After more than 20 hours of research and interviews, more than five hours of putting seven dryers to speed, heat, and time tests, and a holiday season’s worth of hair styling, we’ve worked our way through all the marketing claims to find out that no hair dryer is going to make your hair look better or dry faster than the leading competition. In our tests, drugstore dryers and luxury dryers alike accomplished the job in the same amount of time with the same styling results.
Still, not all dryers are equal, and what sets the best dryer apart from the rest is how it feels in your hand. That means it’s light, not bulky; it has a comfortable handle, a nice finish, and a long cord. The Rusk CTC Lite was the second-lightest and had one of the most comfortable handles, the easiest-to-push cool shot button, design that meant buttons were harder to hit accidentally than those on the competition, and an 8.5-foot cord. Best of all, it’s hundreds of dollars cheaper than some popular competitors, and its glossy black color and simple design will look sophisticated perched next to your bathroom mirror.
If you want a hair dryer on the smaller side or our top pick is sold out, we recommend the Xtava Peony. Of all the dryers we tested, it had the best handle—curved and easy to wield. The 7.5-foot cord means you don’t have to worry about having an outlet super close to your mirror. Its dimensions are a little slimmer than the Rusk CTC Lite, so it’s slightly easier to throw in a weekend bag, and it doesn’t sacrifice any of the wind speed and air temperature of a full-sized dryer. In fact, on its highest setting we found it blows air a little too hard, making it noisy when it’s right next to your ear and creating more potential for tangled hair. The diffuser has to be purchased separately and is collapsable: not ideal for everyday use if you have curls, but a good option for travel.
If a super-light hair dryer is important to you—maybe you have arthritis and/or a ton of hair—we recommend the Conair Comfort Touch Tourmaline Ceramic Dryer. It was the very lightest dryer that we tested and the least expensive, too, but dried hair as fast as the rest. The cord is only five feet long, which won’t matter if you have an outlet near the mirror where you do your hair, but will make maneuvering it around a pain at best if you don’t. The casing feels cheaper, too; the handle is thicker than our other picks, and some reviews say that the numbers next to the buttons wear off. This dryer does the job, but you’ll most likely be happier spending a few extra dollars and upgrading to our top pick.
We interviewed two dermatologists to learn how heat styling affects hair: Melissa Piliang, who specializes in hair disorders at the Cleveland Clinic, and Rebecca Kazin, an assistant professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins. We also spoke to Allen Ruiz, Aveda Global Director of Hair Styling; Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist; Jim Shapiro, an electrical engineer; and a second engineer at a large research university just long enough to get his informed opinion that there’s no obvious mechanism for a lot of the claims that hair dryers make. We consulted consumer magazine listicles (before mostly throwing them out) and patents.
I have a ton of hair. I spent much of my teen years and then some being let down by big promises on shampoo bottles and appliances. Case in point: In the tenth grade, I used $100 or so of my babysitting money on a red CHI hair dryer, a brand with a cult following at my high school, to match my similarly-spendy red CHI straightener.
They worked, in my memory, just a bit better than my best drugstore appliance finds. But I still needed a lengthy morning routine to get the pin-straight hair I so coveted.
Ultimately, I gave the spendy dryer away to a friend and started using my roommate’s perfectly functional Revlon dryer instead. I care about what tools, solutions, and stylists touch my hair; I will happily spend money on beauty appliances and give them space in my teeny apartment, but only if they really work.
If you can’t leave the house with wet hair for aesthetic reasons or because it’s below freezing outside and you don’t want your head to be covered in icicles, you’re going to want a hair dryer. You’ll also need one if you plan on using other hot tools on your hair. Make sure you’re really getting your hair dry if you are going to take a flat iron to it. (Smushing hair between two hot pieces of metal is really bad for it if it’s still wet, according to our dermatologist sources.) But even if you normally let your hair air-dry, blow-drying it could help protect it from breakage.
If you have a hair dryer that’s 1,800 or more watts, not too heavy, and in possession of a long enough cord, and—if you prefer a curly or wavy hairstyle—a diffuser attachment, you can stick with what you have now.
