A What's What Guide To Curling Irons

Different types of curling irons
Photo: Poznyakow/Shutterstock
In many ways, the curling iron can be easily argued to be the greatest innovation in hairstyling of the twentieth century, and has evolved dramatically from its original incarnation into an appliance that is easy to use and produces far superior results when compared to its predecessors.
A Brief History
Parisian stylist and inventor, Marcel Grateau, is credited with the development of the technique of styling the hair using heated rods in the latter part of the 1870s. The first curling irons were polished metal rods that were heated in a fire or oven and then applied to the hair, winding the hair around it to create the curl. Common problems were overheating and singeing of the hair as well as burns to the scalp and hands in the styling process.
Over the century that followed, curling irons were largely the tool of the professionals, since at-home use was still unwieldy, requiring as it did the heating elements and careful handling to prevent burns and damage to the hair. Still, progress was made, the techniques were improved upon, and the appliances underwent dramatic revamping as electricity became more commonly used and the technology allowed for the creation of curling irons that were self-heating.
Antique curling iron
Antique Curling Iron
Somewhere around the 1960s, curling irons became feasible for use by women at home. The appliances had become safe enough to allow women to use them on their own hair, with relative ease, and achieve reasonable results. These appliances were electric, self-heating, and serviceable, but were still a far cry from the products we have today.
Today’s Irons
If you go shopping today in your local beauty supply store (and even in your local department or discount stores) you can find dozens of different sizes, shapes and styles of irons. There are flat irons for smoothing and straightening the hair. There are waving and crimping irons with curved and shaped plates that are meant to put varying patterns of wave into the hair, from "S-curls" to "Zigzag" shapes.
Curling irons
There are curling irons with different sizes of barrels, and even multiple barrels on a single appliance. The materials from which irons are made, and the way in which they heat the hair, are different today than in times past, too. In the 1970s, you might have had an iron with a chrome-plated barrel, which would have been serviceable.
Today, however, we have learned that non-stick surfaces and special mineral coatings help to evenly distribute the heat throughout the surface of the iron and prevent scorching, helping to leave the hair looking smooth. Many irons now offer infrared heating and ion technology to warm the hair more gently and reduce the amount of frizz and static in the hair to keep it smooth and shiny.
Barrels of Fun
The size of the barrels determines the size of the curl created and, as would seem logical, the smaller the barrel the tighter the curl will be. Multiple-barreled irons are used to create long waves, or to create lots of bend and redirection in long hair lengths.
Typically speaking, you can find curling irons with barrels ranging in size from around .25 inches (0.6cm) to 2 inches (5cm). Smaller-barreled irons are great for curling shorter hair lengths and creating generally tighter curls, while larger-barreled curling irons are used for longer hair and creating large, soft curls and waves.
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