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3 Ways to Create Effortless Waves and Curls Using a Flat Iron

Photo by Gabriel Visintin / Getty Images

Despite its name, a flat iron can do so much more than just straighten your hair. With the right technique, this styling tool can also work flawlessly as a curling iron, creating everything from full, bouncy curls to soft beach waves with ease. Aside from helping to declutter your beauty cabinet (or carry-on bag), using this versatile tool to curl also comes with some other major benefits.

Because the plates of a flat iron heat up evenly, your curls are more likely to last longer, making this a great option for those who struggle with their curls going limp shortly after perfecting them. Another bonus is that it’s easier to get those cool-girl, effortless, looser curls that you just can’t get with a curling iron.

Ready to learn how to use this hair styling tool like a pro? Here's how to use a straightener to create three stunning types of curls and waves.

About the Experts:

Marilisa Sears is a hairstylist, artistic director, and ambassador for Cake Beauty.
Christine Thompson is co-founder and master colorist at Spoke & Weal.
Lana Grand is a Los Angeles-based celebrity hairstylist, colorist, and blonde hair expert.

What to Know Before Getting Started

Before you turn on your straightener and give these techniques a try, there are a few prep tips the pros want you to know.

1. Use a heat protectant spray.

As is the case with all hot tools, using a straightener too often can be damaging to your hair health. If your hair is color-treated, fine, or already damaged, be sure to always use a heat protectant or thermal spray before using a flat iron to keep the hair as healthy as possible.

“When looking to protect your hair from tool damage, it's best to use products that carry some ingredients that sit on the surface of your hair as well as have great penetration value,” hairstylist Marilisa Sears says. “Always use caution, as nothing fully protects the hair from excess heat damage, but CAKE BEAUTY The Glow Drop Iridescent Shine Serum can lessen the pain it causes.”

2. Turn down the heat.

If you have natural hair or curly hair and you want to try using this tool to create looser curls, hairstylist Lana Grand notes that it's super important to turn the heat setting way down on your tool. "As curly hair is more fragile, do not use a straightener on a heat setting higher than 375 degrees," she says.

3. Look for a “single pass” straightening iron.

Additionally, Grand says that to minimize damage, it's worth investing in a hair straightener that features "single-pass technology." The fewer times you curl one piece to create flat iron curls, the less damage you'll incur in the long run. This technology comes built into the SUTRA Magno Turbo in Rose Gold, an option that also features frizz-minimizing titanium plates, damage-reducing infrared technology, and rounded edges that make it easier to create waves and curls.

4. Embrace the dirt.

You want to have a little grit in your hair to keep your wave from falling flat. “The best-case scenario for me is second-day hair with little to no stylers in the hair,” Sears says. “You want a bit of that texture second-day hair has without a ton of product or dirt buildup.” If your hair is a bit too clean, apply a little hairspray or texture spray. “The trick is to not overuse, you just want a hint of hold,” she adds.

Watch Now: How to Curl Your Hair With a Flat Iron

More of a visual learner? Watch this quick video tutorial to see how hairstylist Prince Angel uses a flat iron to create various types of curls and waves.

How to Create Beachy Waves With a Flat Iron:

A model shows off her beachy waves made by a flat iron.

Beach waves are both simple to create and timelessly stylish. They’re also a great hairstyle for any occasion, whether you're heading into the office or lounging at...well, the beach. The best part: No matter your hair length, you can rock a variation of the style. Here’s how to get the look according to Christine Thompson, co-founder and master hairstylist at Spoke & Weal.

1. Create your sections.

Begin by parting the hair into smaller sections. How many sections you create will depend on how thick your hair is. For fine hair, you might just do two sections, splitting the hair horizontally into a top and bottom half. For thick hair, you might create four sections with the hair split into even quadrants. Sears likes to vary the section widths to keep the look natural. “As you move up the back of the hair, you are going to slightly drop where you start to spin the flat iron as you want to keep the look natural,” she says.

2. Work in one-inch sections.

Once the hair is separated, you're ready to start using the flat iron on individual sections. "Again if you have straight, fine hair use smaller sections; if your hair holds curl well, use larger sections of hair," Thompson says. A good starting point might be to work in one-inch sections of hair.

3. Start to curl.

You'll first want to flip your flat iron upside down (the cord should be facing up). Then, gently clamp onto the individual section of hair that you're working with at the base of the hair shaft. Once the hair is between the flat iron plates, twist the straightener away from your face so that the section is now wrapped around the outside of the closed flat iron. With that twist locked in place, gently glide the flat iron down the section of hair until you pass the ends. Once the iron releases its grip on hair, it should spring up creating a perfect curl.