However, if you have a cheaper hair dryer that tires your wrists or is slowing down in its old age and you blow dry your hair frequently, you might consider switching to our pick before your current one bites the dust. A good hair dryer isn’t just competent at getting the water off your hair: It’s light enough for you to hold above your head for several minutes, the buttons are easy to push without getting in your way, the handle fits easily in your hand, and the finish of the plastic feels nice.
As we outline in the next sections, unless you are using a travel dryer or an old one that doesn’t blow air as quickly as it once did, a different hair dryer isn’t going to make your hair look any different. If you don’t like your hair, switching your hair dryer isn’t going to help (sorry, high school me!).
Hair dryer boxes are adorned with a ton of buzz words and specs. Most of them are useless at best and pseudoscience at worst. There are no clinical studies on one type of hair dryer being better for your hair than another—at least, none that we, nor the dermatologists that we interviewed, could find.
The hotness and fastness of a hair dryer are connected to wattage, but they’re not perfectly correlated: a very high-wattage dryer can produce more heat than a lower-wattage one, but that doesn’t mean that it will. Most hair dryers are about 1,875 watts, anyway, and, according to our engineer, Jim Shapiro, “essentially all of the energy used by each dryer will be converted into heat, so don’t expect or look for much difference among the dryers here.” This is where we arrive at a central truth about hair dryers: there’s not a lot of difference between them based on advertised specs.
There are a few qualities that don’t have anything to do with speed or heat that helped us narrow down a very, very large field before we could test them: multiple heat settings, a cool shot button, a nozzle that’s compatible with attachments, and an intake filter that’s removable so that you can clean out debris. Most dryers have all those things, so it was easy to chuck ones that didn’t.
Multiple heat settings mean you don’t have to keep blasting your hair on high—and incurring more damage—once it’s mostly dry. And once it’s totally dry, a cool shot button, according to countless expert opinions we read, will help seal your hair cuticle. (I personally have never noticed a huge difference, but the cool air feels nice if your head is hot and the button is such a common feature that your dryer might as well have one.)
An often-overlooked feature for any dryer you pick is a cord that reaches from the outlet that you want to plug it into to the spot where you want to stand to dry your hair, around six to nine feet. Many bathrooms have an outlet near enough to the mirror that a short cord won’t matter. But if your mirror is more than three steps from an outlet there’s no way around a longer cord; it’s unsafe to add an extension cord to a device that draws as large a wattage as a hair dryer. You might as well avoid the whole issue by going with a longer cord in the first place.
The best dryer for the most people will be compatible with a diffuser to help dry curly, wavy, or textured hair (and preferably comes with one in the box). If you have straight hair or are trying to straighten your hair with the dryer, you won’t need one. See the “how to dry your hair” section for more info on how a diffuser can help minimize damage to your hair.
A hair dryer with a filter you can just pop off the back is much easier to clean. Without a removable filter, this process is kind of a pain, because you have to actually take the hair dryer apart.
Objective features aside, the main thing that separated the dryers we loved from the ones we never used was a little bit harder to quantify: how they felt in our hands. The lighter the dryer, the easier it will be to hold for a longer period of time. A curved handle is easier to hold, too, and buttons that are placed either entirely on the front of the dryer or entirely on the back so they don’t poke your hand and are hard to hit accidentally. Finally, a dryer’s sound shouldn’t be annoying. Most dryers clock in at the same decibel level, but some dryers can make whiny noises.
Ultimately, because there were so many dryers that fit our criteria, we picked seven to test that had great reviews from other sources like Good Housekeeping (which, unlike most consumer mags, has a testing strategy for their recommended dryers), Amazon, Sephora, and drugstore websites.
A common feature that hair dryers tout is the ability to make your hair shinier. When I asked Ruiz the best way to get shiny hair, he said, “use a product that leaves the hair shiny and smooth.” Which is to say shiny hair doesn’t really have to do with the dryer. Romanowski told us that the only things a blow dryer can do that products can’t is “dry the hair more uniformly and keep hair straight.” Straight hair can be shinier hair: the cuticle lies flatter, reflecting light. But even if your goal is to have shiny straight hair, the only qualities that will help you do that more effectively are good old “hot and fast.”
There are plenty of features touted by sources quoted in marketing materials and pretty much every buying guide: ceramic coils, an ion generator, and “tourmaline.” They are also features of nearly all dryers. One thing that you should definitely should avoid are retail employees who tell you a $200 dryer is special “because it has ions.”
