ever thought about thermal reconditioning? My friend used to have hair like yours but after thermal reconditioning, her hair is really fabulous! It's an one-time process (until your hair grows out) with minimal damage. Here's some examples of before and afters. It's a little pricey but my friend says it's worth it since she doesn't have to do anything more for her hair afterwards.
posted by vocpanda at 2:42 PM on December 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the answers so far! If anybody has any other recommendations of course please speak up, but in the meantime I'll certainly look into the CHI and HAI irons in particular (as for the thermal reconditioning, I'm quite curious about that and will definitely keep it in mind in a longer-term sense! How awesome it'd be to only have to straighten once (in a very long while) to have such nice lasting results ... the price kinda scares me at the moment, but the more I keep hearing about it the more I want to try it) ... Either way I'm glad that the general consensus seems to be that I wouldn't necessarily be setting myself up to utterly destroy my hair if I got a straightener - that's great news, I -really- liked the way those suckers made my hair look =)

The idea of trying different shampoos/conditioners is a good one, too, maybe that'll be my first step ... gosh, how nice to think maybe I'll start the new year off with hair that doesn't make me think my best option would be to just learn to walk on my hands so that my feet rather than my head were in everyone's immediate line of sight ...
posted by zeph at 6:58 PM on December 30, 2007

Best answer: I have the exact same hair as you - limp, fine, and yeah, scraggly. Don't know about you, but mine is also pretty long...5 or 6 inches past my shoulders. Here is how I finally started liking my hair:

1) I got a good hairdresser recommendation from a friend and explained to her, in extreme detail, the nature of my hair and how I liked to wear it. She gave a great cut with long layers that worked whether I wore my hair straight or wavy.

2) I bought the Sapphire flat iron, which completely changed my life. They are super-effective, last forever, and the attached comb makes it really easy to use. I've tried out flat irons without the comb, and I've found that they are much harder to use for amateurs like myself. non-humid seasons (like winter), I just use the Sapphire to straighten my hair. Because I have thin, sorta wavy hair, I can even let it air dry and the Sapphire will flatten everything out.

On the other hand, where I live it's pretty humid in the summer, which increases both the waviness (yay!) and frizz (nay!) of my hair. This is when a good layered cut really comes in handy - it'll add a bit of style and volume to wavy hair. In humid weather, what I do after washing my hair is apply a volumizing product at the scalp, and then let my hair air dry, scrunching it every so often to pump up the waviness. When it's dry, I apply a bit of anti-frizz serum and then I use the flat iron to (a) straighten the last inch or so of hair, which makes the ends neat, and (b) clamp the iron down lightly on the rest of my hair to flatten the frizz. For me, this technique produces that awesome "cascading wavy hair" thing instead of the "frizzy rat's nest" thing.

Re: Thermal reconditioning/Japanese hair straightening: I have friends who have done it, and while they liked the initial effect they did not like the long-term effects on their hair or the expensive maintenance. To me, this is only worth it if you have really thick, super-curly hair that is very difficult to control. Thin, wavy hair like ours is quite easy to tame with less drastic methods.

And as to your original question about damage: neither I nor my hairdresser have ever noticed noticable damage to my hair from flat-ironing it. Caveat: I don't dye my hair - some types of dye cause damage, so if you dye you might want to use an iron less frequently.
posted by lalex at 9:51 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your hair sounds exactly like mine. I second the people who recommended the CHI iron. I have a mid-range flat iron that I bought from Sally and my mom has a CHI - I use her iron whenever I'm home and I can SO tell the difference. It's also exponentially faster to use than a standard iron. My only complaint is that I have to be super careful using it on my bangs because it will fry the hell out of them since it is so hot. The only reason I don't have one of my own is the fact that they're $150+.

In addition to having hair like yours, I also have to wash it twice a day, usually, because I sweat so much when I go to the gym. I had problems about a year ago with it starting to fall out. I just use a lot of conditioner and I always make sure to get it cut regularly...this helps a lot with split ends, of course, as well as the overall health of hair.
posted by lxs at 8:32 AM on December 31, 2007

Personal observation — I used a ceramic straightener on my hair for years before ever buying a hairdryer. I started using a hairdryer this year, and within a week my hair was much drier, more brittle, and frizzy. My hair was in pretty good condition before, straight and mostly sleek. So I think blowdrying does far more damage.
posted by mjao at 11:42 PM on December 31, 2007

another vote for CHI irons. I'm sure the heat is damaging, but it does seal up your hair and make it very shiny. I don't think my ends split as much when i use it. Just don't use when your hair is still wet---dry it first, or it will steam it all to hell.
posted by almostmanda at 6:24 PM on January 1, 2008

Response by poster: (Just as a followup - I did end up getting a flat iron back in mid-February, and have been using it nearly every day since then ... and I absolutely LOVE it =) I do use a heat-protective spray beforehand but that's all that I do, and yet as far as I can tell it's done no harm at all to my hair - actually, I think I'm getting -less- breakage than I used to get from trying to wrestle my hair into submission with a blasted hairdryer every day ... So again, to everyone who offered their advice - my feeble hair and I thank you!)
posted by zeph at 10:58 AM on April 19, 2008

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