How to curl your hair with a curling iron for salon-worthy results

A beauty editor’s guide to how to curl your hair with a curling iron, including styling tips from the pros

collage of curling iron and the results on Emma demonstrating how to curl your hair with a curling iron
(Image credit: Future/Emma Stoddart)

Hair stylists swear by them, but learning how to curl your hair with a curling iron can take some practice for us amateurs. For years, I turned to my trusted ghd styler to bend and wave my hair. And while straighteners do work (especially in the right hands), I found that my hair lacked the body and volume of the bouncy curls that are all over Instagram.  

That was until I tried a curling iron. A total mane-changer, the best curling irons can create every type of curl and wave on all hair types and lengths. Granted, they can take some time to master – but once you do, you won’t be able to put your beloved curling iron down. “From the moment I started hairdressing, I have loved how curls can totally transform a look,” says Adam Reed (opens in new tab), legendary hair stylist, and ambassador for ghd and L’Oréal Professionnel. “And today’s tools can be used to achieve endless styling possibilities with exceptional staying power.” 

While I'm by no means an expert at curling hair, I have picked up a few tips and tricks from professionals over the years. Plus, I’ve also tried several different curling irons (a hazard of the job) and have found a technique that works. So, if you’re keen to learn and would love some advice from the pros, scroll on down.

How to curl your hair with a curling iron, a step-by-step guide

1. Choose your curling iron

First things first, choose your device. With so many hot tools on the market, this is easier said than done, so to make the decision easier, consider the below factors:

  • Barrel size: The size of the barrel will determine the size of the curl. “If you want a tighter curl, you’ll need a thinner wand, whereas if you want a softer curl, you’d use a classic curl tong,” says Reed. For big bouncy curls, try the GHD Curve Soft Curl Tong and for tight ringlets, go for the BaByliss Tight Curls Wand. 
  • Settings: Adjustable temperature settings are key, especially for fine hair that’s prone to heat damage. As a general rule, stick to between 120°C-185°C for fine hair, 185°C for medium hair, and up to 210°C for thick hair. If hair is really fragile and damaged, consider a tool that uses low heat and airflow to curl hair (our Dyson Airwrap review can help with that.)
  • Material: Curling irons are coated with various materials. Ceramic is popular because it heats evenly and consistently for uniform results (good for fine hair). Titanium conducts heat efficiently and heats up in record time (good for medium to thick hair types). And tourmaline emits negative ions to smooth frizz and soften strands (good for curly hairstyles). 

For this article, I chose to use the BaByliss 9000 Cordless Curling Tong. As someone who prioritizes convenience, this curling iron spoke to me. I can use it in my bathroom (where my best lighting is), on holiday, and out and about, if desired.  It’s also ceramic coated which is good news for my fine hair and has three temperature settings. 

2. Use prep + styling products

hair styling products to prep hair from ghd, hair by Sam McKnight and ARKIVE

The three hair prep products Emma used

(Image credit: Emma Stoddart)

Heat protection is a non-negotiable when learning how to curl your hair with a curling iron. So, before you even think about picking up that wand, generously mist your hair with one. “Heat protect spray will protect your hair from any dryer or styler, leaving your hair with a no-product healthy feel,” says Zoe Irwin (opens in new tab), hair stylist, and ghd brand ambassador. It works by “creating an invisible barrier against everyday damage,” she continues. I spritz it all over damp hair before using my best hair dryer to blow dry hair."

I'd also recommend using a volumizing spray (specifically on the roots) to add body and fullness to fine hair. I love Hair by Sam McKnight’s Cool Girl Superlift Volumising Spray for this. And if your ends are dry like mine, apply a hair oil sparingly. 

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ghd Bodyguard Heat Protect Spray | RRP: $25/£18.95

My go-to spray powered by ghd's Heat Protection System, this lightweight mist contains protection polymers that invisibly shield your hair from potential heat damage. 

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Hair By Sam McKnight Superlift Root Boost | RRP: $34/£26

Mist this volumizing spray directly onto damp roots to boost volume and give hair a fuller, thicker appearance. 