Consumer mags and hair dryer boxes commonly tout ions as a feature that makes hair less frizzy and more shiny. I visited the hair dryer section of Sephora twice while writing this guide and failed to extract any logical reason from the salespeople as to why their curated selection of designer dryers were better than others.
Hair dryers do produce ions, which are just particles (of air, in this case) that are charged (negatively, in this case). We found a report in which a high school physics teacher put an ionic dryer in front of a device that measures ions, and lo, it found something to measure.
Since almost all hair dryers are “ionic” it’s hardly a thing worth debating about, except for academic clarity. Our tests (below) didn’t show any meaningful difference with ionic settings on or off.
Our engineer expert’s official opinion: “Ions? Please.”
Another claim with ions is that they can break up water molecules and speed up drying time. We couldn’t find any reason why this could be the case, and neither could the engineers we spoke to. Doctor and prominent skeptic Ben Goldacre has questioned the ions-make-water-droplets-smaller phenomenon, too, on his blog Bad Science. Still, for good measure, we planned to test a dryer with an “ion button” with and without ions in effect, just to see for ourselves if there was something we were missing.
Finally, sometimes hair dryers with an on/off ion button will say that the feature is there so that the dryer can be used with the ion button “off” on fine hair to make it more voluminous. This could only possibly work if you were going for the kind of volume produced by static electricity.
Our dermatologists recommended ceramic-coated coils. They provide “a more even heat,” according to Piliang, than other metals. All hair dryers work by heating up an element like a metal coil and then blowing air over it, which carries the heat to your head. Ceramic does heat up faster and radiate heat evenly than iron or nickel. (Incidentally, many space heaters, including our top pick, also employ ceramic.) But the engineers we spoke to were skeptical that this made much of a difference when it came to drying hair. Radiant heat isn’t really helpful “unless you expect to direct the heat far from the dryer,” says Shapiro, like if you were trying to use a dryer to heat a room for some reason. Any metal heating element in a dryer will get the heat to your head via the blowing air. And while ceramic does heat evenly, we couldn’t feel a difference in the heat coming from the dryers we tested, and you should be moving your dryer around as you do your hair anyway. The bottom line is that most hair dryers have ceramic coated elements anyway; don’t let a box fool you into thinking you’re getting something special.
Another material commonly found inside hair dryers is the mineral tourmaline. Even a piddly little wall-mounted hair dryer in a hotel I stayed at in the course of writing this guide claimed to have it. It is very pretty, but as our engineer said: “Tourmaline? Please, squared.” It’s impossible to see the tourmaline because it’s ground up and in the barrel of the dryer, and it doesn’t have to be present in very large amounts to be advertised on the box: patents for “gemstone dryers” that we read involved a slew of different minerals that were used to coat the inside of the dryer. Dermatologist Rebecca Kazin told us that she looks for tourmaline in a hair dryer, but that there were no clinical studies on it being better for hair. Her exact words were “I believe in tourmaline.” We read—in a patent—that heated tourmaline can emit electromagnetic radiation which can alter the structure of your hair. The man who holds that patent also has one for a device that diagnoses “body deficiencies” (the patent is not specific, but it does say you treat them with drugs) by measuring a patient’s electromagnetic field. Now is a good time to say that patents can give you a great idea of how something is supposed to work but are not necessarily fact checked for scientific accuracy.
You definitely can ignore claims about “conditioning nanobeads” or “silk proteins” that are, supposedly, infused in the heating elements and barrels of some dryers. “That is just marketing hype,” says Romanowski.
I took basic stats on the pack of seven hair dryers, using a weather meter to test speed and heat, an iPhone app to test volume in decibels, and a postage scale to weigh them. I found that on the top setting at a distance of a few inches, all dryers blew air at about 40 miles per hour that was 120°F and had a loudness of about 95 decibels.
Next, I timed them drying a swatch of hair wetted with five grams of water with the dryers on their highest setting. I tested the dryer that had a on/off switch for ions, the Harry Josh, in both positions. If there were big differences in the quality of the air given off by a dryer, it would show in these tests.
