Sorting out the hype on hair dryers
Hair stylists are only as good as their tools, and a blow dryer is an essential tool for nearly any hairstyle. Today's hair dryers offer a bounty of options, all promising soft, shiny, healthy hair. In fact, it's hard to find a hair dryer that doesn't tout its ceramic, ionic or tourmaline technology. But what do these features actually do, and do you need them? Here's a quick crash course on the lingo:
- Ceramic is a composite material usually made of clay, just like the tiles on a bathroom floor. It can be used on the body of a hair dryer, the heating element, or other internal parts. This material heats up quickly and radiates it evenly across its surface. Dermatologists interviewed by TheSweethome.com say this more even heat is better for your hair, but engineers interviewed in the same article doubt it really makes a difference. They point out that hair dryers don't transfer heat by radiation; they do it with blowing air, so radiant heat shouldn't matter. In any case, nearly all hair dryers these days have ceramic-coated coils, so the word "ceramic" on the package doesn't mean you're getting anything extra.
- Ionic technology produces negatively charged ions – that is, atoms with an extra electron or two. These, in theory, help break up positively charged water droplets into smaller droplets. Stylists claim negative ions speed up drying and can also help tame frizz, as the tinier water droplets are less likely to soak into the hair shaft. However, they say this can actually be a downside if your hair lacks volume. The engineers at TheSweethome.com are skeptical about ionic technology, arguing that the only way it can really control frizz is by reducing static, which you an also do with a smoothing cream. Testers at TheSweethome.com ran the same hair dryer with its ionic feature switched on and off, and they found no difference in performance.
- Tourmaline is a naturally occurring, semi-precious mineral that produces negative ions when heated. Crushing tourmaline into a powder and coating the dryer's components with it boosts its ionic output – but it also boosts the price, since tourmaline is a rare and pricey stone. And, as TheSweethome.com points out, a hair dryer that says "tourmaline" on the box may not contain very much of the gemstone, so there's no guarantee you're getting what you pay for.
So, if ceramic, ionic, and tourmaline technology don't matter very much, what does? Well, for a start, it has to produce enough heat and airflow to dry your tresses quickly. However, you don't need tremendous wattage to get good airflow. According to most experts, any hair dryer with at least 1,800 watts of power can get the job done.
Just because a hair dryer is capable of running hot and fast, however, doesn't mean it always should. Hairstylist Josue Perez says in a Huffington Post interview that high heat is best for thick or coarse hair, while fine or delicate hair needs low heat to avoid damage. It's also important to use low heat when the hair is only slightly damp to avoid over-drying, which can fry your locks. Most hair dryers have at least two heat settings, but not all have separate controls for speed and heat, which are important if you want to be able to create a variety of styles. Experts also recommend a cool-shot button for setting a style and preserving shine.
With the exception of cheap travel dryers, nearly all hair dryers have all these key features. Where they differ is in ease of use. A hair dryer needs to be light enough and comfortable enough to hold up for several minutes at a time while styling, and not so loud that it deafens you. It's also helpful to have buttons that are conveniently placed, so you can find them easily but avoid hitting them accidentally. And little touches like a longer cord and a removable filter add convenience.
Types of hair dryers
Regardless of the technology they use, hair dryers can be grouped into three broad categories, based on their power, features, intended use and price.
Salon hair dryers are the tools the professionals use. This means they have all the features needed to deliver salon-quality results: high wattage, multiple heat and speed settings, ceramic and tourmaline heating units, and ionic technology. Not every home user needs this many bells and whistles, but salon hair dryers have other pluses as well. They're often lighter and quieter than cheaper hair dryers, and they typically have better warranties and service. The downside of these models, of course, is their high price—anywhere from $75 to $300 or more. But when you compare that to the cost of a weekly trip to the salon, it starts to look a lot more reasonable.
Budget-priced hair dryers don't offer the same variety of settings and special features found on salon dryers, but they provide the basics: adjustable heat and airflow, ceramic and ionic technology, and a cold shot button to set a style. They're not as fast or as versatile as salon dryers, but they get the job done. Expect to pay $75 or less.
When you're traveling, every inch of suitcase space and every ounce of weight matters. The ideal hair dryer to take with you is as small and light as possible—ideally with a fold-up handle to fit into an even smaller space. However, there are tradeoffs to consider, as hair dryers this small are liable to be underpowered and somewhat flimsy. Most are relatively inexpensive, however -- our Best Reviewed selection costs around $15.
Finding the best hair dryers
To choose the best hair dryers, we focused mainly on how quickly each dryer works and how good it leaves hair looking when it's done. We also considered ease of use, weight, noise level, and durability. We looked at how hair dryers performed in professional comparison tests at TheSweethome.com and Good Housekeeping, recommendations from professional stylists in fashion magazines like InStyle and Allure, and reviews from ordinary home users on sites like Amazon.com, Folica.com, and TotalBeauty.com.
The $300 hair dryer that professionals love – and some less pricey alternatives
No salon hair dryer earns more recommendations from beauty professionals than the Harry Josh Pro Tools 2000 Pro Dryer. This 1,875-watt dryer is packed with distinctive features. It includes an extra-wide nozzle, a patented curved handle for extra comfort, a motor that's guaranteed to last 2,000 hours, a dual filtration-system that cuts energy use by as much as 70 percent, and a choice of eight heat, speed, and ion settings. One feature that particularly impresses the editors at Allure magazine is its ability to toggle between ionic drying for sleeker styles and non-ionic drying for more volume. And its cheery mint-green color gives it a unique look that users love.
