One of the few constants in my life is that women want to fix my frizzy, thick, mischievous curls. They either obsessively drop "hints" about how I need to get them under control ("Have you ever considered products specifically for curly hair?" one asked, as I woefully pictured the half-dozen gels and serums sitting in my bathroom), or they take matters into their own hands. The latter typically involves a three-member team: One wields a flat iron, one mans the blow-dryer, and one sits nearby, laughing. Inevitably, my hair looks worse when they're done.
Since no one can conquer the curls, I sought a straightening iron that can tell my hair who's boss. To assist me, I enlisted the help of three guinea pigs with different hair types: my roommate Penney, who has soft, Shirley Temple curls; my fellow Slate copy editor Melonyce McAfee, who is African-American and has tight, pencil-width curls; and my mother, whose very straight, fine hair became wavy, coarse, and troublesome after she hit menopause—undoubtedly karmic, hormonal retribution for how much pain she caused when she brushed my hair when I was little. (The one thing these women have in common besides troublesome hair: They all have to deal with me regularly.)
I tested seven different flat irons, from drug-store variety to salon-worthy. I tried each twice, and my mother and Penney tried each once. Melonyce used only two, so she contributed comments, not scores. Each iron was rated in three categories:
Damage (10 possible points):
Given that some of these products reach 400 degrees and are applied for 30 minutes to 60 minutes—enough time and temperature to roast a Cornish game hen—the iron must be gentle. This is especially challenging because my hair is unceasingly dry, despite a large portion of my recent-college-grad salary going to deep-conditioning products. If there's a huge hairball by my feet when I'm finished, we have a problem. The higher the score, the less damage the iron inflicted.
Ease of Use (10 possible points):
Flat irons fall into an embarrassingly broad category of women's beauty tools—like eyelash curlers and self-tanners—that flummox me. So, I needed one that's user-friendly. Does it heat up quickly? Does something simple (like a light) signify when it's done heating up? Is there a temperature gauge and an easy on-off switch?
Final Result (10 possible points):
I want to look pretty, damn it. Can it iron out the hard-to-reach waves at the top of my head and behind my ears? Does my hair feel smooth and look shiny? Does the straightening last—preferably three days or more—without being seriously affected by inclement weather or trips to the gym? I don't expect miracles—five-minute touch ups in the morning are fine. But my flat iron should make my a.m. routine simpler, not more complicated.
When I had all the scores, I averaged them. Here are the results, from bag-on-the-head bad to Pantene-commercial good.
Revlon PerfectHeat Ceramic Straightener, $24.99 This was no match for anyone's hair. It took forever to heat up and never got hot enough. Even the finer strands of hair by the nape of my neck, which usually straighten after one pass, remained stubbornly wavy. My ends were puffy and sticking out instead of lying together neatly—and those were the lucky hairs. The iron has a plastic catch right next to the ceramic plates (the design is clearly a knockoff of the more expensive Chi), which repeatedly caught my hair. And even though the plates didn't get that hot, there was a very strong burning smell in the air.
Revlon says this has "floating plates," designed to help straighten hair more. But flat iron plates shouldn't float: They should clamp together, hard, to get the kinks out. The Revlon PerfectHeat damaged my hair and made my scalp ache, all for poor results.
Ease of use: 4.7
Final result: 1.3
Final score: 3.1 (out of 10 possible)
Vidal Sassoon, $69.99 The Vidal Sassoon looks cool, with hot-pink felt along the top and a temperature gauge that resembles one of those arcade games that tells you whether you're a cold fish or hot lips. But how many college graduates does it take to master a flat iron? More than three, apparently. Penney, my mother, and I all had trouble setting the Vidal Sassoon to the proper temperature. I continually pressed buttons until it finally reached the highest setting. Then, the box claimed, it should have heated up in 30 seconds. It took three to four minutes—not an eternity, but not as quickly as advertised. The low heat required me to keep it on my hair longer, causing damage, and my hair got caught in the iron's hinge, causing breakage. After all that, it did little for my appearance. Penney was its sole defender, but even she admitted that by Day 2, her hair looked terrible.