With a few dryers eliminated, I put my four favorites to a few more time tests with the hair swatch and took them home for a couple weeks and used them in my daily routine, timing how long it took them to dry my hair and feeling for any general differences in the quality of the resulting blow-out. I found basically none. Many of the dryers we looked at claimed that they are some percentage faster than the competition and that they leave your hair looking better than the competition does, often corroborated by Amazon reviews. There could well be a collection of slow dryers out there that make your hair look like crap that everyone is comparing these to; we didn’t seek them out.
Why do people think their hair looks nicer with this or that more expensive dryer? The placebo effect is strong, perhaps. And, while we’re on the topic of bias, we should mention that our methods weren’t double-blinded or rigorous enough for submitting to an academic journal. But nothing we’ve learned from engineers, chemists, or stylists has suggested that there should—or can—be some glaring difference between dryers that have the same temperature and wind speed. Instead, we found there are a number of other features, like button placement and size, cord length, and weight that are rarely discussed but very important to the overall experience of using a hair dryer.
Note: Our top pick, the Rusk CTC Lite, has nearly doubled in price since we first published this guide. The benefits of the Rusk CTC Lite over our runner-up pick (namely, its easier-to-hold design and neutral color) likely aren’t worth the extra money for most people. We’re going to make the Xtava Peony our top pick (if you have curly hair, consider purchasing the diffuser, which is sold separately). Stay tuned for a rewrite of the guide.
In a crowded field of hair dryers with each trying to claim to have more complex technology than the competition, the Rusk CTC Lite manages to get the job done just as fast as the top competition while costing hundreds of dollars less.
The Rusk CTC Lite was lighter than almost all dryers we looked at, the buttons were all nicely placed—easy to push but hard to push accidentally—and the cord is long enough (8 feet, 7 inches) to reach distant outlets. The housing is nice: it’s glossy, the logo is understated, and the nozzle is on the shorter side. The sound of the air is smooth. It comes with both a concentrator and a diffuser. Most importantly, it gets the job done just as quickly as every other dryer we tested.
The buttons on this one are all located in a logical position. (Sounds like a small thing, but we disqualified one dryer from our favorites for buttons that would poke your hand.) The cool shot button is easy to reach, and unlike other dryers, the cool shot button is wide, so holding it down for several seconds won’t be uncomfortable.
The glossy finish of the dryer’s plastic feels and looks nice. Sure, that’s superficial, but “the way the housing looks” was the only difference that I noticed between the drugstore dryers and the stuff on sale at Sephora. With its understated design, this one won’t look cheap sitting in a fancy bathroom.
The Rusk CTC Lite took about the same amount of time to blow dry a hair swatch in testing trials as the rest, and to blow dry my whole head of hair when I used it in my morning routine, as every other dryer I tested. And it made my hair look just as nice as the $300 dryer I tested did.
There’s not much that’s wrong with the Rusk CTC Lite. My two complaints are that it could be smaller: the handle was a little thicker than that of the competing dryers, and the nozzle a little longer. This one would take up slightly more space in a weekend bag (though it would be better at keeping you under a weight limit) than our runner-up.
This dryer doesn’t have the best concentrator attachment—it slides on over the nozzle, rather than screwing on the end like the diffuser does. Some Amazon reviews complain that the concentrator falls off during blow drying. I found that I had to shake the dryer pretty vigorously to get it to come off. If you take an extra moment to really push it on the end of the nozzle, you should be totally fine.
The high setting on this dryer is very high—it maxed out our weather meter at over 65 mph. Interestingly, that didn’t meant that the dryer performed better in drying time tests, either with a hair swatch or when I used it to dry my whole head. That could be because it whips hair around so much that it can’t stay in the hot stream of air or that I had to hold it further from my head because the wind speed was so high. If you have hair that’s very prone to tangling, this dryer might not be for you (or at least, you should use it on the lower setting). The fast air also sounded loud and felt forceful right next to my ear.
This one also doesn’t come with a diffuser. Xtava sells a collapsible one on Amazon. While that’s great for travel, some of the reviewers complained that it doesn’t really work for scooping up heavier hair in the bowel of the diffuser, since it partially collapses under the pressure. A universal diffuser is another option (like this one, though we haven’t tested it), but the reviews are mixed on that one, too.
Also note that the Xtava comes with a one-year limited warranty, which is shorter than our other picks.
