What’s The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Hair Dryers?

Professional hairstylists weigh in on whether a $400 Dyson Supersonic is really worth more than a $20 blow dryer.
Are you blowing your money on a blowout that won't be all that much better?
Getty Images
Are you blowing your money on a blowout that won't be all that much better?

There’s something supremely satisfying about walking out of a salon with a fresh blowout, voluminous hair falling just so after your hairstylist works their magic with a blow dryer and brush.

Whether you’re looking to achieve a flawless at-home blowout or simply wanting to get the water out of your hair quickly, a hair dryer is a must. You can pick up a hair dryer for less than $20 at the drugstore, but if you’ve got your eye on the buzzy Dyson Supersonic hair dryer, it’ll set you back $400. What gives?

Pricier hair dryers often feature higher-quality attachments and more heat and speed settings.

When it comes to hair dryers, bells and whistles like attachments and different heat and speed settings can help you achieve different types of looks.

For Lynsey Hemstreet, adjunct faculty in the cosmetology department at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, attachments like a nozzle and a diffuser are must-haves as they direct airflow in different ways. “A nozzle focuses the air like a blade and a diffuser makes the air into a cloud,” she said. A nozzle comes in handy if you’re trying to collapse curly hair into a smooth and straight style, while a diffuser is great for creating a warm environment for curls to achieve a natural spring and definition without creating frizz.

While a cheaper hair dryer may come with these attachments, they’re likely to be of lower quality than what you’d find accompanying their more expensive counterparts. Hemstreet said that a lot of low-end dryers come with cheap attachments made of brittle plastic that can break easily or pop off the dryer during styling. On the super high-end side of things, the Dyson hair dryer’s attachments are magnetic, which decreases the chance of them breaking as they’re being put on or taken off.

A fancier, more expensive hair dryer will likely come with more heat and speed settings, which serve different purposes during the drying process. “When you’re starting off a blow-dry and you want to get a lot of water out of the hair, you want to use high heat and high speed just to cut through a lot of the dampness so that you can get to really styling the hair instead of drying it,” Hemstreet said. She tends to start a blow-dry with high heat and high speed, then turns down the heat and speed when it’s time to put in a curl or polish the look, sometimes opting for a cool shot as a finishing touch to set the style. “If I’m using a round brush for a style and I’ve got the hair mostly dry, I’ll wind it on the brush and use the cool shot to give that hair memory of my brush and really perfect the curl,” she said.

In general, more expensive hair dryers are lighter, last longer and dry your hair faster.

For Kelly McCarthy, stylist and colorist at Kelly McCarthy Hair in Chicago, these qualities are particularly important. “In the salon, time is not only money, but it is also seriously valued by the customer,” she said. “I am a fidgety client myself and being able to get in and out as fast as possible is key. Being able to provide a quick, beautiful blow-dry is a win-win for both the client and the stylist!”

For the average consumer, a quicker drying time is valuable as it decreases the potential for damaging your hair. “Higher-quality tools that are equipped with better technology provide a much more efficient drying experience than less expensive options that essentially shoot out hot hair,” McCarthy said. Dryers outfitted with ceramic technology, for example, disperse heat more evenly and are more gentle on the hair. McCarthy pointed out that this is especially important for people with fine, damaged or color-treated hair. A less precise drying process generally takes longer, which may lead to damage with extended use.

Ursula Stephen, a celebrity hair stylist for A-Frame Agency, echoes this sentiment, adding that “most inexpensive dryers don’t have the technology that a higher-end dryer has. They push out a simpler, drier type of heat, which leaves the hair stiff and hard to style.” Ceramic blow dryers are her go-to as they offer “a delicate type of heat that seals moisture in and leaves the hair shiny and soft.”

Celebrity hair stylist Jen Atkin endorsed the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer at a Los Angeles event in 2016.
Rachel Murray via Getty Images
Celebrity hair stylist Jen Atkin endorsed the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer at a Los Angeles event in 2016.

Weight is another key consideration. “Because most days I am seeing clients back-to-back, it is very easy to get physically exhausted by blow-dry after blow-dry,” McCarthy said. “There is nothing worse than dreading a blowout or not being able to give it your all when showing your client their beautiful new color or style! To avoid burnout and pain (which may lead to carpal tunnel), the weight of the dryer is very important.”

McCarthy noted that the pricey Dyson hair dryer is an excellent option for salon use, as the motor is located in the handle (whereas most conventional blow dryers have their motors in the head). “This increases control and balance in your hand and arm, taking the weight off of your wrist,” she said. “As I don’t have a ton of hair that requires a lot of time or tension to blow out, this quality is less important when shopping for a blow dryer I would use on myself.”

In her professional experience, McCarthy has found that more expensive hair dryers tend to last longer. “A higher price tag comes with a longer life cycle, not only because they are made of quality materials, but also because they typically come with warranties should something go wrong,” she said.

For personal use, find a hair dryer that best suits your needs and budget.

To find a quality hair dryer that will last you for years to come, Hemstreet recommends shopping at a beauty supply like Sally Beauty or Ulta. “Don’t go to Target or a drugstore and think that you’re going to be able to find a premium product there,” she said. At a beauty supply store, you’re more likely to start off with a better baseline of quality.

If you can, hold the hair dryer and see how well you can control the different buttons and switches from a variety of positions. “You’re going to be holding it from a lot of different angles as you’re trying to blow dry your hair, so it’s really important to get something that’s comfortable for you,” Hemstreet said.

For people looking to invest in a more expensive hair dryer, Hemstreet stresses the importance of understanding what you’re paying for. “If you’re looking for a premium dryer, read all the reviews on that dryer and find out if you’re paying for a lightweight motor, ion technology or something else.”

However much you decide to spend on a hair dryer, there are some simple ways to help protect your hair from heat damage. “No matter the brand, I always recommend using a salon-quality heat protectant before applying any heat to your hair,” McCarthy said. She also recommends rough-drying your hair (giving it a quick, all-over drying with your hair dryer) and getting most of the moisture out of it before applying direct heat. “Unfortunately, a lot of damage is caused by user error.”

“There are a lot of amazing hot brushes that are super popular on the market right now,” McCarthy said. “I think these tools are awesome and provide a salon-worthy blowout that requires minimal skill or effort. However using it on wet hair or without proper products is guaranteed to cause damage.” To avoid compromising the integrity of your hair, rough-drying before using these types of tools is critical.

No matter which hair dryer you choose, make sure to also have complementary tools and products on hand.

If your end goal is a professional looking blowout or a particular style, Hemstreet notes that just a blow dryer won’t cut it. “If you’re just buying a blow dryer but you’re not using product in your hair or any brushes, you’re not going to be able to create a salon look for yourself because brushes have almost as big of an effect.” She recommends finding out what kind of brushes or products you need to create the look you’re going for — when in doubt, ask your stylist for tips.

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