If your hair dryer, flat iron, or curling wand recently bit the dust, you’ll have to go shopping for a replacement—and some of the trendy tech boasted by newer models might make your head spin.
The ability to provide “ionic infusion,” in particular, is boasted about on nearly every blow dryer and hot styler’s box, including several we’ve reviewed here at HighYa: the Prestige Ionic Styler, Hot Fusion Brush, and the Perfecter Fusion Styler to name a few.
The supposed benefits of ionic hair dryers include claims of shortened drying time, eliminated frizz, and creating a luxurious shine.
But is there any science to back up these claims or are ionic blow dryers just a bunch of hot air? Read on to find out.
What Are Ions, and How Did They Wind Up In Hair Tools?
An ion is an atom or molecule that’s been “charged,” meaning that it wants to do something. (Charged is the opposite of “neutral,” or at rest.)
An atom becomes charged when the number of its electrons don’t equal the number of protons. The addition of an electron will produce negative ions. Taking away an electron gives an atom a positive charge.
Either way, the concept of ions is all about positive and negative charges—and attraction. Negative ions are attracted to positive, and vice versa.
What do ions have to do with hair dryers and styling tools? Ion-infused blow dryers and hot tools that push out hot air use something called the corona effect that works like this:
Within the device is an ion emitter, which is typically made up of tiny stainless steel pins. Voltage is applied to the emitter to create a strong electric field near their very points. This accelerates the level of energy of free electrons, forcing them to collide with molecules in the air and ionize.
And, since the addition of an electron will produce negative ions, that’s what typical ion-infused hair dryers will emit.
How Negative Ions Are Supposed to Help Your Hair
The ion-infused hair tool trend began with blow dryers. That’s because water has positive ions, and these positively-charged ions create static, which is generally undesirable as a hair style. (Static electricity is caused by an imbalance of positively and negatively charged electrons.)
The idea was that blasting your wet strands with negative ions would cause globs of H2O molecules to divide into smaller particles that evaporate faster. According to ionic hair tool advertisements, this has the following benefits:
- Helping your hair dry faster by breaking up the size of water droplets.
- Leaving hair soft, smooth, and shiny by closing the hair’s cuticle.
- Restoring moisture by allowing water to penetrate the hair’s shaft.
- Neutralizing static and flyaway strands to leave hair frizz-free.
Most claims made by ion-infused hair tools are based on how ions and water interact with each other and come down to drying time and neutralizing static.
Is the Science Behind Ion-Infused Hair Tools Valid?
In the short term, theory says that the ions produced by an ionic hair dryer can help reduce static electricity—something that ordinary blow dryers tend to produce.
This works because having extra charged particles (ions) in the air allows any built-up electrical charge (static electricity) to be transferred through the air to other nearby surfaces.
However, it’s worth pointing out that the ion-infused air doesn’t necessarily make a long-term difference since the “frizzy” effects of static electricity fade within a few minutes anyway.
What Are Customers Saying About Ion-Infused Hair Dryers?
According to postings at Folica.com, the majority of those who have purchased ionic hair dryers (and taken the time to comment on them) review the devices positively, saying that their hair dries faster and looks shinier.
Others reported no difference in their drying time or hair shine.
On the flip side, consumers with fine or thin hair more frequently complained that using ion-infused blow dryers made their hair fall flat.
So, do ions make a difference in your hair’s style? The answer, it turns out, is that it depends.
Why Ion-Infused Hair Tools Work for Some, But Not Others
Research suggests that the range in consumer response is likely due to different types of hair reacting to different environments. Plus, some hair just isn’t prone to static.
If your hair strands are fine and silky, ion-infused blow dryers will encourage your hair’s cuticle to lay flat and reduce the volume of your overall style. In short, ionic dryers tend to make fine, straight hair limp.
Additionally, if you live in a dry, arid climate, there likely isn’t enough humidity in the air for ionic hair tools for make a difference.
According to customer reviews, those who had the best results from an ionic blow dryer or hot tool had both thick, wavy or curly hair that was prone to frizz and they lived in a humid environment.
Keep in mind that reports of positive experiences could also be because a shopper got a new, higher-quality blow dryer that does the job better, ions or no ions. Additionally, some straight-talking and experienced stylists have gone on record to say that ions are all hype.