Ease of use: 3.7
Final result: 5.7
Final score: 4.9
BaByliss PRO Ceramic Straightening Iron with Anti-Static Detachable Comb, $49 It's clunky, unattractive, and cumbersome—at 2.25 inches, it's the widest flat iron we tried. But the BaByliss is pretty serviceable, and it's affordable. I tried one with a comb on Melonyce's recommendation, and it did seem to give my hair a smoother finish. But my mother, Penney, and I all noted quite a bit of breakage (not to mention painful hair-pulling). The comb also grabbed hair from sections I wasn't trying to straighten. The sheer wideness of the iron made it difficult to straighten those hard-to-reach spots behind my ears and near my scalp, so I had some incongruously wavy spots. I do give the BaByliss credit for one thing: It gave one of the longest-lasting final results. I wore mine straight for four and a half days, longer than some of the $100-plus irons.
Ease of use: 4.7
Final result: 6
Final score: 5
T3 Bespoke Labs Wet or Dry, $200 The T3 says it can dry and straighten in a single step—something I hadn't attempted since a disasterous high-school-era encounter with a straightening-iron-and-blow-dryer-in-one gadget. (Think Krusty the Klown.) But the scars from that incident have healed, and it was time to try again.
The first thing I noticed about the T3 is that one of the handles is adorned with an inexplicable row of rhinestones. My mother, Penney, and I all found this little touch hilarious. The next thing I noticed was that it heated up to 400 degrees in a matter of seconds. While the loud sizzle it made as my wet hair touched the plates was rather scary, and the steam streaming out of the side vents occasionally singed my hand, I was impressed. The T3 transformed my hair from sopping mop to straight, if a little poufy. It took more than an hour to finish the job—long enough to hurt my weak arms—but the final result was decent. My mother liked this one so much that she held it hostage for a week.
Ease of use: 7.3
Final result: 8
Final score: 7.2
Farouk Chi, $190 (available for less on Amazon.com) The Chi has a cult following. It's the standard by which straight-hair hunters measure all other flat irons—as in, "It's not as good as the Chi." I expected great, life-altering things of the Chi.
And it was pretty good—comfortable to use, with a great swivel cord that makes it easy to maneuver. There was no messing around with temperature because, well, there's only one temperature: really, really hot. The curved shape of the iron makes it easy to flip or otherwise style the ends, which is a great feature. The design is simple and appealing. It also caused minimal breakage, though my ends looked kind of frayed when I was finished. But it's not appropriate for all hair types: Melonyce found her hair matted and stiff, "like Barbie hair."
While the Chi seems to have everything going for it, I wasn't thrilled with the final result. The sections I straightened didn't blend together well, and my hair looked slightly bushy. It's a solid product, but not the best out there.
Ease of use: 8.3
Final result: 8.3
Final score: 8.4
Bio Ionic iSmooth, $200 Enter the dark horse. Bio Ionic may have some explaining to do to the good folks at Apple—the lowercase i, the gleaming white casing—but it's a strong product that I really enjoyed. It's easy to use and instinctual, unlike, say, the Vidal Sassoon.
It heated up quickly, and I finished the job in record time—only 25 minutes. Most importantly, it looked good. My hair was shiny and looked healthy. The layers fell nicely. It even had a slight bounce. And it lasted four days—through an early-spring rain and a trip to the gym, requiring only the most minor morning touch ups. Penney wasn't quite as big a fan—she was disappointed by the iSmooth's inability to flip ends. But even she liked how long it lasted. Overall, the iSmooth is a great product.
Ease of use: 8.3
Final result: 9
Final score: 8.7
Hai Elite Digistik, $189 The Digistik is so good that when I checked out my hair in the mirror, I realized how desperately I needed a haircut and a highlight. When your coif is curly, you have a lot of wiggle room with those sorts of things.
The Digistik heated up fast—in 30 seconds, tops. It straightened my hair smoothly and only took a couple of passes per section. The iron is slim enough to straighten close to my scalp, but it still handled my hair's length well. It has a helpful digital temperature gauge—no guessing with dials, like the other irons—and convenient finger pads that make it easy to grip. It also comes with a pouch that doubles as a heat-resistant pad you can rest the iron on without burning a hole in your counter.
It's not perfect. Melonyce wasn't pleased with her final result—her hair really does require a flat iron with an attached comb, to smooth it out along the way. And a full day after I used the Digistik, my boyfriend announced that my hair "smelled like burning." But that's a pretty small price to pay for such smooth, shiny, straight, long-lasting (five days!) hair. I think I'm in love.
Ease of use: 9.7
Final result: 9.7
Final score: 9.4