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Flat Iron vs Curling Iron: What’s The Difference?

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When asked about what a woman’s most valuable asset, the famous silver screen actress, Joan Crawford, famously said, “I think that the most important thing a woman can have- next to talent, of course- is her hairdresser.

Sixty years later and those words ring more true than ever. Except with today’s high-tech, affordable hair styling products, anybody can be their own hairdresser! 

You can make your straight hair curling or your curling hair straight and wavy with flat irons (like the Sultra the Bombshell we reviewed here), curling irons, a professional blowdryer, and a couple of hairbrushes. Or use an automatic curling iron for magical curls in no time! 

On a broader level, hairstyles also play a massive role in cultural identity. For example, many Native American cultures take pride in growing their hair as long as possible, African cultures have developed complex locking and braiding techniques, and French culture has historically pushed the boundaries of turning hair into art. 

If you were to make a dramatic change to your hair today, you might walk into work and realize that most of your coworkers don’t recognize you at first. That’s how big of a difference it is. 

In today’s article, we’re going to do a comparison of Flat Iron vs Curling Iron. We’ll start by going over some of the key differences and then move into a quick buyer’s guide to make sure that you know what to look for when shopping. 

Finally, we’ll also recommend some of our favorites! 


Flat Iron vs Curling Iron: The Main Differences

Before we get too deep into all of the technical details, let’s first look at the most defining features and key differences between these two tools. 

As you may have already gathered from their names, flat irons and curling irons have completely opposite effects. One is designed to straighten your hair and the other is designed to hell you curl your hair. 

At first glance, flat irons look kind of like a pair of tongs. Essentially, they work by sandwiching a lock of hair in between two heating surfaces and then flattening the hair with infrared heat as you run the iron along the length of your hair. 

Curling irons, on the other hand, are more cylindrical. They typically feature a handle and a long, round barrel. Attached to the barrel is a rounded clamp operated with a durable spring.

Just like with a flat iron, you take a lock of your hair and wrap it around the barrel. Then, you allow the clamp to tighten on the lock and you slowly pull the curling iron down and away from you. The result is a perfectly curling lock of hair. 

Depending on how much hair you have, completely straightening or curling your hair could take 10 minutes if you’ve got short hair, or as long as an hour if you’re dealing with more hair. In general, the bigger the flat iron or curling iron heating surface is, the quicker it is to curl large amounts of hair. 

Different Style Types

As you can imagine, each tool has the power to give you a completely different hairstyle. Flat irons are mostly designed to flatten your naturally curly or wavy hair. After you’re done, you’ll look like one of those European runway models! 

Curling irons have a little bit more versatility, though. Most people typically use them to curl their hair, but you can also use curling irons to give you a loose, wavy look if you want something that’s a little bit more natural. Additionally, curling irons offer a lot of different options when it comes to the barrel size.

By using a super-skinny barrel, you’ll be able to make tight, bouncy curls; using a thicker barrel will give you larger curls or contribute to that wavier look if you use the curling iron on low heat. There are also curling wands, which have no clamp and are slightly different from curling irons.

Curling Your Hair With a Flat Iron

Sultra The Bombshell for Curling

It’s common for most hair-conscious women to have one of each to allow them to do a wide variety of styles. However, if you can only afford to purchase one, then we would recommend purchasing a flat iron first. 

If you’re willing to experiment and practice a little, you can actually curl your hair with a flat iron. While it does take more time than using an actual curling iron, it’s still doable! Their more versatile nature is one of the main reasons that flat irons cost slightly more than curling irons. 

If you want to learn how to curl your hair with a flat iron, check out this easy how-to guide! 


Flat Iron Buyer’s Guide

Now that you know a little bit more about the differences between these two awesome styling tools, it’s time to get into some of the more specific details. Shopping for flat irons can often be a bit confusing since most of the products on the market all look very similar to one another. Outside of obvious differences such as their color, brand, and size, it can be hard for most first-time shoppers to identify key advantages. 

We’ve put together this easy guide to help make your decision a bit easier. Let’s take a look! 

