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Sarah Hart's long, blond, straight hair would be the envy of any 11-year-old from "The Wonder Years." The late '60s was the time girls ironed their hair to get the California-girl look.

But in the great tradition of "I hate my hair! I want it to look different," Sarah asked Santa for a curling iron for Christmas."I tried it. My friends use it every day," she says. Among sixth-graders in Wethersfield, Conn., this is what's in in the world of hairstyles. Sarah wants curly locks, not poker-straight tresses. She wants crimped, wavy hair to toss over her shoulder. So far, her exploration of electronic curls has been pretty much limited to bang-reshaping.

Curling irons and crimpers are "hot" products right now, says Jeanne Hansen, director of marketing for Clairol Inc.

"We keep track of what's happening in Europe, because that's where most of the trends start," Hansen says. "I think these devices are going to be important in the 1990s, because people can change their look rather quickly, but not permanently."

Depending on the receptivity of the hair, crimping or curling can last an hour or a day. Humidity, brushing and the amount of hair spray used to hold the style all can affect the longevity of the curl.

Mary Lee Krantz, national director of education for John Amico Corp., which has 200 hair salons, agrees.

"Hairstyles go in cycles," she says. "Back in the 1950s, we had beautifully dressed hair. In the '60s, we got into the natural look. In the '70s, we permed. In the '80s, we cut and blow-dried. Now we're getting back to dressed hair, different styles for different occasions. Curling and crimping irons will be part of that."

Using heat to reshape the hair is easier now than in the days when those questing for beauty had to pull a cast-iron poker out of the fire and wrap their hair around it. Ouch!

Today's electronic devices can crimp, curl, imprint the shape of a lightning bolt or a heart, smooth wavy hair or wave smooth hair, all at prices from about $10 to $25. And they are designed to heat evenly at a safe temperature. Some models shut off by themselves.

But in the hands of amateurs, even the safest devices can do damage.

"Any heated appliance will dry out your hair," says Gino Moncada, co-owner of Network Hair Design in West Hartford. "When you apply too much heat, you weaken the cuticle and allow whatever shampoo or conditioner is on the hair to penetrate the shaft."

So how to avoid damage?

"That's an impossibility," says Philip Kingsley, a trichologist (hair disease expert) who runs salons in New York City and London. "I'm not saying they shouldn't curl their hair, but it does dry out the hair," Kingsley says.

What about daily use?

"The more you use it, the more you have to take care of your hair," Kingsley says. "It's as simple as that."

If you want to use a curler or crimper, there are things you can do to minimize the drying effect:

- Read the directions carefully.

Krantz says to practice with a cold (unplugged) crimping or curling iron. "Get used to how it feels and what maneuvers you have to make to get all the hair into the device," she says. Practice in front of a mirror, away from sinks or tubs. You don't want to drop any electric device in water.

- Use the paper test.

Moncada suggests putting a white piece of paper into the crimper after it is fully heated. If the paper turns brown, the device is too hot.

- Put a comb between the device and the scalp to avoid burning the skin.

"It's like a sunburn - once you burn your skin, it's sensitive," Krantz says.

- Don't overuse the device.

"Even the lowest temperatures can do damage if it's kept on too long," Moncada says. "Err on the side of underuse, not overuse."

- Look for the UL seal of approval. That means the device has been tested for safety by Underwriters Laboratories.

- Moisturize.

Keep the hair in good condition. Moisturizers will help soothe dry hair. Ask your hairdresser for advice.

- Don't pull the hair while crimping.

- Do a patch test.

If your hair has been chemically treated - body-waved, permed or colored - test the curling or crimping iron on a small section of hair. Treated hair is already in a weakened condition and may react to added stress, Moncada says.

- Supervise use by younger children, especially at first.