For maximum hold, Thompson says, "If your hair is fine and healthy, try using a light hold hairspray before you wrap hair." If the hair is damaged, she suggests waiting to use hairspray until after you curl, opting instead to use heat protection before you wrap.

4. Use that same motion all over.

Once you have the technique down, continue doing the same thing on all sections of your hair. For a natural look, try making the curls go in opposite directions from section to section, twisting one section away from the face and the next toward it. And keep it moving. “If you stop mid-shaft, you will get a bump from the edges of the iron,” Sears warns.

5. Loosen up the ringlets.

Once all the hair is curled, Thompson says it's time to use those hands to give these tight curls a beachy look: "Fingers will likely be the best tool to achieve the beach wave," she says. "Run your fingers through your hair to break up the curl into a loose wave."

For more control over the look of your beach waves, she suggests bringing a hairbrush or comb into the mix. "For a fluffy effect, you can run a mixed bristle brush or Denman brush through your hair,” she says. “The more space between the bristles, the less fluffy your hair will be." For piecier beach waves, Thompson suggests using a wide-tooth comb to transform those ringlets into looser curls. Try experimenting with each method to see what feels best for you.

6. Lock in your looks.

Once you've softened up those curls into beach waves any way you like, finish with an extra spritz of hairspray and perhaps also a bit of dry volume spray for a boost of body and texture. 

How to Get Tighter Curls With a Flat Iron:

A model shows off the S-waves she made with a straightener.

To get full curls using a flat iron, you'll use pretty much the same technique as the beach waves tutorial with a few small adjustments.

1. Section off your hair.

Just like the last tutorial, you'll want to begin by splitting the hair into sections, working with about a one-inch section at a time.

2. Run your iron through each section.

You'll also use the flat iron on each strand in the same way as above: by clamping, twisting, and gently gliding it down the hair shaft to curl it. Except, this time, you won't be running your fingers or a brush through those curls to break them up. Instead, you'll want to keep as much bounce as possible.

3. Let the curls cool down in place.

If you have naturally straight hair, try cupping each coiled curl in your hand, holding it against the scalp until it fully cools to set it. Alternatively, you can pin or clip each curl to your head so that you can work on other sections while the previous ones set.

"Clipping curls while warm and letting them cool clipped will hard set them, creating a maximum curl close to the scalp. This is the best way for someone with limp hair to extend this look," Grand says.

If your hair can naturally hold a curl pretty well, you might be able to skip pinning each curl. Instead, just use the straightener to curl each piece as you did with the beach waves: curling and spritzing with hairspray after or before depending on your hair type.

4. Shake it out.

Once every curled piece has fully cooled down, take out all the pins or clips (if using). The curls should be super bouncy and nicely defined. Now, instead of using a brush or your fingers to transform the curls into loose waves, you'll instead, just give the head a light shake to leave those voluminous tight curls intact.

5. Grab your finishing spray.

Finish with a spritz of volumizing spray at the roots and flexible hairspray all over to keep those full curls looking pristine all day long.

How to Create Smooth Waves With a Flat Iron:

A model shows off the S-waves made with her straightener.

S-waves are elegant yet effortless, and oh-so-easy to create with your flat iron. As this hairstyle is a wave and not a curl, it requires a slightly different technique. Here's how to get to look.

1. Section off your hair.

Begin by parting the hair into sections. Again, sectioning may vary depending on how thick or fine your hair is.

2. Take larger sections for this look.

Working in 1.5-inch sections (the size of each section may also vary a bit depending on your hair type), clamp the straightener down onto the hair at the root with one hand and use the other hand to hold the free hair about two inches below the straightener.

3. Form those S-shaped curls.

Then, you're going to essentially do two tasks at once: Your hand holding the free hair is going to shape your hair into an "s-shape,” making curves toward your face and then away from it. At the same time, you're going to stamp (not glide) the flat iron down your hair shaft, tapping the iron and following those curves you're creating. The heat from the flat iron will essentially set the waves you're creating with your other hand. This may take a bit of practice, but you'll have it mastered in no time.

4. Break up the waves.

Once you've repeated this step on all sections of your hair, allow the hair to fully cool. Once it's cool and the waves are set, go in with a wide-tooth comb and lightly brush the waves out for looser, more natural-looking waves. Sears likes to add a bit of that same lightweight oil for a “modern bit of a tousled vibe” with tons of shine, she says. Finish with a texture spray to give the waves a slightly tousled, effortless feel.

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Article Last Updated June 27, 2023 12:00 AM