Set Me Straight
Which flat iron can conquer my crazy curls?
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.
Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project from Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that covers emerging technologies and their implications for society and policy.
Photographs of: curly hair and hair straightened with the Hai DigiStik by Christopher Coccaro; hair straightened with the Revlon Floating Plates by Penney Berryman Davis.