How To Use A Curling Iron Correctly 

By  Emily Konatella

LAST UPDATED - December 11, 2023

Can't quite get the hang of using a curling iron to curl hair? You're certainly not alone. Unlike your straightforward flat iron, a curling iron requires a bit of skill and dexterity to get right— regardless of whether it's your first time curling your hair or your hundredth.

If you weren't blessed with naturally curly hair, you could try to bring curls to life with a curling iron or a wand. So to help you achieve your best-curled hair day ever, we've rounded up a few helpful tips on how to use a curling iron correctly. We've got tips for every stage of the curling process— from choosing a tool to curling correctly to finishing with hairspray— to ensure you nail your look from start to finish.

To Minimize Hair Damage, Check Out These 16 Quick Tips on How to Use Curling Irons

Stick with a High-Quality Curling Iron

When it comes to curling your hair, a high-quality tool makes all the difference. Using the right curling iron can speed up curl time, reduce frizz, and reduce heat damage. The best material for a curling iron is ceramic with tourmaline added for improved heat distribution and smoothing. Look for products made with full ceramic plates instead of just ceramic coating.

Automatic shut-off is another key feature to look for in a product. While you should always turn off and unplug your device after use, it'll offer an extra layer of protection should you forget.

Always Use Heat Protectant

Heat protectant is one of the best ways to prevent hair damage while using a curling iron, even if you have healthy hair. When spritzed on your hair before curling, straightening, or blow-drying, it creates a barrier between your hot tools and your hair. Be sure to read the fine print to determine what temperature range a product covers to ensure proper protection.

Only Curl Dry Hair

Your hair should always be completely dry before using curling irons and other hot tools. Curling wet hair or damp hair weakens your hair, leaving you with dry, brittle strands that are prone to frizz and breakage. To minimize damage, let your hair dry naturally instead of blow-drying it before curling.

Avoid Using Heat Every Day

The best way to minimize damage from hot styling tools is to avoid using them altogether. Avoid using heated tools every day and try to use just one tool at a time when you do. Be sure to reapply heat protectant every time you curl.

Choose the Correct Barrel Size

Curling irons come in different barrel sizes that create different end results on different hair lengths. Most curling wands range between 3/4 and 1 1/4-inch. A small barrel will create tight, bouncy ringlets, while a larger barrel will create loose beach waves. Choosing the correct barrel size in both curling irons and curling wands is key to nailing your desired look:

  • 3/4 inch or smaller— tighter curl. Best for short hair.
  • 1 inch— bouncy, voluminous curls. Best for medium-length hair.
  • 1.25 inch or larger— loose, beachy waves. Best for long hair.

If you're trying to touch up your naturally curly or wavy hair, use a curling iron that's the same size as your natural curls. The pieces you re-curl will blend in seamlessly for an effortless-looking end result.

Create Waves with a Curling Wand

For easy beach waves, curl your hair with a curling wand. The clampless wands create softer curls without the harsh clamp marks left behind by standard curling irons. Alternatively, you can also use a regular curling iron and curl over the clamp to achieve the same effect.

Stick to a Low Temperature

Though it may be tempting to crank up the heat on your curling wand, it's best to use a lower temperature that'll cause less damage. The best temperature to use will depend on your hair type, hair texture, and the curls you're trying to achieve. As a rule of thumb, those with fine hair should set their iron below 200 degrees. Those with thick hair can turn the head up to 300 degrees.

Section Your Hair Before Curling

Using a claw clip or scrunchie, section your hair into layers before curling. Focusing on one layer at a time ensures you don't miss any spots— especially in the back. Start with the hair around the base of your neck and work your way towards the crown of your head.

Curling in small, horizontal sections boosts volume and creates a more dramatic end result. Opting for larger, vertical sections creates a laid-back, wavy look.

Learn to Hold the Barrel Correctly

The direction and angle you hold your curling iron barrel also determines the final look of your curls. Hold the tool vertically with the heated end pointing down to create loose waves when using a curling wand. Hold the barrel horizontally to add serious volume around the roots.

If you're new to using a curling iron, practice curling with different grips to find one that works best for your hair length and texture.

Curl Front Pieces Away From Your Face

Frame your face by curling your bangs and front pieces away from your face. This highlights your face and creates a more natural-looking end result. It also helps boost volume and create structure on fine to medium-weight hair.

Alternate Curl Directions

For a tousled look, curl your hair in multiple directions. Occasionally curling a piece in the opposite direction prevents your curls from blending together and creates more volume. Try switching between smaller sections and larger sections for more variation too.

Cup Your Curls Until Cool

Hold the curling iron on each section for around five to eight seconds. Anything longer than ten seconds will only cause cuticle damage. For tighter curls, cup each curl in your hand immediately after releasing the curling iron. Hold it a few seconds until it cools down. Alternatively, you can create a softer, wavy look by gently tugging on your curls after releasing the iron.

Brush Gently After Curling

Once your hair is fully dry, gently run your fingers or a wide-tooth comb through your hair to break up the stiff, unnatural-looking ringlets. While a little brushing will create a more natural-looking end result, overdoing it can create a frizzy, puffy mess.

Embrace Styling Products

After going through all that effort, it's not a bad idea to use hair spray to lock in your curls and keep them frizz-free. For the strongest hold, spritz each section of hair immediately after curling. To add volume, turn your head upside and focus the spray around your roots. A little hair oil or smoothing cream can help tame flyaways and boost shine.

Clean Your Curling Iron Regularly

Over time, residue from conditioner, heat protectant, hairspray, and other styling products can build up in the crevices of your curling wand. After each use, wipe the barrel clean with a damp cloth once it's completely cool. Avoid using rubbing alcohol or harsh cleaning products that can permanently damage the device.

Practice, Practice, Practice To Get That Perfect Curly Hair

If you're a curling iron novice, the best thing you can do is practice. Everyone's hair is different, so what works for your friend or favorite beauty YouTuber's hair may not work the same for yours. Try different sizes of curling irons, different techniques, and different styling products to determine what works best for your unique hair thickness and texture.

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About the author

Emily is a fashion consultant, designer and creative director with more than 15 years experience creating, designing and developing clothing & jewelry. From managing pageant shows to turning concepts into actual designs, she has experience with almost all fabric types and jewelry designs and is in touch with the latest fashion trends.