The Harry Josh Pro Tools 2000 is an editors' pick at Allure magazine and InStyle magazine, and it gets a big thumbs-up from a staffer at Refinery29.com, who says it was "seriously magic" on her long, thick tresses. However, this hair dryer has its detractors as well. TheSweethome.com, which ran the most thorough test of hair dryers we've seen, found that the Harry Josh is a "genuinely nice" dryer with a compact shape and convenient button placement, but "not the superior hair experience that it claims to be." When editor Shannon Palus tested it at home, she found her hair dried no faster and looked no better than with any other hair dryer. And at 1.2 pounds, it was a bit heavier than other hair dryers in this comparison.
Owner reviews for the Harry Josh Pro Tools 2000 are mostly positive, but not uniformly so. At Dermstore.com, where it's primarily sold, it earns an overall rating of close to 5 stars out of 5 from nearly 300 users, many of whom say this dryer has turned styling their hair from a chore into a treat. Reviewers at TotalBeauty.com give it 8.8 stars out of 10, making it the third most popular dryer on the site. Yet at Amazon.com, it receives only a lackluster 3.7 stars --though that's based on feedback from less than 30 users.
Most owners say the dryer is seriously powerful – many go so far as to claim that it literally cut their drying time in half. Many also say it leaves hair looking amazingly smooth, soft, shiny, and healthy, allowing them to cut way down on the use of flatirons and other post-styling aids. However, we also saw multiple complaints that the dryer isn't nearly as durable as you would expect for the price. Problems include flaking finish, damaged handles, and failed motors. Although the hair dryer is covered by a 2-year warranty, the user is responsible for shipping costs. And if the back cover or screen breaks after the warranty is up, there's no way to replace it; you have to shell out another $300 to replace the whole unit.
The biggest drawback of the Harry Josh Pro Tools 2000 is its sky-high price tag. A much more moderately priced option is the BaBylissPro Nano Titanium Portofino Dryer (Est. $140). This 2,000-watt hair dryer boasts "nano titanium" technology for even heat distribution. It also has ionic technology, six heat and speed settings, and a removable rear filter for easy cleaning. It comes with more attachments than the Harry Josh – three separate concentrator nozzles, plus a diffuser – and its 4-year warranty is twice as long.
In a 2012 test at Good Housekeeping, the BaByLissPro is the hair dryer consumer testers say they'd be most willing to spend their own money on. Although the dryer is only an average performer in lab tests for drying time and shine, users beg to disagree, saying its powerful airflow dried their hair quickly and left it smooth and shiny. And although it weighs a hefty 1.8 pounds, most owners find it so comfortable to hold that they aren't bothered at all by the weight. One point on which the professional and consumer testers agree is that the dryer stays cool to the touch, so there's no risk of burns to the fingers or the scalp.
Users at Amazon.com and Ulta.com tend to agree with Good Housekeeping's testers. The BaBylissPro Nano Titanium Portofino has more than 600 reviews across both sites, earning overall ratings of 4.5 stars out of 5. Owners say it dries their hair quickly and leaves it sleek, shiny, and frizz-free. A few are bothered by its weight, but most say it's no problem. Complaints about durability are rare, but a few users report that the GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) on the cord grew dangerously hot during drying and even started to smoke – a problem that didn't come up in Good Housekeeping's tests.
If you're looking for something a bit lighter in weight, we also saw solid reviews for the Elchim 2001 Professional Hair Dryer (Est. $145), which weighs just 1.1 pounds. This Italian-made hair dryer has seven heat and speed settings and a removable lint filter, and it comes with a lifetime warranty: If the dryer breaks down at any time, you can send it to Elchim's repair center in Florida and have it fixed for around $20 (plus the cost of shipping).
At 1,800 watts, the Elchim 2001 is a little less powerful than the Harry Josh and BaByLissPro dryers. However, most users say it can still dry hair in record time. We found over 650 reviews for it at sites such as Amazon.com, Folica.com, and TotalBeauty.com, with overall ratings ranging from 4 to 5 stars. Owners praise the Elchim's fast yet gentle drying, its lightweight design, and its very quiet performance. They also say it leaves their hair very smooth and manageable. However, some users complain that the controls are awkwardly placed, making it difficult to remember which switch is for speed and which is for temperature. We also saw more complaints about durability than you would expect for a dryer this costly. While some users are pleased that Elchim offers repairs, others protest that the cost of repairs and shipping adds up to more than half the cost of replacing the dryer outright.
The very lightest salon dryer we've seen – and the lightest on your wallet, as well – is the Rusk Engineering W8Less Professional 2000 Watt Dryer (Est. $80). It weighs less than 1 pound, yet its 2,000-watt motor produces powerful airflow and heat. There are three heat settings and three speed settings to choose from, which is a good thing since the top settings could be too strong for many users. A staffer at Refinery29.com found that she had to turn the dial down from "hot" to "warm" for comfort, and the drying speed was "almost too efficient" to give her enough time for styling her bangs.
This Rusk hair dryer has received more than 1,500 reviews at Amazon.com and Ulta.com, with ratings of around 4.4 stars out of 5 across the two sites. Users describe the dryer as incredibly powerful and lightweight, and they love its multiple settings. A few find the placement of the controls awkward, but others say it's standard for a salon dryer and easy to adjust to. We also saw a smattering of durability complaints. The Rusk dryer comes with a 2-year warranty, but like Elchim's, it requires the user to return the dryer to a service center and cover return shipping costs.