Should you diffuse or should you air-dry?

Whether you have straight hair or curly hair diffusing can save your hair from heat damage and even water damage.

Using heat or no heat has long been a hot topic for curly girls, and with newly silver hair this may be a first-time issue for you. Heat tools were banned for curly hair in Curly Girl, the Handbook by Lorraine Massey. Lorraine says no heat whatsoever: no blow-drying, no curling irons, and no flat irons. I get it; this repeated use of high heat can damage the hair irreparably. However, 20 plus years ago when Curly Girl Method (CGM) was created, hot tools were extremely hot. The tech just wasn’t there yet to regulate the heat in the tool. There are still tools out there today that get far too hot for any hair type, but many reputable manufacturers are making great tools with lower heat.

The heat isn’t always the issue either, some of the damage occurs from friction, combing (also a CGM no-no), and blowing…all known as mechanical damage.

This Is Where Diffusing Comes In:

Question, though: If we aren’t supposed to use heat why did DevaChan (the original company Lorraine worked with for CGM salons and products) make their own diffuser??? Because diffusing the heat does just that it diffuses the heat and the airflow. Instead of blowing hair directly on the hair and whipping it up into a tumbleweed, it separates the airflow and allows the hair to dry a little less aggressively.

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Is Air-Drying Your Hair Better?

For over 20 years, I air-dried my hair 98% of the time, and it might come as a surprise to you that AFTER I went silver I started experimenting with diffusing my hair.

I had several issues that once I read this hair drying study made me start contemplating a shift in my routine.

  1. My curl pattern, as I grew my hair long, became weighed down with low curl retention.
  2. My low porosity hair can take up to 4 hours to dry, that’s a long time to have wet hair.

What caught my attention in the study was the conclusion, “Although using a hair dryer causes more surface damage than natural drying, using a hair dryer at a distance of 15 cm (6 inches) with continuous motion causes less damage than drying hair naturally (air-drying).”

What happened to the air-dried hair? “The cell membrane complex was damaged only in the naturally dried group without hair dryer.” The scientists weren’t really sure why this occurred, but my theory is that it is literally water damage, just like any natural fiber that stays wet for too long can deteriorate.

The study also found, friction from blowing causes damage. Which makes sense with high-speed blow driers whipping hair around. However, the study also found that the heat causes less damage if it is in continuous motion and further than 6 inches away.

The study concluded: the more exposure, the closer and steadier the heat to the hair, and the hotter the heat the more damage would occur. That damage was cumulative…meaning it just gets worse each time.

WOman with silver hair using a blow dryer

Does this mean we should diffuse or should we air-dry? I think the answer lies somewhere in between.

Although high heat should be avoided, especially if your silvers tend to yellow easily, you can still diffuse on low or no heat. You can still use your flat irons and curling irons, just go as LOW as possible to achieve your style. And invest in the best heat protection and heat tools possible.

I go into full details about heat in this post: Heat Damage on Gray Hair: The Ultimate Guide to Preventing It & Fixing It

The follow-on post is on the best heat tools for silver hair and curly hair: The Best Heat Tools For Gray Hair

What you want to look for are tools that stay under 365°F especially the irons, and your hair dryer really doesn’t need to be over 150°F, unless you have a coarser and denser hair type, then it needs to stay under around 200°F.

You want to use low speed, to prevent damage from blowing the hair around this also decreases the chances of frizz.

I diffuse on low-medium speed, and low to medium heat (for my dryer that is 85°F to 150°F). My telltale sign a dryer is too hot is if it feels like it is burning my scalp. Which is what happened when I tried the Shark Dryer, even on low that thing was burning my scalp. You can by a simple Infrared Thermometer that will read the temp of your current tools.

A Combo of Air-Drying and Diffusing:

My best advice and what I do is a combo of plopping, air-drying and diffusing. This eliminates some of the issues that cause damage to the hair shaft, the curls and the color.