First, an upside over our other top picks: At 0.91 pounds, this one was the lighter than most of the dryers we tested by about a tenth of a pound—a difference that I could feel. While I didn’t mind the weight of our top pick or runner-up at all (our top pick is only slightly heavier, at 0.95 pounds), buy this one if having a very light dryer is a priority for you.
There are two big downsides to this dryer: the handle is thicker and straighter than the others we tested—something I’ve found to be true of many drugstore hair dryers in my research—making it a little more annoying to hold.
The cord is also shorter, at just five feet. If your outlet is more than three steps from where you intend to dry your hair, you need to choose a different dryer; don’t try hooking it up to an extension cord, as it could start a fire.
Instead of buttons that you push, this one has a pair that slide between the different heat and speed settings. This wasn’t my favorite arrangement—it was a little harder to switch to a middle setting, and easy to slide off of it to a high setting—but if you are okay with the feel of the cheaper casing overall, this probably isn’t a big deal.
To provide access to the filter, this dryer features a hatch instead of a twist-off cap. It’s slightly clunkier to use, but it also means there’s no way possible way to lose the back of the dryer.
A review on Amazon says that the letters next to the settings, which are controlled with a slide, wore off after a few months. It shouldn’t be rocket science to figure out the settings without them, but if you use your dryer a lot, you’d probably prefer one where that didn’t happen. Another noted that the plastic coating on the handle started peeling after a while.
Piliang, one of the dermatologists, advises that “it’s best to embrace your natural texture” and not fight it when you are choosing how to dry your hair, because that can, in the long term, make it frizzier. Ads for hair products and consumer magazines like to equate “healthy hair” with “smooth and shiny hair.” But shininess isn’t the same as health; I checked with dermatologists.
All hair dryers will cause some damage. Hair cuticles are “kind of like shingles on a roof,” Piliang explains. Heat causes them to dry out and peel up, which can let in moisture and increase frizz. Some hair is just naturally drier to to begin with, which means it starts out more prone to frizz. Also worth noting: there’s not really a risk of actually burning your hair with a hair or scalp with a hair dryer the way that you might with a straightener or curling iron.
To minimize damage, Piliang advises decreasing the overall time you have to spend pointing hot air at your hair by towel-drying it first. Then, blow dry it in sections. Clip some of your hair up in a half ponytail, dry what’s underneath, then undo the ponytail, so you’re not just subjecting the same dry strands to direct heat. While you’re drying, hold the blow dryer so it shoots air downward with the grain of the hair cuticle, rather than against it.
And don’t keep blasting your hair with the highest heat setting, says Piliang. When your hair is almost dry, turn down it to a lower setting. (Personally, I’m too impatient for this.) Also, don’t use a metal round brush to style your hair, Piliang told us. It just transfers heat directly to your hair, which is bad for its cuticles. Use a plastic brush and “keep things moving,” she said, so you’re not blasting any one spot with heat for too long.
A quick aside, on heat protecting styling products, like serums and sprays: Ruiz suggested that they are a good shield against damage. I’ve heard this from other stylists before, too—once, a hair dresser told me that I could straighten my hair every day if I used a heat protector. Romanowski, the cosmetic chemist (along with my own anecdotal experience of ending up with super dry hair) said that they are not super effective.
I’m going to break down why I think the Harry Josh Pro Tools Pro Dryer 2000 costs as much as it does, because I think it’s representative of many other hair dryers on the market that cost hundreds of dollars.
The Harry Josh PR team seems successful: the product appears three times in this list of products beauty editors “swear by.” The team has also done a great job of getting targeted ads all over my Facebook: definitely before I started on this research project, and I think before I had ever even clicked on the product. The infomercial the ads link to features the man Harry Josh himself discussing women whose hair he’s styled for magazines. Covers flash on the screen: Amanda Seyfried, Katy Perry, Tina Fey. The instagram tag #HarryJosh reveals user shots of the dryer messily nestled among expensive makeup products, styled PR shots of Josh products, and supermodel Karlie Kloss kissing Josh on the cheek.
“I want women to invest in a quality blow dryer,” says Josh in the video. “This should be the most expensive item in a woman’s bathroom.”