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ARKIVE The Good Habit Hybrid Oil | RRP: $22/£14

Blended with nourishing baobab and jojoba oils, this lightweight gel-like oil gives moisture and shine to hair without weighing it down.  

3. Blow dry hair

To avoid sizzling damp strands, make sure your hair is completely dry before reaching for your curling iron. I like to let my hair dry naturally until it’s 70-80% dry and then use my hair dryer to finish. “For root lift, dry your hair upside down brushing the roots away from the scalp,” suggests Sam McKnight (opens in new tab) legendary hairstylist and founder of his eponymous haircare line. “Once your roots are dry throw your head back.” 

“For naturally curly hair, you should wash (using your best shampoo for curly hair), condition, and treat before combing through the hair – allowing the curls to form,” says Reed. “For defined curls, twist hair and then use one of the best diffusers for curly hair – moving it around and pushing it into hair to slowly dry and embrace your natural curl,” he continues. 

4. Start styling

Emma before and after curling her hair with a curling iron

Emma's hair after blow drying it smooth (l) and curling with a curling iron (r)

(Image credit: Emma Stoddart)

Now for the main event. There are several different ways to nail how to curl your hair with a curling iron, and each will give you a different look. Personally, I love undone beach hair waves that add body and movement without looking too polished. But if you prefer a glam look that is polished, “curl all sections of hair in the same direction,” says Hayes. 

Here, the experts break down how to achieve beachy, bouncy curls: 

  1. Wear gloves: “If you have a heatproof glove, definitely use this as it means you can get the end onto the tong,” says Paul Percival (opens in new tab), celebrity hairstylist and founder of Percy & Reed. Many curling tongs have a cool tip too. 
  2. Section hair: Start by sectioning hair, leaving the first section loose and clipping the rest of your hair up. 
  3. Start curling: “For a volumized look, alternate wrapping sections of hair under and over the barrel to create curls that bounce off each other,” says Hayes. To do this, hold the barrel at an angle, facing downwards, before wrapping hair around it. Hold for 10-15 seconds before releasing. 
  4. Create an ‘S’ shape: The more you wrap your hair around the wand, the tighter the curl will be. “If you’re after a wave, make sure you’re wrapping it around the barrel to create an ‘S’ shape rather than a spring,” says Percival. I find that two full twists around the barrel are enough for my long hair. 
  5. Curl away at the front: Always curl the front section of hair away from the face for a softer, more natural finish. 
  6. Leave the ends: “If you do want something beachier, leave the last couple of centimeters of hair off the tong so it’s a little bit straighter at the ends,” says Percival. This gives hair an undone, relaxed feel. 

If you have naturally curly hair but would like more definition, or some sections are straighter than others, “My tip is to match the curling iron or wand to the size of curl you have,” says Hayes, “then use your chosen tong and curl either the full head of hair or take random sections and tong bits you think need a little more definition.”

5. Use finishing products

If like me, your hair is fine and doesn’t hold a curl for long, styling spray is key. “Finish with a hairspray like Hair By Sam McKnight Modern Hairspray to lock those curls in place,” says Hayes. It’s also a good idea to mist each section of hair after tonging, before applying another layer of hairspray at the end. To avoid a crunchy feel, look out for lightweight formulas with shine-boosting benefits. 

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Hair by Sam McKnight Modern Hairspray Multi-Tasking Styling Mist | RRP: $32/£22

Not only does this hairspray smell amazing (think water lily, juniper wood, and frankincense), but it also adds shine and holds curls in place all day long. 

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Percy & Reed Reassuringly Firm Session Hold Hairspray | RRP: £14 (UK only)

This ultra-fine spray gives impressive hold without leaving behind a sticky residue. Plus, the formula is humidity resistant, to help keep frizz at bay – whatever the weather. 

Emma Stoddart

Emma Stoddart is a freelance beauty journalist and self-confessed skincare aficionado with over five years’ industry experience. Emma has worked for some of the UK’s top women’s titles including Net-A-Porter, Stylist and Grazia. Her experience spans online and print as well as producing editorial shoots with some of the industry’s biggest artists, including Val Garland. Asides from working with them behind the scenes, she’s also had the chance to interview the likes of Patrick Ta, Pat McGrath, and Sam McKnight for all their insider tips and tricks.