Related: How to Save Your Dry, Damaged Hair
Want to Fight Static? Coating Your Hair With Conditioner Gives Better Results
It’s difficult to measure the claim of ionic dryers helping hair to dry faster since there are a lot of different reasons that hair takes a certain amount of time to dry.
For example, the hair’s body, length, and texture matter a lot. So does the environmental humidity in the location of the user. Trying to dry hair in a humid bathroom after taking a shower can take longer than if hair is dried somewhere else.
However, if you’re looking for an ion-infused hot tool help to fight static and frizz, they might not be your best bet.
Instead, UCSB Science Line suggests that coating your hair with gel or some kind of conductive conditioner would have a much stronger and lasting effect than ions, which only exist while the hair dryer is running.
There are also concerns that using ionic hair dryers too frequently can lead to long-term damage.
That’s because ions are more reactive than other molecules, which means there’s a chance that they can cause your hair’s natural oils to oxidize and become brittle.
Stylists Warn to Watch the Clock When Using an Ionic Blow Dryer
“A big problem with using ionic hair dryers,” says Sierra Hinkle, a stylist at Shades Color Bar and Salon, “is that people don’t know when to stop.”
According to Sierra, “Ionic technology allows the blow dryer to dry your hair much faster, so you’re using heat, the force of the air flow, and this new technology that helps to break down water as well.”
The problem, says Sierra, happens when your hair is hot and you’re running your brush through it, but don’t take the time to notice when your hair is actually dry. “So, I think that a lot of people are over-drying their hair, especially around the face,” she says.
Sierra cautions that those with chemically lightened hair have to be even more careful, as the roots around your hairline are often processed frequently to stay natural looking, so need to be dried with care.
Stylists Warn to Turn Down the Heat to Save Your Hair
Ions aren’t the only feature that’s being touted by almost every hot tool and hair dryer—hair devices also frequently compete with heat.
“It seems every new type of hair dryer is always touted as being hotter than the next,” says Sierra. However, she cautions against using extremely high heat settings, as they’re probably not necessary.
The different heat levels should be adjusted to suit your hair texture and condition, according to Sierra.
She explains, “The high heat is available for really thick or coarse hair, and to remove excessive moisture when the hair is really wet, but always remember to keep the dryer moving and never focus on one portion of the hair for too long. The low setting is perfect for thin or fragile hair. If your hair is only damp instead of wet, it is important to use the low heat setting to prevent over-drying.”
Especially when it comes to selecting an ionic hair dryer, her advice is to invest in higher wattage and turn down the heat.
“A blow dryer that falls within the 1300 to 1875 watts range is great for anyone to use at home,” says Sierra. “Personally, I like to feel my dryer blow the hair and feel like my tool is working. You can always turn down the heat, but still maintain power.”
The only caveat to her suggestion is if you’re someone who wants to set curls or simply blow dry your bangs. In those cases, she recommends purchasing a dryer with a lower wattage because you’re not necessarily trying to minimize your blow dry time.
Don’t Want to Go Ionic? The Cool Shot Button Can Help
These days, it’s difficult to find a blow dryer or hot tool that isn’t ionic. But, what if you’re presented with options and don’t want to pay extra for the fancy technology? Sierra lets us in on a little secret regarding the mysterious “cool shot” button.
“It seals the hair cuticle, setting the final look for long-lasting hold and adds shine,” says Sierra. To use it, wait until your hair is about 80 percent dry, then switch over to the cool shot.
“All your hair needs at this stage in drying is the finishing touches, and the cool shot adequately completes the drying and protects against overheating.”
Sierra believes the “cool shot” is also great to lock in a curl, or if you set your hair in curlers, it works to cool down your hair and lock in the waves as desired.
Bottom Line: Ionic Dryers Might Save You a Few Minutes
Next time you’re in the hair tool aisle, you’ll know that “ionic” refers to the function of how a hair tool works: by generating ions. If you’re given a choice between an ionic and non-ionic hair dryer or hot tool, should you pay more for the tech?
If you have thick or coarse hair and live in a humid environment, you’re most likely to benefit from giving ionic hair tools a shot.
That being said, UCSB reports that comparison evaluations show that at most ionic models shave only a minute or so off of drying time, so don’t be swayed to spend big.
And, those with fine, flat strands, you’ll likely want to avoid ions altogether.
Finally, Sierra cautions that consumers should remember to use a heat protectant serum, lotion, or spray to ensure that your hair stays protected during styling and to reduce the chance of future flyaways.