The Difference Between Hair Dryers: Infrared, Ionic, and More

Should you splurge?

Different types of hair dryers on white background

Byrdie

Purchasing a hair dryer is a confusing process—and the inscrutable terminology brands use to market their blow-dryers doesn't help. We see words like "ionic," "tourmaline," and "infrared hair dryer" on the packaging, and we figure those must refer to something we want. But do we understand what these terms mean and how they translate to actual quality?

The key to finding a high-quality hair dryer starts with understanding your hair type and drying habits and matching the technology to those needs. Typically, what sets the high-quality dryers apart from the rest is an airstream that's evenly heated, which allows you to dry your hair quickly without overheating certain sections and damaging them. "High-quality dryers generally incorporate advanced dryer components, heating, and airflow technology to enable this," says hair expert Ming Tran. Multiple heat and speed settings can help, as can ionic, ceramic, and tourmaline technology, which serve to customize the drying experience.

But how can you tell just from the packaging which type of dryer will work best for your hair? That's where Tran and other hair experts come in. 

Meet the Expert

  • Heather Coughlin is the director of product development at Amika, a professional haircare beauty brand. She is based in Brooklyn.
  • Ming Tran is the director of operations at T3 Micro. She previously worked as a senior product manager for the brand and is based in Los Angeles.
  • Paulette Heller is the vice president of Marketing at Conair. She has been with the brand for over 35 years and is based in New York City.

Keep scrolling for your crash course in the language of hair dryers and how to choose the right one for you.

Tourmaline

Let's start with what the heck "tourmaline" means. We see this word on dryers both drugstore and high-end but what exactly does it do? According to Heller, tourmaline is a semiprecious gemstone that's crushed into a fine powder and built into the internal components of a hair dryer.

When this powder is heated, cooled, or pressurized, it generates an electrical charge, emitting both negative ions and far-infrared heat, says Coughlin. "When used within a dryer (or any other hot tool), the far-infrared heat locks in hair's moisture, while the negative ions seal the cuticle to deliver shiny, frizz-free results," she says.

But, when you're using other tourmaline hot tools, be sure that they're made with tourmaline technology and not just a tourmaline coating. A coating will flake off over time, while the real deal stays effective for longer, meaning it protects your hair for longer, too.

amika mini dryer
Amika Mighty Mini Dryer $60.00
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This travel dryer may be mini, but its tourmaline-infused technology works well to combat frizz. And we love the brand's fun colors and artistic designs that set it apart from other monochromatic dryers.

Ceramic

Compounded ceramic is another common addition to the structure of premium-quality hair dryers, says Heller. The benefit of ceramic is that it heats up quickly and evenly across its surface and generates infrared heat. This means it works to gently dry hair from the inside out and protects it from excess damage. Translation: If you see the word "ceramic" in the product description, consider it a positive.

BaBylissPRO Ceramix Extreme Hair Dryer
BaBylissPRO Ceramix Xtreme Hair Dryer $75.00
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A longtime user favorite, this ceramic tool dries hair at lightning speed, helping it hold onto moisture and shine.

Infrared

Infrared heat is radiated heat, so it warms things from the inside out, meaning it's gentle but still powerful and a solid choice for those with dry, damaged, or color-treated hair. The downside, however, is cost. Infrared products tend to be costlier than standard heat products but they are said to reduce drying time (so they're a worthy investment if you waste a lot of time drying your hair).

Zuvi Halo Hair Dryer
Zuvi Halo Hair Dryer $379.00
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The Zuvi Halo uses patented technology that dries the surface of the hair, but locks moisture within. The result is a mane with up to 109% more moisture, according to the company, plus lots of shine. It also promises to help retain hair color for longer.

Wattage

Personally, whenever I see the word "wattage" listed on a hair dryer, it reminds me of high school science, which makes me immediately want to disengage. But according to Coughlin, it's not that scary. "A dryer's wind power is measured in watts, so the higher the number, the quicker the drying time," she says. If you have coarse or thick hair, opt for a dryer with 1800W or more. "Fine and short hair can still get great results using a dryer with much less airflow," says Coughlin.

Drybar Buttercup Blow Dryer
Drybar Buttercup Blow Dryer $199.00
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The strong 1875-watt motor is only one of this pro-approved dryer's many perks. (Others include its multiple speed and heat settings, ultra-long cord, and one-pound weight).

AC vs. DC

When you see labels like "AC" or "DC" on a dryer, it refers to current. "An alternating current (AC) motor tends to be the professional choice, as it is typically stronger and hotter than a dryer utilizing a direct current (DC) motor," Coughlin explains.

