Last July, I received an intriguing email from Dyson. We’re launching a new, highly embargoed beauty product, said the public-relations rep. Sign this waiver and we’ll tell you more. This wasn’t my first experience with the brand; I knew the drill. Two years ago, when Dyson launched its game-changing hair dryer—the ultra-lightweight, quick-drying, futuristic-looking Supersonic—it was discussed using a code name, and I was only allowed to try it out in the presence of a brand rep. So I signed and returned the waiver. The product was under lock and key at Dyson HQ—I’d need to visit to get any more intel. We’ll also need a hair sample, added the PR rep. Are you in?
Two weeks later, I arrive at the sprawling Dyson technology campus in Malmesbury, a couple of hours drive outside of London, where I’m finally introduced to the mysterious Airwrap. The sleek device is conventionally described as a “styling tool”—but that descriptor, I would soon learn, belies the genius of the design.
“We develop products to solve problems,” says Veronica Alanis, a design engineer who spent two and a half years working on the product. And the problems with traditional styling tools, it turns out, are numerous: scorching-hot temperatures (when hair is subjected to anything above 150ºC, it loses its ability to return to its natural shape), the struggle to lock in a style (think blink-and-they’re-flat curls) and seemingly contradictory goals (e.g., smooth hair that isn’t flat). Dyson found that to navigate these issues, most women own at least three heat-styling tools. Its solution: one tool that works on damp hair to dry, smooth, curl and add volume, to varying degrees, without extreme heat.
So how does it work? Brace yourself for the science bit: When hair is wet, the hydrogen bonds that line it break, priming it to be styled and set into shape. The Airwrap is able to keep temps low because it uses a powerful V9 motor and custom design to create an airflow that takes advantage of a phenomenon called the Coanda effect, which, in layperson’s terms, says that high-velocity air will always attach to and follow the curve of a surface. IRL, this means hair whips around the curling barrel and suctions to the smoothing brush in an oddly satisfying way that looks magnetic.
Dyson occupies a unique position in the world of hair care, primarily because it doesn’t identify as a hair brand but, rather, as a technology company. And just like it employs an in-house army of designers, engineers, microbiologists and scientists to create benchmark-setting vacuums, fans and, soon, electric cars, it spared no expense (an astonishing $41.2 million) figuring out what goes into making hair look great. That kind of research takes time; work on the Airwrap began at the same time as it did on the Supersonic hair dryer six years ago. Dyson is rewriting the hair-care rule book—that’s why the company is so intent on secrecy—and the level of innovation is reflected in the price points.
“We don’t just want our tools to operate—we want them to perform really well,” Rob Smith, manager of the research, design and development team, tells me and a small group of international editors, all of us decked out in white lab coats and arm bands that read “PRESS” lest we be mistaken for employees as we snake through the campus’ mazelike series of labs. “In order for them to do that, we need to understand, scientifically, hair, its structure and what damages it.”
In the metrology lab, Smith and his team push hair samples to their limits—bleaching, heating, pulling—and then measure the results. It’s here that I’m handed the results of my own hair sample, which had been placed under an electron microscope and magnified 600-fold so the jagged scalelike cuticles on the strands would be evident. The goal of tests like this is to create a benchmark of the hair quality and ensure that using the Airwrap does not cause any damage over time.
Admittedly, there is a learning curve to using the Airwrap. The technique is not intuitive. Instead of manually wrapping hair around the barrel of the curl attachment, you take a section of hair, hold it halfway down and point the barrel to the ends. Initially, I was hesitant, worried it would wrap into some unimaginable tangle. But during a demo of the tool in Dyson’s hair lab, hairstylist and Dyson Canada ambassador Matthew Collins promises me it’s not a concern and sticks the wand haphazardly into his shoulder-length hair to prove his point. (It comes out cleanly, with no hair harmed.)
Minutes later, I’m a convert. I love the convenience of using just one tool to both dry and style my long, fine hair, and I’m able to get more body and volume with just the smoothing brush attachment than I usually do using my paddle brush and hair dryer. The Airwrap does have its limitations: Feedback from users with type-4 hair (that’s the end of the curl spectrum) said that while the product helped speed up the styling process, it isn’t a one-and-done styling-tool solution like it is for straight- or wavy-hair types.
Currently, the company is opening health and beauty labs around the world. The goal is to be experts not only in hair theory but in specific types of hair as well. “We will know everything about Asian hair, everything about Latin hair,” Alanis offers as examples. Undoubtedly the company is already working on more mind-blowingly innovative hair products, but Alanis is characteristically secretive when I ask what could be next. A solar-powered straightening iron? A hands-free hair dryer? Whatever it is, I eagerly await the next email from the brand to land in my inbox.
TOTAL NUMBER OF ATTACHMENTS: Six. A pre-styler to get hair about 80-percent dry, firm and soft paddle-like brushes to smooth fine and thick hair, respectively, a round brush and two sizes of curling barrels.
FEAR FACTOR: 1.5/5, which sinks to 0/5 after you master the technique.
CURL TYPES: Use the 1.2-inch barrel for the easiest glam curls of your life or the 1.6-inch barrel for loose waves.
STYLING TIME: Going from sopping wet to a smooth, dry style took less than 10 minutes for my fine hair.
Our beauty editor’s go-to styling products are curated to jack up the volume on her fine hair to one notch below Dolly Parton’s.
Sachajuan Ocean Mist Volume Shampoo ($35) and Conditioner ($39); Electric London Volume Liquid Mist ($40); Rahua Legendary Amazon Oil ($60); Bumble and Bumble Bb. Thickening Great Body Blow Dry Creme ($38); Marc Anthony Strengthening Grow Long Miracle Repair Anti-Frizz Spray ($12)
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.