12 Helpful Tips for Curling Iron Beginners

Spend a few minutes watching hair tutorials on your favorite social media platform, and you’ll quickly learn there’s a hair tool for everyone and every hair type. There are flat irons, rotating curlers, curling wands, and — of course — the trusty curling iron.

But make no mistake — the curling iron has come a long way since you (or possibly your mother) were in high school. Not only can you choose from various barrel sizes, but you can also select an iron based on the materials it’s made of and whether or not you can adjust the temperature.

Of course, all those options mean you need to understand what each feature will offer you. But it’s not only the curling iron itself that matters; you also need to know how to use it. We’re here to help with guidance to choose the right curling iron for you plus tips to curl your hair with it safely and effectively.

12 Helpful Tips for Curling Iron Beginners

A Curling Iron How-To for the Perfect ‘Do

Once you’ve picked the right styling tool, it’s time to put your curling iron to work. The following tips will help you get just the right look.

Dry your hair
Set yourself up for success before you even touch your curling iron by making sure your hair is completely — and we mean completely — dry.

Protect your strands
Heat protection is imperative. If you’re using a blow dryer, use a heat protectant first. If you’ve allowed your hair to air dry, you can apply a heat-protecting product before you start curling.

Prep for a good hold
Depending on your hair texture, you may want to use a styling product that gives your hair extra hold. Maybe you opt for a product you use in wet hair (like mousse), or you might simply use a spritz of hairspray on each section before you take the curling iron to it. Or you might do both!

Set the temp
If your curling iron has temperature settings, it’s best for the health of your hair to use the lowest temperature setting available; higher heat causes more damage, especially on thin or already damaged hair. Of course, a lower temperature setting is only a good solution if it actually creates the curls you want. If the curls fall right out — or if you find you can only get the results you want by leaving the iron in your hair for more than 10 seconds per section — turn up the heat.

Create sections
While you don’t want each section you curl to be too thick, there is some wiggle room when it comes to sectioning. With thick hair, up to 1 inch will usually work, while with thinner hair, you might be able to get away with an extra half-inch added in. That being said, thicker sections will generally lead to looser waves, while smaller sections create tighter curls, so consider playing around with how much hair you curl at a time.

Avoid the clamp crimp
There are two common ways people end up with a clamp crimp. The first is by rolling their hair toward the clamp instead of toward the barrel when they curl, which causes a deep crease where the hair folds back over the clamp. That’s easy to avoid if you pay attention to the direction in which you curl.

The second way is a bit trickier, and generally happens when you clamp your hair toward the bottom. When you clamp at the bottom, for one thing, this is where your hair is thinner, likely more damaged, and therefore more likely to show where the clamp came down. Additionally, when you clamp at the bottom, you typically leave the clamp there as you roll the rest of your hair onto the barrel, which means that bottom inch or so gets the most heat. Instead of clamping at the bottom, use the clamp at least at the midway point of your hair — if not near the roots — then feed your hair through as you continually release and close it. This method helps distribute the heat evenly throughout the curl and doesn’t keep one section of hair in the clamp for the full time.

Alternate direction
When you curl some pieces forward and some backward, you create more definition. Many hair experts recommend always curling the hair around your face away, but this is one rule you may want to consider breaking; depending on your facial structure, hairline, and hair type, inward-facing curls can create a soft frame.

Watch the time
You shouldn’t leave any section of your hair in the curling iron for longer than 10 seconds at any heat. If you’re feeding hair through and working your way down from roots to tip, the entire process per section might take longer, but make sure you keep the iron moving. And for looser waves on an iron that doesn’t feature temperature settings, try shortening the time even more.

Hold your curling iron with purpose
Curling your hair while holding your iron horizontally can create more bounce, while holding it vertically can create less, especially with hair that holds curls well. If your tresses like to play hard to get with the curls, this technique is unlikely to make much difference.

Don’t curl from top to bottom
If you want a more modern, beachy look, leave an inch or more of your ends out of your iron as you curl. To create even more definition, you might even want to hit your ends with a flat iron. For a super casual look, start your curls around the midpoint of your hair and just add a couple of waves. Leaving out the top — or bottom — of your hair can really transform the final product.

Let those curls set
Try not to touch your curls until they’ve cooled completely. After cooling, you might consider gently spraying your hair with a soft-hold hairspray to keep them intact. If you want to keep your curls tighter, try pinning them against your head as they cool. And to get the most out of your hard work, don’t immediately reach for your brush! In many cases, a light finger combing will tousle your curls enough to achieve the look you want. And for a more polished appearance, a wide-tooth comb might do the trick. A brush designed for curly hair will smooth things out significantly, so make sure that’s what you want before you start brushing.

Clean up
Once the curling iron has been unplugged and completely cooled, wipe away any product build-up using a damp cloth. Unless the manufacturer’s directions specify otherwise, stick to just water (alcohol, for instance, can cause damage).

After all that, the only step left to do is to make sure you take a selfie. Good hair days deserve documentation!

By Kristen Seymour

Kristen Seymour is a freelance writer and editor who has spent the last 15 years covering topics ranging from food and fitness to pets, tech and travel for outlets including USA Today, Women’s Running, Fit Bottomed Girls (where she’s a co-owner), and many more. She works from her bike desk (highly recommend!) in sunny Sarasota, Florida. When she’s not writing, you can often find her walking, running, or drinking coffee at the nearby beach.