Whether it's to do a little length check or just to switch up their style, many people with natural hair find themselves busting out the flat iron for the occasional (or more than occasional) foray into straightened strands.
While it can be great to sport a blowout or silk press, it's also important not to expose textured hair to too much heat styling, as it could result in damage and breakage. If you're not getting the results you want when you flat iron your hair, it may not be the iron—it could be your technique. Below, read on for our tips for getting silky, healthy strands when flat ironing natural hair.
Begin With Clean Hair
The best time to flat iron your hair is immediately following a fresh shampoo and conditioning session (and deep conditioning, if necessary). "Flat ironing dirty hair will only, for lack of a better word, 'bake' the oil, dirt, and buildup into the hair, making it more susceptible to damage," says Powell. "It’s really important to start with a fresh, clean canvas when you are flat ironing natural hair."
Make Sure Your Hair Is Well Conditioned
Before you even turn on that flat iron, ask yourself this: is my hair well-conditioned? Is it moisturized? If it's not, turn that iron off and tend to your hair first. Only flat iron hair that's been regularly conditioned and cared for; otherwise, applying heat to dry, brittle hair is only prolonging the inevitable—a major cut. "I’ll use a moisturizing shampoo and I will always do a hair mask to make sure my hair is hydrated and protected," says Powell. "After showering, I’ll use a leave-in conditioner, followed by a heat protectant. I love the Miracle Leave-In ($19) from It's a 10 because it adds shine, minimizes frizz, but also is a thermal protector."
If you're usually kind of dry, deep condition your hair once a week to keep it strong and hydrated—even if you won't be flat ironing (but especially if you are).
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Use Heat Protectant
Once your hair is dry, apply a heat protectant to each section of hair before you flat iron it. "Use a heat protectant to seal the cuticle and form a protective barrier around each strand," says Powell. "The Thermasmooth Smooth Guard Serum by Mizani is the perfect option for anyone with curly hair. The anti-frizz serum will help heat tools easily glide through hair—a must for anyone with natural hair."
Don't get fooled, though—a heat protectant helps, but even the best brand won't hold up to heat that's too high.
Adjust the Temperature as Needed
Just because your iron heats up to 450 degrees doesn't mean you have to go that high. "Be mindful of how much heat you are putting on your hair because once heat damage is done, there is no going back," says Powell. "You never want to go over 400 degrees for the blow dryer or the flat iron... and for natural hair, the lower the heat, the better."
For women with natural hair, finding out that they have two or three different textures on one head may be a shock, but it's not uncommon. Your crown area may be the curliest section, which would require higher heat, but the hair on the sides of your head may be straighter, so turn the heat down when pressing that section.
If you haven't been using a flat iron with adjustable temperature controls, get your hands on one before the next time you intend to straighten your hair. "My biggest piece of advice would be to invest in the best tools possible," says Powell. "Professional or salon-grade tools are always the best." Without being able to control how hot your iron is, you won't be able to adjust heat according to your hair's specific needs.
If you hear "sizzling" or smell burning when you touch a flat iron to your natural hair, even once, it's way too hot.
Avoid Oil Before Ironing
Applying a natural oil after you iron is fine. Sometimes you need a little weight afterward, but don't put oil on your hair before you press it. This will heat the oil, and then oil will eventually deep-fry your hair. You won't get that lightweight, bouncy look you're after if you compound the damage on your hair.
Only Flat Iron Dry Hair
For the best, longest-lasting results, only flat iron hair that's totally dry. Again, doing otherwise is just a recipe to fry your hair. Does this mean you have to blow dry it straight first? Not necessarily. You can always wet wrap your hair and sit under a hood or bonnet dryer until it's dry—this is a gentler drying method and the wrapping technique smooths your hair just like blow-drying would. You can also let your hair air dry until it's about 80% dry, and then blow dry it the rest of the way.
Go Slow and Steady
Try not to flat iron when you're on a time limit. Flat ironing is a technique that requires slow, controlled movement, but also avoiding letting the iron sit in one place for any length of time. Move it, but don't rush it. Begin as close to the roots as you can, and pull the iron down in one smooth motion. If you hurry through it, you may have to go over that section again—and each additional pass makes damage more likely. "Keep the flat iron at two passes max," says Powell.
Also, the "comb or brush chase" method works wonders in helping to straighten (particularly natural hair) with just one pass. It's as simple as running a fine-toothed comb or boar bristle brush down the length of each section, right in front of the iron. This method smooths the hair and ends prior to the iron touching them, resulting in incredibly sleek locks.
Iron Small Sections
Smaller irons (1 1/2 inches or less) are better for tackling small sections of hair. Try not to press pieces wider or thicker than 1 inch at a time, even if the bigger iron is cheaper. You'll do a better job of straightening the entire section when you don't have to deal with too much hair at once. Big, chunky sections won't straighten properly.
"I love to have sturdy clips that help with sectioning hair off and keeping it in place," says Powell. "I use the Naturally Drenched Keep It Tight Styling Clips ($10) because the jaw-like design gives a larger gripping area and holds strands in place without any stress on my roots."
Finish Off With Some Gloss
Now you're ready to add some luster to your newly iron locks. "Lastly, after styling, it is always a great idea to finish everything off with a lightweight oil for some extra shine," says Powell. "Hask’s Keratin Smoothing Shine Hair Oil is great because it’s strengthening and reduces frizz."
Wrap Hair at Night
Now that your flat ironing job is complete, don't ruin all your hard work with no nighttime care. Wrap your hair at night, and cover it with silk or satin before bed. This way, your morning routine consists of little more than taking your hair down and combing through it. You already have the slight curve and volume—no more heat is required.
How Often Can I Flat Iron My Natural Hair?
"You should not flat iron natural hair more than once a month, especially if your hair is color-treated or damaged," says Powell. "Even once a month can be considered pushing it, so if you are flat ironing that frequently, it’s important that you are hyper-aware of your hair’s health."
A good rule of thumb is to consider what your hair has been through—if it's been colored, or chemically straightened recently, it's probably more than a little damaged. Therefore, It's not recommended you apply any direct heat to your hair.
How Can I Avoid Flat Ironing My Hair Again Before Wash Day?
Look into low-manipulation protective styles that allow your hair to fully recover from the effects of heat. "You can’t go wrong with a twist-out or braid-out," says Powell. "These styles will protect the hair in between flat ironing and washing and they’re super easy to achieve."
My Hair Is Relaxed. What Should I Know About Flat Ironing?
"If you have relaxed hair, flat ironing can help stretch longer in between relaxers," says Powell. "Regardless of your hair, I would recommend keeping heat to a minimum." And of course, it's important to use a heat protectant any time you flat iron.