Flat Iron Material 

While the design concept for flat irons is the same across the board, the biggest difference in how one flat iron performs compared to another is the type of heating surface. The most popular heating surfaces to find are:

  • Ceramic
  • Titanium
  • Tourmaline

Ceramic Flat Irons

Ceramic heating surfaces are often regarded as the highest quality. By nature, ceramic provides excellent heat distribution, which is why it’s often used for cooking surfaces such as pots, skillets, and even pizza pans! 

Heat distribution is incredibly important when it comes to achieving an even hairstyle. For example, if your flat iron has poor heat distribution then you may have to run the same lock of hair through the heating surfaces multiple times. This not only takes up a lot more time, but it can also damage your hair as some strands are getting repeated exposure to high temperatures. 

However, if you have a heating surface that’s evenly distributed (like ceramic) then you should only need to run a lock of hair through the iron once. This saves a lot of time and means that you’ll damage your hair less. 

Titanium Flat Irons

The second most popular heating surface is titanium. This metal is a high-quality, durable material that will stand up to the test of time. One of the key advantages of titanium is that the heating surface won’t crack if you accidentally drop your flat iron. Accidental drops are probably the number one destroyer of ceramic flat irons. 

Another reason why some people choose titanium over ceramic is that the metal is negatively charged. This means that as the surface moves over your positively charged hair, it will be able to remove all of the frizz and will also leave your hair with an extra-shiny sheen for a fabulous finish. 

See our article on titanium vs ceramic flat irons for more information.

Tourmaline Flat Irons

Tourmaline flat irons, like the FHI Tourmaline Flat Iron we reviewed here, are not anywhere near as common as ceramic and titanium irons. Typically, this material is reserved for high-end, expensive flat irons.

This crystalline material is the perfect mixture of titanium and ceramic. It provides excellent heat conduction, superior durability, and is also negatively charged to give your hair the same beautiful sheen that titanium will. 

Apart from these three major material types, it’s common to find hybrid heating surfaces that blend these materials together. There are also some modern, high-tech options that utilize cutting-edge synthetic materials that are even less damaging to the hair! 

Iron Width

Hot Tools Ceramic Flat Iron

the next second important feature aside from the heating surface material is the width of the heating surface. The thicker and wider the surface is, the quicker you’ll be able to straighten your hair. However, using a flat iron with an extra-wide heating surface can sometimes damage your hair if you’re not careful.

In general, wide irons should be reserved for long, thick hair that typically requires extra work. 

On the flip-side, though, it’s also common to see ultra-thin flat irons. One of the reasons why these are so popular is that they don’t damage your hair as much as a wider surface. However, thin flat irons also tend to be a good deal more expensive than thicker irons. 

This is because they feature higher quality materials that are designed to provide perfectly even heat distribution- even at high temperatures so that only one pass is needed, despite how thin the surface is. 

Iron Length

The longer the iron’s heating surface, the more locks of hair you can straighten in one pass and the quicker your straightening job is. Women who have multiple layers or long, thick locks of hair tend to benefit more from an extra-long flat iron.

The one drawback of long irons is that they’re a bit harder to carry around in your purse without sticking out (an important consideration for most women). 

Temperature Settings

Higher quality flat irons tend to give the user more options when it comes to temperature settings. To achieve a more dramatic effect, you’ll want a flat iron that can heat up to around 450-Degrees Fahrenheit.

For those who want a more subtle and natural appearance, or those who want to use coconut oil, you’ll want to have the option to use your iron on a lower temperature setting such as 230 or 250-Degrees. 

Argan oil  is a popular choice for flat iron heat protection. Just keep in mind that it will expire eventually. And when it does, it will smell bad.

Also, heat protectant sprays can make your hair greasy if you use too much.

Safety Features

Most of today’s leading flat irons feature an auto-shutoff feature. Since flat irons don’t make any noise or emit a lot of heat, it can be very easy to forget about them and leave them on in your bathroom. Historically, this would just leave you with a higher energy bill, but sometimes the worst happens, resulting in severe injury to unsuspecting toddlers or pets, and even starting fires. 

The automatic shutoff feature is designed to turn the flat iron off after a short period of time (usually an hour or two) if it hasn’t been pick up or moved. Some flat irons also come with special heat-resistant gloves to give you maximum maneuverability without having to worry about burning your fingertips.  

