Choosing a Hair Dryer
Recreating the look and feel of a salon blowout at home is doable without spending megabucks. These days it's easy to find a high-quality hair dryer for $30 or less that's equipped with some of the same features demanded by professional stylists. The challenge in seeking out the best cheap hair dryer is wading through a market flooded with budget brands and models, all claiming to produce lustrous results. Cheapism.com combed through scores of expert and user reviews to find several that hit the mark, along with a few blow dryers that serve specialized needs.
Brands.Conair is by far the dominant brand in the budget and mid-price segment. It also owns the Babyliss and Rusk brands. Other household names include Revlon and Remington, with additional offerings from the likes of Andis, Berta, Wazor, and more. At the top end are professional hair dryers with lesser-known labels sometimes seen in salons and touted by celebrity stylists, such as Harry Josh, Paul Mitchell, Ghd, Croc, T3, Sedu, Solano, and Drybar. Dyson, known for uber-expensive household appliances with unusual engineering and aesthetics, makes a splash with a $400 "supersonic" hair dryer.
Pricey vs. Cheap Hair Dryers.The price range on hair dryers for home use is wide, starting at about $10. But aside from the labels, the differences between budget models and their pricey counterparts have begun to fade. High-end models may be quieter, include more heat and speed options, blow hot air at a higher velocity, come with a longer cord, and feature a more ergonomic design and perhaps even touchscreen controls. The best entry-level blow dryers have plenty to offer, as well, including the latest in drying technologies, multiple heat and speed settings, ease of use, and, according to reviews, a finished 'do that's shiny, silky, and soft.
Ionic Technology.The secret sauce of modern hair dryers, regardless of price, is the use of ionic technology. Almost all new-model hair dryers feature ionic technology, which emits negatively charged ions. These ions supposedly break apart water molecules, so that hair dries faster, and seal the hair cuticle, which reduces frizz and static and arguably creates more shine. Negative ions also may give a boost to styling products, with their positively charged ions. The real benefit here is less exposure to intense heat, which means less damage to the hair.
Ionic hair dryers increasingly feature ceramic and tourmaline technologies, as well. According to marketing claims, each of these advancements further cuts down on drying time and helps minimize heat damage.
Tourmaline Technology.Hair dryers labeled "tourmaline" incorporate fragments from the tourmaline gemstone into components of the hair dryer. When subjected to heat, the tourmaline lets loose more of those negative ions that close up hair cuticles and speed drying. Tourmaline technology is found most often in upmarket hair dryers but makes a limited appearance in the budget price range.
Ceramic Technology.In high-end hair dryers and a growing number of less expensive models, the heating element, grill, or nozzle is coated with a ceramic compound that mitigates the harshness of the heat. Ceramic hair dryers also disperse heat more gently and more evenly, and cut down on drying time. Some ceramic dryers also give off infrared heat, which helps seal in moisture by drying from the inside out, thus protecting the hair's natural oils and making it more manageable.
Travel Hair Dryers.Travel hair dryers tend to be compact and lightweight, and often have a handle that folds. Many also feature dual voltage, meaning they can be used in the United States with its 120-volt electricity or in countries with 220-volt outlets. Some users are so pleased with these compact models that they remain on duty even when stationed at home base.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Hair Dryer Reviews: What We Considered
To assemble our list of the best hair dryers for $30 or less, we scrutinized product specifications and online reviews posted by beauty editors, product testing sites, and consumers. Although few experts weigh in on low-cost hair dryers, one or two models inevitably show up on "best" lists. We consulted women's magazines, such as Allure, Elle, Glamour, and Good Housekeeping, as well as consumer product review sites, such as Top Ten Reviews and Wirecutter, for expert opinions. Consumers also have plenty to say about budget dryers, and we considered their comments on the websites of retailers including Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Walgreens, Target, Ulta, and Sephora.
Features and performance matter to experts and consumers alike. In particular, they care about hair health, frizz control, speed, and user-friendliness. Consumers also write about durability and the included attachments, which offer styling versatility. All the models on our list earn very strong support -- an average of at least 4 stars -- from reviewers.
Power.The most common wattage for hand-held hair dryers is 1,875 watts. Professional hair dryers can reach beyond 2,000 watts, which theoretically means faster drying. Some compact and travel dryers feature wattage as low as 1,000.
Many of the best entry-level hair dryers are powered by AC motors, which marketing copy claims can dry hair in half the time of a blow dryer with a DC motor. AC motors may last longer, as well, and generally are more cost effective. Manufacturer specifications often don't indicate the type of motor, however.
Heat and Speed Settings. Professionals and consumers want options when styling hair, which means a choice of heat and speed. A simple on/off button doesn't cut it. Even budget hair dryers now offer two or three heat settings and two speed settings, which lets users mix and match these two variables. Almost all now include a cool (or cold) shot button for a blast of air that helps set a finished style. Specialized dryers -- for travel, say, or curly hair -- may combine the heat and speed options as simply "high" and "low." Our research indicates that users seem just as happy with two heat settings as with three, as long as hair dries quickly, looks silky at the end, and doesn't wind up damaged.
Attachments.Many blow dryers, even in the Cheapism price range, come with styling tools that attach to the end of the nozzle. The most common are a concentrator, which focuses hot air on a specific section of hair for precise styling, and a diffuser with prongs that disperse the stream of hot air and build volume, encouraging natural waves instead of blowing the hair straight.
Ease of Use.Professional stylists and home users look for hair dryers that are easy to handle. Typically that means a model that's lightweight and feels comfortable in the hand. Some hair dryers stand out for their minimal poundage (less than 1 pound), but most are closer to the 2-pound (and sometimes more) mark. The models on our list generally earn points for being lightweight, although a couple are dinged for their heft.
Buttons or switches for heat and speed get a bit of notice in reviews. Some users prefer a rocker-type switch and others prefer a slider arrangement. Occasionally a reviewer gripes about the placement of the switches, saying it's possible to unintentionally hit a button while styling and interrupt the process or noting that the space below the buttons isn't large enough for a sturdy grip.
Hair dryers collect lint, so it's important that the filter be accessible for cleaning. Most models come with a removable or hinged filter. Regular cleaning can improve a hair dryer's longevity.
Durability.Regardless of budget, reviewers expect a certain level of quality and a life span of at least several years. Reports about dryers that spark, smoke, or just plain conk out after a few uses or a few months show up here and there for all the models we researched. That said, we read many more extolling the longevity of a hair dryer bought years ago. Among users disappointed by a dryer that failed, some seem to take it in stride, saying the cost of a replacement is sufficiently modest.
The warranty on inexpensive hair dryers is typically two, three, or four years; a smattering are backed by a one-year or a five-year guarantee. Reviewers caution that the cost of postage to return a bum dryer in exchange for a new one may exceed the cost of just buying another.