It seems no matter what type of hair we’re born with, so many of us spend seemingly endless amounts of time battling with it to change it. If you’ve got wavy, curly or generally unmanageable hair, you may long for glossy, poker straight locks, but it can take a lot of time and effort to get them that way. Yes, straightening irons are effective, but daily straightening is time consuming and can really make your arms ache if you’ve got thick hair like me! It’s no wonder then that so many of us are looking into more permanent solutions – if my own hair wasn’t quite so chemically ravaged, I’d be first in line to try out these treatments promising super straight tresses. How exactly does permanent hair straightening work though, and which method is best?
How does chemical hair straightening work?
There are various permanent hair straightening systems out there, but they generally use the same chemical process to alter the hair’s structure. An alkaline chemical solution is first applied to the hair, and this breaks down the many disulfide bonds within the hair that cause it to kink and curl. Once this relaxing effect has been achieved and the waves are no more, a neutralising solution is applied to the hair to restore its natural pH and reform new bonds within the hair, setting its new structure and making the straightening permanent.
Relaxer chemicals used
Although the exact make-up of the alkaline relaxing solution varies from brand to brand, you’ll find three main types available that work in a similar way:
- The oldest and harshest are sodium hydroxide based (or ‘lye’) relaxers which are very alkaline and can cause serious damage to skin and hair, best avoided if you can but they do the trick when it comes to straightening stubborn, very tightly curled hair.
- Guanidine hydroxide based relaxers are ‘no lye’ formulations, considered gentler than sodium hydroxide solutions, though they’re still irritants.
- The third main type of relaxer uses ammonium thioglycolate (thio) as its active ingredient. These thio relaxers have a gentler action than other relaxer chemicals, so are a popular option when you want effective straightening with a lower risk of damage to the hair. Japanese straightening systems use thio based relaxers.
Different types of relaxer chemicals aren’t always compatible with each other, so if you’ve previously permed or chemically treated your hair, make sure you know which chemicals were used. A thio relaxer, for instance, applied to hair previously treated with sodium hydroxide will frazzle it completely, so you do need to be very careful!
What are the differences between the main permanent straightening systems?
With an ever increasing number of straightening systems available, how do you choose the right one for you and what exactly is the difference between them anyway? It’s impossible to pick out the ‘best’, as the various methods are better for different hair types and depend on the results you want, but here’s a bit of a run down on the main systems available, along with their pros and cons.
Hair relaxing has been carried out for years and years and uses the chemical method outlined above to rid the hair of waves and curls (application of an alkaline relaxing solution, followed by a neutraliser to set the hair once it’s ‘relaxed’ enough).
- Even very tight curls and coarse African hair can be relaxed using one of the stronger relaxer chemicals available.
- You can control the level of relaxing. You may want to just loosen your curls without straightening your hair completely, so this method gives great flexibility.
- As the name suggests, this technique relaxes hair rather then leaving it poker straight, so if you want absolute stick straight and frizz-free hair, this method may not be for you.
- As with every chemical process, the ever present risk of damage is there.
Japanese hair straightening
One of the newer permanent straightening methods on the block is Japanese hair straightening, also known as thermal reconditioning. Yuko and Liscio are amongst the best known of the Japanese systems and they all generally claim to be kind to hair, leaving you with re-conditioned and perfectly straight hair. Japanese straightening uses gentler, thio-based chemical relaxing formulations, but the main extra step that sets it apart from traditional relaxing is the use of flat irons on the hair once its been softened and the disulfide bonds have been broken down by the relaxer. This means that your hair will be absolutely poker straight before being neutralised and set into shape.
So, the pros?
- Japanese permanent hair straightening systems have had a lot of fantastic reviews. Hair is usually left super straight and shiny, meaning it should look great and only need a fraction of the usual styling time. Hoorah!
- You’ll only need a repeat treatment once your curly regrowth starts to come through, so maybe a few times each year.
- Although some Japanese straightening systems claim to improve the condition of your hair, don’t be fooled by the hype as there’s no real evidence of this. Sure, the hot ironing step will smooth down the outer cuticle of the hair, leaving it looking sleek and shiny, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the hair’s internal structure is healthy. Chemical processes will pretty much always cause damage on some level.
- Depending on your stylist and the products used, you may not get a perfect result – hair can be left dry and frizzy.
- It’s not only expensive, it can also be an incredibly time consuming process. Depending on the condition and length of your hair, expect to be in the salon for around three to six hours!
- It’s not always effective on course African hair, as the thio relaxer used just isn’t always strong enough to straighten extremely curly hair. That said, there have been reports of success with this method on softer African hair – the best bet is to head to a reputable salon for a consultation if you’re interested in trying it out.
And the not so permanent … Brazilian keratin straightening
Brazilian keratin treatments are actually semi-permanent, so the effects won’t last forever. Rather than using chemicals to break down bonds within the hair, with Brazilian straightening or the ‘Brazilian Blowout’ treatment, a keratin formula is applied to the hair then hot irons are smoothed over it. It’s claimed that this process bonds the keratin to the hair, leaving the hair temporarily straighter, softer and smoother.
- This less invasive treatment is kinder on hair than traditional relaxing systems that use stronger alkaline chemicals to break down the bonds within the hair.
- One of the main, and justified, concerns about this Brazilian straightening treatment is the presence of dangerously high levels of formaldehyde in some of the keratin solutions used. It’s often used as an active ingredient to help the keratin to bond with the hair, but inhalation of formaldehyde fumes can pose a very serious health risk. The recommended highest concentration is 0.02%, so if you are thinking about trying out a Brazilian keratin treatment please make sure you check (and double check) that there’s no formaldehyde on the ingredients list.
- It isn’t a permanent treatment, so you will need to keep going back to get it re-done.
Does permanent straightening damage hair?
In a word, yes. Despite some of the claims, any chemical process is going to cause some damage to your hair, whether slight or disastrous. Before you hop to your nearest salon, consider the condition of your hair (is it already chemically treated?) and weigh up the risks. Delicate, damaged hair won’t necessarily withstand every straightening treatment and could be left incredibly brittle.
The importance of choosing a great salon
A good stylist will spend time on a consultation before agreeing to any straightening process. They’ll check any chemical treatments you’ve had previously and will carefully check the condition of your hair to make sure it’ll withstand their straightening system. They’ll also be able to adjust the chemicals or process used to suit your hair type and will use the best quality products to protect your hair during the process as well as to straighten it.
Even the best hair straightening system can give awful results in the hands of a poorly trained stylist, so make sure your stylist is thoroughly trained, experienced and knowledgeable enough to get the best results from the system they’re using, while taking every precaution to minimise the risk of serious damage to your hair.
Permanently straightening hair is a serious business, so while there are plenty of DIY home straightening kits on the market, do your hair a favour and leave well alone! Honestly, I’m an avid DIYer but this one’s best left to the professionals.
Once straightened, the day to day maintenance of your hair should be a whole lot easier, but you may well find that your hair is dryer and more brittle. Look out for strengthening and moisturising treatments to keep your hair supple and shiny. Also remember that although the straightening effects will be permanent, your re-growth will still be wavy, so you will need to repeat the treatment if you want to stick with beautiful poker straight hair.
So if you want to wave goodbye to your hair straighteners and that daily battle with your unruly locks, permanent hair straightening can be a fantastic option that leaves you with incredibly low-maintenance, fabulously straight hair. Just do your homework, pick a reputable salon and stylist and use the right method for your hair type.