clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a clunky, retro hair dryer suddenly went viral

Devices like the Revlon One-Step have been around since the ’70s. What made this one a bestseller?

An photo illustration of a stick-shaped hair dryer with a brush at one end atop a star shape. Sarah Lawrence for Vox
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Welcome to Popular Demand, The Goods’ column about those products you keep hearing about. Where did they come from? Are they any good? We explain the hype.

What’s this thing?

The Revlon One-Step Hair Dryer & Volumizer, but we’ll just refer to it as the Revlon One-Step. It’s essentially a hot brush, a kind of hair tool that’s been around since at least the 1970s, that dries hair and styles it at the same time. Air emerges from holes in the brush, and the rounded shape guides hair so that it smoothes; it looks similar to straightening brushes and hot combs sometimes used on natural black hair.

The selling point: Few of us are really all that great at using a brush and a dryer to blow out our hair like a professional stylist would. Sure, there are some people who can successfully accomplish this, but those people are wizards. This tool smoothes hair while drying using a combination of nylon and tufted bristles; ideally, you’ll end up with mostly straight hair with a little flick at the ends. The retail price is a relatively reasonable $59.99, but you can find it online for as low as $35.99, and there’s a less expensive paddle brush version, too. It’s currently the No. 1 bestseller in Amazon’s beauty section.

Why am I hearing about it?

The Revlon One-Step has existed since at least 2016, but the hype bubbled up only within the past year, and there’s a very specific reason why.

In late 2018, Dyson, of vacuum cleaner fame, released a product called the Airwrap. Having already launched the now-cultish $400 Supersonic hair dryer two years before, Dyson had made a name for itself as the fancy, tech-y hair tool brand. This time, the Airwrap promised to replace multiple hair tools: a dryer, a curling wand, and a flatiron, in one device with multiple heads — as long as you coughed up $550.

Luckily, there was already another product on the market that did basically the same thing for a tenth of the price. According to Google Trends, the Revlon One-Step started picking up search interest in November of 2018. That’s when popular beauty vlogger Milana Burykin uploaded a review of the Dyson Airwrap comparing it to the Revlon One-Step by styling one side of her head with one tool and the other side with the other tool.

Burykin, who goes by the name Milabu on YouTube and has more than a million subscribers, said in her review that she was “very impressed” by the One-Step and that she loved both products. At the end of her tutorial, the two sides of her head were virtually indistinguishable, even though one side cost 10 times more to style. The video garnered more than 3.5 million views and is currently her fourth-most-popular ever.

Search interest continued to pick up over the course of the 2018 holiday season, gaining press coverage in Allure, Elle UK, Popsugar, and Yahoo and becoming an Amazon bestseller. It’s certainly likely that post-holiday word of mouth played a role here, too, thanks to people using new products and recommending them to others. In June 2019, The Cut called it “the $60 Amazon hair dryer that changed my life”; the Today show featured it in September. By November, it had more than 5,000 reviews on Amazon. Now, in January 2020, that number is closer to 20,000, and its Google search interest continues to rise.

The internet had discovered a dupe. In the beauty community, dupes are products that are similar to each other, and are useful to know when one product is prohibitively more expensive than another (or if it’s sold out or discontinued). Most people can’t justify spending hundreds of dollars on a hair tool, but $60 is a far more manageable expense.

Is it actually worth the hype?

“You know that meme that’s like, ‘nobody’: and then ‘me: [shouting about X thing]?’ That ‘X thing’ for me is this blow-dryer,” says Madison Malone Kircher, a reporter at New York magazine.

She means that literally: On December 27, Kircher went on the product recommendation podcast Gee Thanks, Just Bought It to evangelize about the Revlon One-Step. So far, podcast host Caroline Moss says that episode has been responsible for selling nearly 200 of them.

Kircher bought it because she wanted the Airwrap but didn’t want to spend “ten zillion dollars,” and after watching enough Airwrap YouTube tutorials, the algorithm started serving her videos for the Revlon One-Step. She’d never been able to properly work a round brush and a blow dryer at the same time, and the Revlon One-Step tutorials made the process look easy enough, with good results. In October, she finally bought one on Amazon. “I get way better volume overall, I find it’s easier to tame my forehead cowlicks, and it gives my ends a nice flip,” she says.

To be clear, the Revlon One-Step is not an item you’ll see at your next salon appointment. Hairstylists don’t need these kinds of tools because they’re trained in the art of the blowout. Joey Silvestera, founder of New York salon Blackstones, says that while he’s never used one, beauty companies have been trying to produce decent all-in-one dryers for the past decade, but the airflow technology and ergonomics have improved with the Dyson Airwrap and the Revlon One-Step.

By virtue of being a hot tool, though, the Revlon One-Step is not “good” for your hair, just as blow-drying, curling, or straightening are not “good” for your hair. “Heat on wet or dry hair is still damaging,” he says. “There’s no silver bullet. These companies are great at marketing their products as so easy, but they can be misused by overuse. The biggest mistake that people make is overdrying their hair and not protecting the hair enough.” Too much heat on hair can cause breakage, which translates into frizz. “If you looked at it under a microscope, you’d see the outer layer of cortex flailing, like a corn with stalks coming off rather than a smooth shaft.” To mitigate that damage, Silvestera recommends practicing on low heat on the back of your hair near the nape of the neck.

One of the more annoying aspects is that you can’t — or rather, shouldn’t — use the Revlon One-Step on soaking wet hair. Instead, Silvestera advises that you wait until your hair is at least 50 percent dry, and to use a strong heat protectant while hair is still damp to avoid too much damage.

Many reviewers, including those on YouTube, have noted how much hair gets torn out and trapped in the brush with repeated use. Others say that because there are only three settings — high, low, and cool — there’s little customizability, and that the high setting gets so hot that it’s easy to burn your fingers (or your hair). One Target reviewer also maintained that theirs started smoking and even caught on fire; another on Amazon said that after a few months, the device began smoking and sparking.

For average hair-havers, though, it’s “idiotproof,” as Kircher says. I tried a friend’s, and the One-Step left my hair the sort of silky that I usually can only get at a salon. Full disclosure: I eventually bought my own.

Does it “work”? Sure! Will it change your life? Maybe! Is it free of technological flaws? Certainly not! Like many much-hyped items, the people who love it really love it, which is likely why it tends to rise in search interest around the holidays: People want to buy it for their friends and family, too. The Revlon One-Step proves person-to-person marketing might just be the most effective kind there is.

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.