steam curls

Caruso Molecular Steam Setter, Model C97953

My latest unnecessary but useful brand-new purchase is the Caruso Molecular Steam Setter—basically hair rollers done with steam heat instead of dry heat. Think about the difference between how your skin feels after a sauna compared to a week-long camping trip in the desert—it's the same principle for hair. I owned one of these steamer units back in the mid-1990's, though it was bigger and pinker and required a dash of salt, but gave it to Goodwill during one of many regular household culls, after it had been sitting for several years in a cupboard unused. As an American steeped in cultural notions of linear progress, I tend to forget that life is cyclical. Epochs and eras recur even in our own short three score and ten.

Both periods of curler use have been when my naturally straight, medium-fine hair was shoulder-length and in the process of growing out. This last winter, the stylist I'd been going to ever since moving to Portland suddenly decided I'd had my hair long for too many years or else had gotten too old to wear it long, or whatever, and so she whacked it off after I'd said offhandedly, while sitting black-caped in the pneumatic chair: "Sometimes I think about cutting it off, but I always regret it," which she took as permission for artistic license while missing the point. I've myself been steaming ever since. I went back to her after a couple of months to add some layers—and did communicate politely that I hadn't liked the cut and didn't want my hair that short—but after receiving two unflattering cuts in a row, I figure it's time she and I broke up.

Some women look great with short hair, usually those with curly or wavy hair and small, well shaped heads—people like Halle Berry. But when I've had my hair boy-short (which I tried a couple times in my twenties), it tends to poke straight out like a bristle brush, rather than lying flat to the head as wavy-to-curly hair does. So short hair is not a good look for me. Bobbed styles are okay, but I associate them with children whose mothers have grown tired of detangling sessions and older women who don't want to look like permed poodles. The nice thing about longish hair, even if it's more work, is that you can do different things with it—up, down, curled, straight, tailed, braided, twisted, and so on.

So after months of hating my hair, it's now tolerable again because the steam setter gives it curl on the first day and some bouncy body for the next couple, before it needs to be washed and set all over again.

The most important thing to know about using a steam setter is that the hair must be fully dry beforehand or the curls won't take. For the last couple years, I've been avoiding my hair dryer for reasons of time and energy economy and to save wear on my hair follicles. So if I washed my hair at night, I could probably set it in the morning, but usually I go to work with it wet and then set it the following morning. (Or you can just use a hair dryer first.)

Caruso Molecular Steam Setter, Model C97953
The steam is tooting along within a couple minutes after the unit is plugged in, but it takes about 20 minutes to roll my hair up, depending on how big the selected rollers. Smaller ones hold less hair and take more time to roll but create more curl. Bigger rollers lead to a more tousled natural look but don't last as long. And once you decide on your preferred roller size(s)—small, medium, large, or jumbo—you can buy additional rollers in that size, as needed. I start at the bottom of my head and work up, in sections. On workdays, I'll roll my hair right after I wake up, then eat breakfast, take a quick neck-down shower, splash my face, apply sunscreen and eye makeup, brush my teeth, and then unroll the curlers, fingering out the curls just as I'm dashing out the door.

Caruso also makes a newer ion steam hair setter, with some Amazon reviewers saying the ion-model curls last longer than the regular-model curls, but the ion model makes an annoying clicking sound. So I chose the quiet, regular-steam model. I do wish I'd never gotten rid of my old pink steam setter, though, since curls via the defunct salt version lasted much longer than the curls with the newer non-salt version—two or three days longer, if I remember correctly. And when I gave it away, it still worked perfectly.


  1. I remember a time in my life when I would have killed for curly hair.

  2. I always wanted big bouncy curls. My mother spent a lot on perms for me back in the 80's. There was a brief period in my pubescence when she and I even had matching hair, which is pretty funny. Ugh, 80's hair—what a waste of money. It's funny to see 90's fashion creeping in lately. I guess that means I'm officially older. Hopefully the fashion for perms doesn't come back as well!


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