That said, a DC dryer is great for everyday users because it's much more lightweight. While it won't last as long as an AC, Coughlin says this will not affect the average at-home user the way it might a stylist, who uses their dryer all day, every day. In other words, if you're a regular consumer, feel free to go DC.

Harry Josh Pro Tools Pro Dryer 2000
Harry Josh Pro Tools Pro Dryer 2000 $249.00
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It may be pricey, but this dryer has developed a cult following for its pro-quality AC motor (and undeniably chic aesthetic).

Brushless Motor

"Brushless motor" is a lesser-known term, and that's because the technology is relatively new. "Most dryer motors use carbon brushes that wear out over time, causing the motor to stop working," says Heller. By contrast, brushless motors use magnets and electronics to drive the motor, extending the life of the dryer 10 times longer than AC motor dryers.

"This motor type delivers the best of both worlds—it’s lightweight, whisper-quiet, and delivers a strong airflow and maximum heat for quick and frizz-free results," adds Coughlin. "Dryers that utilize this motor type are more expensive; however, the lifetime of the dryer is often five to 10 years versus the standard one to two years."

Conair Infiniti Pro 3Q Hair Dryer
Conair Infiniti Pro 3Q Hair Dryer $70.00
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This brushless motor dries hair shockingly fast and leaves it ultra-shiny. For the price especially, we highly recommend it.

Ionic

Ionic is another word that reminds me of a high school physics class. But Heller breaks it down like this: Ions are invisible particles that are present all around us, but positively charged ions create noticeable problems for our hair, like static electricity, frizz, and flyaways.

What ionic styling tools do is emit negative ions to attract positive ones and neutralize them. "When negative ions neutralize positive ions, they eliminate static electricity," she says. Ionic hot tools can also go by "nano-ionic" or "tourmaline ionic," but don't worry, they all do the same thing: Reduce frizz and flyaways and boost radiance.

Hot Tools Black Gold Ionic Hair Dryer
Hot Tools Black Gold Ionic Dryer $90.00
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This affordable option offers all the frizz-fighting perks of ionic technology and includes a concentrator and diffuser.

Factors to Consider

When shopping for different hair dryers, you should keep a few additional factors in mind. Make sure you understand the attachments available (and what they do), the range of settings available, and the durability of the brand you have your eye on.

Attachments

When narrowing down your search, consider the different attachments hair dryers come with. Attachments help you achieve different looks more easily than blowing your hair dry with the standard nozzle.

These are the different hair dryer attachments that you may find included with your dryer:

  • Concentrators: These thin nozzles do just what their name implies—concentrate the stream of air to a thin surface area.
  • Diffusers: These attachments are go-to's for those with curly hair because they reduce the intensity of airflow.
  • Picks or Combs: These attachments can be used to create volume and are available in many styles and sizes.

Heat and Speed Settings

Take a peek at the heat settings on your prospective hair dryers. You should always blow dry at the lowest possible temperature and keep things moving so as not to damage your hair. This is especially important if you have thin hair as you don't want to purchase a hair dryer with a low setting that's still a bit too rough on your hair.

Bonus points if your dream hair dryer has a cold button. A burst of cool air can help to seal the cuticle which leads to extra shine and a locked-in style.

Always use a heat protectant when blow-drying your hair. Using a heat protectant will not only help lock in moisture but can also fend off frizz.

Durability

It's a no-brainer that you want your pricey hair dryer to last more than a year. However, it's not likely for a brand to come out and say they want you to buy their less-than-lasting product. For durability, your best bet is to turn to your peers and check out reviews from trusted sources (like us!).

The lifespan of your hair dryer will depend on how often you use it and how careful you are with storing it. On average, you can expect your hair dryer to last anywhere from two to seven years or from 600 to 1000 hours of use.

Choosing a Hair Dryer Based on Your Hair Type

You can purchase the fanciest high-wattage ionic blow dryer on the market, but if you aren't shopping with your hair type in mind then you may not end up with the results you're envisioning.

Based on your hair type, these are the types of hair dryers you should put on your wish list:

  • Thick Hair: Go for a high-wattage tourmaline dryer. (Consider weight, too, as thicker hair takes longer to blow-dry.)
  • Thin Hair: Pick a hair dryer with lower heat intensity like ceramic or porcelain models.
  • Curly Hair: Choose an ionic hair dryer with a diffuser attachment.

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