Earlier this year, a curly-headed woman showed up at work one day with a shiny, pin-straight bob. It appeared that she had chemically straightened her hair.

“No, I just Chi’d it today,” she replied, referring to the ceramic-plate straightening irons that has revolutionized the hair industry.

The fact that Chi has become a verb as well as a noun illustrates just how far styling tools have come over the past four years. Now, it’s easier than ever to temporarily straighten the hair, to dry it or to better define curls. And the new technologies have shortened the styling time and reduced the damage associated with heat.

Companies such as Rusk, Conair, HoMedics, Sunbeam, BaByliss and Farouk Systems are developing a wide range of straightening brushes, flat irons, and curling irons in all shapes and sizes that provide professional results at home. These days, you can buy flat irons made of ceramic, sapphire and gold. There are seemingly endless combinations. BaByliss, for example, sells a Pro Ionic Air Styler — a combination thermal brush/blow dryer that uses a special ionic generator to produce a stream of negative ions to smooth the hair.

“It all evolved because people are putting more time and effort into getting their hair as smooth and straight as possible,” said Stacey Defelice, public relations coordinator for Conair.

The hottest sellers right now are ceramic appliances — devices that enable infrared heat to be more evenly distributed. These days, ceramic is being used in flat irons, curling irons and blow dryers.

“Ceramics are the big buzz word right now,” a Rite Aid spokesman recently told Chain Drug Review, a trade publication that tracks the drug store industry. “It’s definitely brought in new users to the category.”

For Redken artist Brent Borreson, the coolest new product is the Krembs Wet to Dry flat iron. The ceramic irons have channels that allow the plate to act as a squeegee, pushing excess moisture into the channels, which evaporates through steam holes. This keeps excess heat away from the head. The increase in temperature — 380 to 400 degrees — allows wet hair to be styled without significantly cooling the plates. Blowing and stretching the hair is eliminated, which leaves the hair in better condition and provides more shine than some other straightening techniques.

“The hair seems to stay straighter longer,” said Borreson, who carries his Krembs iron with him everywhere, along with several shapes of flat irons and curling irons in diameters ranging from 1/8 inch to 4 inches and his Chi blowdryer and diffuser. “It’s great on ethnic hair and great on Caucasian hair.”

Perhaps the best known of the new generation of products is the Chi iron — considered by some to be the Rolls Royce of irons.

Developed 3 1&Mac218;2 years ago, it was the first iron to use ceramic technology with infrared and negative ions. It now is the top-selling iron in its category.

It uses negative ions to produce ceramic heat that seals the cuticle, repels humidity, locks in hair color and retards fading. It is squeeze sensitive to increase the temperature with each squeeze

“It provides consistent heat rather than hot spots,” said Jason Yates, creative director of Farouk Systems, which develops and markets the growing Chi line of products. “It also produces moisturizing heat that doesn’t dry out the hair compared to copper or iron.

The Chi line has been expanding dramatically.

Now there’s the lightweight 1500-watt Turbo Chi dryer, a low electro-magnetic force dryer (It’s 1.5 MG compared to the 150 MGs of a traditional hairdryer”> that contains internal pure ceramic heated coils that produce a moist, even air temperature which results in natural, healthy shine to the hair while reducing dryness and fly aways. The negative ions break water molecule clusters into micro-fine particles, which infuse moisture into each hair shaft, sealing the cuticle while baking hair. Infrared helps dry the hair inside out with less hot air.

“There are ionic dryers but none that are ionic and ceramic,” Borreson said.

Once designed specifically for hairdressers, the company added a line of irons for consumers called Chi Turbo that offer temperature control and felt protection, rather than the squeeze control of the original. Once only available with a 1-inch plate, The Chi Turbo iron now comes in three sizes: .7-inch, 1-inch and 2-inch plates. There’s also the “Wee Chi,” a .5-inch iron that’s a smaller version of the Chi.

At the beginning of the year, the company introduced eight new Chi round curling irons in professional and consumer versions. They also use pure ceramic techynology.

“They have the same conditioning effects on the hair,” Yates said.

And Farouk Systems recently introduced the Chi Hooded Dryer, which provides ceramic heat to condition and shine the hair during chemical processes like color.

“Once we started, we wanted to fill every need the hairdresser has,” Yates said. “It started with one iron and it really has become an entity of its own.”

Companies are working on many other tools that will make life easier.

Conair just launched its Instant Heat Straightener with Thermal Glass Mirror Plates – a new flattening iron that uses glass mirror plates to provide a smoother finish.

“Nothing straightens better than glass mirror technology,” Defelice said. “Hair has better contact with the plate because it glides, leaving hair silky, dazzling and shiny.”

For example, Borreson said he’s developing on a curling iron that’s twice as long as a traditional iron for spiral curls. Several companies, including Rusk and Farouk Systems, also have developed processes that combine chemical straighteners with the new tools to get better results.

Technology doesn’t necessarily come cheap. While some brands are available for $30 or less, some models can run close to $200. The type of appliance you buy depends on your budget and usage.

Professional dryers tend to last longer — 1,200 hours compared to 500 for a regular consumer model – and tend to be lighter and quieter.

Conair’s Turbo Speed Styler uses ceramic heat technology, with dual heat technology for conventional or radiant heat and a turbo button for 40 percent more airflow. BaByliss recently introduced its Odyssey Dryer with Ceramic Pulse Heat technology. The 1,875-watt dryer emits ion reflectives to enhance the hair, with ceramic technology to add smoothness and silkiness. It also has a removable filter and a concentrator nozzle attachment to focus heat and air.

There are a wide range of accessories available to maximize the power of a dryer – from massaging diffusers to straightening accessories.

But heat is still heat, cautions Christo of Christo Fifth Avenue. He urges his clients to condition and protect their hair when using heat products.

“If you want a style, you have to do it the right way,” Christo said. “Invest in nice tools.”

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