What are Curling Tongs?

Douglas Bonderud

Curling tongs are a type of hair styling device used to create curls or waves in hair. They are also referred to as curling irons or curling rods. These devices operate by using heat and a cylindrical rod to style hair.

Curling tongs consist of a heated barrel and a handle.
Curling tongs consist of a heated barrel and a handle.

Although there is some debate on the subject, a Parisian named Marcel Grateau is generally credited with the invention of curling tongs in 1872. Grateau used a heated rod, which he pulled through the hair to achieve a curled look. He is also the inventor of the permanent wave.

Hair stylists can use curling tongs to create different looks.
Hair stylists can use curling tongs to create different looks.

Most curling tongs are powered by electricity and must be plugged into a wall socket to function. Less expensive models feature only one heat setting or simply high and low heat options. Professional curling tongs have multiple settings, ranging from 120° F (48.8° C) to 400° F (204.4° C).

Typically, curling tongs have two parts, a barrel and a handle. Older barrels are scissored. Depressing a lever on the handle opens the barrel and hair is placed inside. Hair is wrapped around the barrel, held for a moment, and then released. The level of heat used determines the tightness of the curl.

Barrels also come in different diameters, ranging from three-eighths of an in (9.52 mm) to two in (50 mm). The larger the diameter of the barrel, the larger the curl produced. These barrels are also coated with non-stick material. This material can be Teflon®, titanium, tourmaline, ceramic, or aluminum. While Teflon is all-purpose, titanium is long-lasting, and tourmaline and ceramic distribute heat evenly, but aluminum heats up the most quickly.

The barrel of a set of curling tongs can be one of several different shapes. These include cylindrical, conical, or reverse conical. A cylindrical barrel is used for all-purpose styling. Conical barrels are wider toward the handle and narrow at tip, which permits precise styling. The reverse conical shape is narrow at handle and wide at the tip.

There are also several handle types used. The most common is the spring-loaded handle, which includes a spring to keep the hair clamped in the barrel while styling. If the spring is too strong, it can clamp the hair too hard, resulting in marks on the hair. Also popular is the Marcel tong handle. This handle has no spring, and requires more skill to use. It is favored by professional stylists as it allows greater control while styling.

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