Step 1: Never air-dry your hair from sopping wet. If you choose to air-dry, diffuse or a combination of these, you can prevent the internal damage to the hair, you can shorten your dry time, and control frizz by soaking up as much water as you can with a microfiber towel. Do not rub the towel on your hair, just wrap your hair turban style, or plop your curls for 10-30 minutes after your shower depending on your hair type, this prevents mechanical damage from the friction, and helps with the frizz.

Sopping wet hair will ruin your curls. It takes longer to dry. It elongates your waves and curls, and stretches them to their breaking point.

Step 2: Pre-air-dry for 10-15 minutes after you release your hair from the towel. This will lessen dry time for straight or curly hair and help set your gel cast if you have curly hair.

Step 3: Diffuse your hair on low to medium heat for fine to normal or thin to medium density hair. Diffuse your hair on medium to high if needed on coarse and/or thick hair. DO NOT diffuse your hair to 100% dry, go for around 80-90% dry to prevent frizz, and then air-dry the remainder of the way.

Hands-Off or Not:

Another debate is the hands-off or hands-on approach to drying, personally I don’t put my hands in my hair or scrunch my curls between the application of the towel and diffusing. If you have a curlier type hair pattern you can probably get away with more touching and scrunching than those of us with softer wavier curl patterns. The idea is to keep from breaking up your curl definition before it is dry and set.

Root Lifting Technique:

Because the air nozzles on my diffuser bowl are long, I often put them directly on my scalp, (no hair scooped up in the bowl) and I lift the roots with the nozzles and shoot it with cold air for sixty seconds per section (this adds volume and helps with frizz).

What about straight hair and diffusing?

If you have straight hair…you can still diffuse…you can hover diffuse (explained below) and you can use the diffuser like a comb to comb through your hair as you dry. See it in this clip:

You can check out my video with more on this post and what my results look like between air-drying and diffusing here:

Diffusing Techniques:

Combo Diffusing:

Bianca Renee Today combines techniques (root diffusing, hover diffusing, and using the bowl from tips to roots) while diffusing.

BiancaReneeToday: Diffusing vs Air-Drying Video

Hover Diffusing:

Coined by Manes By Mel, this is drying without touching your hair. It is not moving the curl families around; so, it makes perfect sense that you could get the best results. You also can use that higher heat because you are inches away from your hair and moving the dryer around which helps cove all the problem points of heat damage.

Manes By Mel: Hover Diffusing Video

Pixie Diffusing:

This is a technique, where you turn the diffuser on once your hair is pooled into the diffuser bowl, using the bowl lift your hair up to your scalp, and then you turn on the dryer. You turn off the dryer before you release your hair from the bowl. Since you are cupping you’re hair into the diffuser from tips to roots the ends will dry first because they are in the diffuser bowl at the warmest and closest point to the dryer. You may want to experiment but try leaving your ends out of the bowl once they are dry.

Wavy Curly Ali: Different Methods Including Pixie and Hammock Diffusing Video

I do what I call Plop Diffusing:

I take a section of my hair plop it into the diffuser bowl, from tips to roots, I hold it in place against my head, vacillating between low, medium, and cool shot for 2 or 3 minutes per section, and a few repetitions until I get my hair 80-90% dry.

One thing I will suggest to reduce frizz, is limit touching your hair with your hands as much as possible during the diffusing phase.

This next video is on how I diffuse my hair:

Ways to Air-Dry to Prevent Damage:

Remember never air-dry from sopping wet. Try to help your hair dry as fast as it can, if you live in a warm dry climate head outside for a little while and let nature help you out. If it is winter sit close to an oscillating floor heater (I have one near my desk, which usually works out perfectly), or sit near your fireplace or a heater vent. If your hair stays wet longer than three hours diffuse it the rest of the way so it is not staying wet for too long.

What to do at the salon about heat tools?

If you can, air dry after your cut or dry your hair yourself so you have control over the drying process. If you want your stylist to do a specific style, ask them to use heat protection (bring your own if you need to) and ask them to turn their tools down before touching your hair.

Photo of Joli Campbell


I hope you found this post educational and helpful.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share.

As always it is about so much more than the hair.








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