Then there are the things about this dryer that are genuinely nice. It has a short nozzle, which would make it slightly easier to fit in a suitcase when traveling, though our top pick and runner-up weren’t so much bigger that it would be an issue in your average weekend bag. The matte finish seafoam green color is really pretty.1 I truly think that, in addition to the proximity to celebrity hair, that this is what you’re paying for. The cool shot button was easy to push, and the buttons were all placed nicely on the back of the dryer: not poking, no accidental pushing.
Ignoring the price, there was only one major downside: on the scale, the Harry Josh clocked in on the heavier side of what we tested at 1.21 pounds, not accounting for the cord. (The cord was also 9 feet, which sort of undoes some of the travel-friendliness of its small size.)
When I used this on my hair, my hair looked the same as it did with other dryers and took about the same amount of time to dry. So, if you want to use the same thing that’s used on the heads of models (maybe, sometimes) and are willing to pay for that, this is for you. But it’s not going to give you their hair.
Next, the dryers I tested that I wouldn’t buy:
The Amazon reviews on the Parlux 3200 Compact 1900 Watts are pretty good, and the compact design is nice. But the buttons on this one were on the side and they made the dryer hard for me to hold without getting poked in the hand.
The handle on the Remington AC2015 vibrated unpleasantly when it was on its highest speed setting. Pass.
The Babyliss Pro BABNT5548 2000 Watt Ionic Nano Titanium with Integrated Ion Generator had a slight whining sound to it. Another pass.
We didn’t test Dyson’s Supersonic hair dryer. Gizmodo gave it a positive review, so we wanted to address why we don’t think it’s worth the $400 price tag. Foremost, it’s heavy—Dyson lists it at 1.8 pounds, twice as heavy as our top pick. Although it might be quieter than our pick, it still seems fairly noisy, judging from a Gizmodo video of the dryer in action. Dyson claims that the technology measures and adjusts the temperature of the air that the Supersonic emits, but this feature is unnecessary; any dryer with a couple of heat settings will get the job done just fine. The Supersonic also claims to have “high velocity airflow,” which can reduce drying time. However, I found that the higher the wind speed of the dryer, the more my hair whipped around and the harder it was to style. Still, if you want a dryer with a high wind speed, consider our runner-up, the Xtava Peony.
On dryers with straightening attachments
When I was in high school I also had a Conair 1875 Watt 3-in-1 Ionic Hair Styler, which has a long row of grills instead of a circular nozzle and a brush attachment, which I’d use to get my frizzy curly-ish hair into some kind of straight-ish formation before taking a flat iron to it.
We left this dryer out because people use dryers for more than straightening their hair, which this dryer didn’t even accomplish on its own for me. There’s also no way to attach a diffuser, which means you’re stuck with a single-purpose dryer. Besides, guides on blow-outs, like this one from Real Simple, recommend using a concentrator attachment and a round brush to get straight hair.
On travel dryers
We left these off our list for a few reasons. Based on what we know about the non-magic of ions and tourmaline and how an inexpensive Conair dryer performed in test, any hotel dryer that’s over 1,800 watts should give you the same results as a spendier one that you bring from home.
If you are only buying one hair dryer, you probably don’t want to have to use a travel dryer while you’re at home. Travel dryers sacrifice comfort (their handles are clunky) and have additional components that can break. Some of the truly smaller ones, like the Travel Smart by Conair 1200-Watt Folding Travel Hair Dryer, are smaller at the expense of offering solid wattage, the ability to attach a diffuser, and a cool shot button.
When we selected hair dryers to test, we looked for a few with shorter nozzles and that were super lightweight. If you’re set on packing your dryer, it’s not too much harder to fit our top picks in a weekend bag anyway.
All of the hair dryers we tested were basically effective at accomplishing the job at hand. There could be some secret lab somewhere where super hair dryer engineers are using antimatter to annihilate water molecules or finding other particles that will shoot out of handheld motors and transform your hair into the hair of your dreams. We can’t prove that all the things that the sides of hair dryer boxes say are not true. (The high school girl in me who just wants her hair to look nice certainly wants them to be.) Absent more evidence, the right things to focus on when selecting a dryer are how it feels in your hands, how easy it is to use, and sounds to your ear; the Rusk CTC Lite feels and sounds great.
(Photos by Michael Hession)
Originally published: February 16, 2016