Accessories

Although accessories should never be the main reason you choose one brand over another, it’s always nice to have a bit of icing on top of the cake. Some brands give you a free carrying case, hair accessories, or a heat-proof mat that you can set your flat iron down on without having to worry about damaging your countertop. 


Top Flat Irons

BaBylissPRO Nano Titanium Ultra-Thin Straightening Iron

BaBylissPRO Flat Iron

BaByliss is one of the top-selling hair tool manufacturers on Amazon. All of their products have a great reputation among hairdressers and is loved by many users. Their Pro-Series straightening flat iron is particularly nice. And although it is a bit more expensive, it’s worth it! 

The main feature that differentiates BaByliss’s Nano Iron from competing models is its ultra-thin design which ensures you’ll never have to worry about burning your hair or being left with a frizzy finish. 

Despite the ultra-thin design, the company claims that this slim flat iron is able to straighten hair up to 40% faster than other models. This is because the company focused all of its efforts into ensuring that the titanium heat plates provide maximum heat distribution, so you’ll never have to worry about cold spots, and it will only take a single pass to straighten hair. 

The long, 5-inch plates are also able to handle large sections of hair at a time, which can cut a significant amount of time off of your styling routine. 

See our in-depth BaByliss Flat Iron review for more details on this wonderful product.

Key Features:

  • Ultra-thin heating surface for minimal hair damage. 
  • Corrosion-resistant titanium heating surface for a smooth finish. 
  • 5-inch long plates make straightening your hair fast and easy. 
  • Ultra-lightweight so your arm will never get tired. 
  • Features 50 different heat settings and a maximum temperature of 450-Degrees. 
  • 12-inch total length. 
BaBylissPRO Nano Titanium 1" Ultra-Thin Straightening Iron
  • The BaBylissPRO Nano Titanium Ultra-Thin...
  • High heat levels provide excellent...
  • Use this Nano Titanium flat iron to...
  • Nano titanium plates
  • Emits negative ions and maximum...

HOT TOOLS Signature Series Ceramic Digital Flat Iron, 1 Inch

Hot Tools Ceramic Flat Iron

Hot Tools is known for making high-quality products and also for their beautiful, high-tech aesthetic. Unlike the BaByliss model that features titanium heating pads, this model utilizes a ceramic surface designed to provide a smooth finish and perfect heat distribution so you can straighten your hair quickly. 

What makes Hot Tools’ ceramic flat iron different from others, though, is that the ceramic isn’t just a boring old white color. It features a brilliant 24-Karat gold finish that not only looks amazing but will also give your hair a shinier finish. 

Another feature that we really like about this model is its easy-to-read LCD temperature display. With non-digital displays, the markings can often wear off over time and it can be hard to tell what temperature it’s set to. The digital LCD display ensures that you’ll always have the perfect temperature when you need it the most. 

Key Features:

  • Features an easy-to-read LCD digital temperature display. 
  • The handle is powder-coated with a soft matte-style paint for a smooth feel in your hand. 
  • 1-inch wide, and 4.5-inch long heating plates. 
  • 50 temperature settings up to 450-Degrees. 
  • A 6-foot-long cord with an intuitive swivel head to prevent tangles. 
  • Features ceramic heating plates for efficient heat distribution. 
  • Dual-Voltage technology is universal and allows this flat iron to be used anywhere in the U.S. or overseas. 
Hot Tools Signature Series Ceramic Digital Flat Iron, 1 Inch
  • Ceramic technology, Micro-Shine 1"...
  • Lcd Digital TEMPERATURE displays
  • High heat up to 450 Degrees - For all...
  • Pulse Technology - gets hot, Stays Hot
  • Universal Dual Voltage with 2 hour auto...

Curling Iron Buyer’s Guide

Curling irons share most of the same design features that flat irons do, so we won’t bore you with all of the same details again, but there are a few traits that are specific to curling irons that we think are important to know about. 

Curling Iron Material

T3 Single Pass Curling Iron

As with flat irons, curling irons typically use ceramic, titanium, tourmaline, or an ionic blend of the three. A few of the more popular options on the market even use alternative materials such as 24-karat gold plating to provide a stylish design and a luxurious finish. 

Barrel Length

Long barrels are designed for longer hair as they allow the user to wrap longer strands of hair around the barrel and get more done in a shorter period of time. Shorter barrels are more portable, but you’ll sacrifice speed. 

Barrel Width

The width of the barrel is probably the most important consideration when purchasing a curling iron. Barrel width range anywhere from 1/4-inch all the way to 2-inches.

Each different size is designed to be used with different hair types and lengths. In addition to this, the barrel size also plays a role in the size of your curls. Smaller barrels typically produce small, tight, and bouncy curls. Wider barrels, on the other hand, give you large, thick curls and can also be used to give you that windswept, wavy hairstyle. 

Temperature Settings

If you want tight, defined curls, then you’re going to need a curling iron that heats up to at least 420-Degrees and possibly even 450-Degrees. However, it’s also nice to have the option to use a lower temperature if you’re just going for a wavy look or you don’t want to damage your hair with high heat. 

Safety Features

Most curling irons feature the same auto-shutoff feature that modern flat irons have. This is designed to shut the power off if the device isn’t used for a period of 1 or 2 hours. Some curling irons also feature a cooled tip so that you don’t accidentally poke yourself with a hot point and get burned. 


Our Top Curling Iron Picks

It wouldn’t be fair to show you our top flat iron picks without including some of our top curling iron picks as well! Here are two of our favorite curling irons that we’ve seen perform well this year. 

T3 – SinglePass Curl 1.25 Inch Professional Curling Iron

T3 Single Pass Curling Iron

If you want to treat yourself to a high-end professional curling iron, then you can’t go wrong with T3’s SinglePass model. It features a 1.25-inch barrel that’s perfect for most hair types and can be manipulated to create both tight curls or wavy locks, depending on your preference. 

As the all-white trim alludes to, this model uses a ceramic heating surface that’s designed to provide excellent heat distribution and flows smoothly over your hair’s surface. One of the features that make T3’s SinglePass the best on the market is its built-in smart technology that utilizes a microchip for constant temperature monitoring! 

Key Features:

  • 1.25-inch thick barrel for maximum versatility. 
  • Sleek, aesthetic all-white design with a rose gold trim. 
  • Features a fully-ceramic heating surface for excellent heat distribution. 
  • The long, 6-inch barrel is perfect for medium or long hair styles. 
  • Built-in smart microchip ensures accurate heating for the perfect finish. 
  • Can be used at 5 different heat settings between 260 and 410-Degrees. 
  • Works with dual-voltage technology so you can use it in most countries. 

INFINITIPRO By CONAIR Rainbow Titanium Curling Iron

InfinitiPro by CONAIR Curling Iron

If you’re looking for a more affordable option, then CONAIR’s InfinitiPro curling iron is an excellent second choice. The most noticeable feature of this model is the bright rainbow-colored finish that helps it stand apart from all of your other styling tools. 

This curling iron features a titanium barrel which provides decent heat distribution and most importantly- leaves your hair looking shiny and reduces any frizz (thanks to the negatively charged titanium ions). The titanium heating surface also heats up to maximum temperature (400-Degrees) in just 30 seconds, so it’s a great option if you’re busy and always on the run! 

Key Features:

  • Utilizes a titanium heating surface for added sheen and reduced frizz. 
  • Features a cool rainbow-colored barrel. 
  • The 1-inch thick barrel is perfect for creating tight curls. 
  • Can be used at 20 different temperature settings with a maximum temperature of 400-Degrees. 
  • Heats up in 30-seconds. 
INFINITIPRO BY CONAIR Rainbow Titanium 1-Inch Curling Iron
  • Titanium 1" Curling Iron: This curler...
  • Pinpoint Styling: Features 30 second...
  • Curls for All Hair Types: Create all...
  • Innovative Styling Tools: From curling...
  • INFINITIPRO BY CONAIR Hair Care: Since...

Conclusion

We hope our look at flat iron vs curling iron has lead you to the right product for your hair. One flattens while the other curls. If you already have naturally curly or wavy hair, then you’ll probably end up going with the flat iron first.

However, if you’re looking for a way to liven up your naturally straight hair, then a good curling iron can give you a completely new look! 

Best Automatic Curling Iron 2021

How to Curl Medium Length Hair with a Flat Iron