Straight Talk: Hair Straightening -- What are my options?

Woman using straight-iron on her hair

It should be one of Murphy's Laws: If you have pin-straight hair, you'd give your left arm for it to be curly. If you're born with curly hair, you envy all the straight-haired girls. But can this testy textural dilemma be solved? Yes -- a variety of chemicals and appliances can help.

It used to be that it was easier to go curly: Perms were all the rage for a while, but curly-haired girls had to make do with blow dryers -- and the truly desperate even folded themselves over ironing boards and pressed clothes irons to their poor, unruly locks.


But now that's all been reversed. Instead of curly, springy locks,  everyone seems to want straight, sleek hair, and there are more options than ever for taming twirling tresses.

From drugstore styling products to four-hour chemical "restructuring" treatments, we'll give you the skinny on going straight.


A Little Dab'll Do Ya

The easiest -- and cheapest -- way to subdue curls is to slap some product on them. The most popular straightening lotions are probably the ones that contain silicone (look for dimethicone or cyclomethicone on the ingredient list), but they all work in the same basic way: The oils in the product coat your hair and prevent it from curling up. True, a dollop of drugstore anti-frizz cream isn't going to immediately tame a mass of thick, curly hair, but after a good blow-drying, it will be reasonably effective on minor cases.


Iron it Out

If goopy products and a blow-drying don't seem to do the trick, a flat iron would be the next step. When you're shopping for a flat iron, keep these attributes in mind:

  • Plate material: You can get cheap flat irons with metal or glass plates, but they create uneven heat. Spend a little extra for ceramic, titanium or tourmaline.
  • Width: If you have short or fairly straight hair, get a thinner plate -- maybe an inch or so. If you're working with long, thick or really curly hair, go for at least 2 inches.
  • Adjustable heat settings: If your hair isn't totally curly, you can use less heat than someone who's dealing with tons of frizz.


Big Blowout

hairdresser blowdrying client's hair
Wouldn't it be great if you could achieve salon-blowout results at home?

No matter how hard you try or how skilled you are with a blow-dryer, it never looks as good as when a pro does it -- are we right?

If you're wondering why that is, one big factor is that a stylist can get a better angle on your hair -- especially what's on the back of your head.  Also, the stylist will probably have a larger arsenal of tools (brushes of every size and material) and products at his or her disposal, so your hair will come out looking sleeker than if you did it by yourself. You'll probably find that the results of a professional blowout last a little longer, too -- and we'd hope so; you're paying good money for it! A salon blowout can be pretty pricey (around $100 at more ritzy salons), but if you have a special occasion coming up or hair that really needs to be beaten into submission, it can be worth the big bucks.


If you want to make sure the results of your salon blowout do last as long as possible, there are a few things you can do. Pre-blowout, ask your stylist to go light on the styling products -- it might help your hair stay clean a little longer. And once you're out of the salon, try to avoid moisture as much as possible -- if you have one, be sure to wear a shower cap in the shower.



Sit Back and Relax

Close-up of a hairdresser wearing surgical gloves
Chemical relaxers can be damaging to both hair and skin.

If you've seen Chris Rock's documentary, "Good Hair," then you know that chemical relaxers have been the hair straightening method of choice within the African-American community for years. But many people outside that community can and do use chemical relaxers. Basically, relaxers contain high-pH chemicals that break the chemical bonds that give your hair its shape.

It used to be that most relaxers were made with lye (otherwise known as sodium hydroxide), which got a bad rep for damaging hair and skin. Think about lye soap. So now there are a whole bunch of "no-lye" products out there. These no-lye relaxers contain chemicals like calcium hydroxide, ammonium thioglycolate, guanidine carbonate and lithium hydroxide -- that claim to be all-natural and non-damaging. Unfortunately, you can't believe the hype. Really -- do those chemicals sound remotely natural?


Yes, it's true that these chemical relaxers can produce shiny, stick-straight hair. But no matter where those chemicals come from, they still work the same way -- and they can still be incredibly damaging to your hair and scalp. Come on, you know there's a reason the stylist is wearing those plastic gloves -- and it's not just for your protection.



Thermal Reconditioning

If you're ready to get really extreme and lose those curls for good, it could be time to pony up for Japanese thermal reconditioning. Developed in the mid-'90s, it's become the go-to option for those who covet stick-straight hair -- and who have a few hundred bucks (and a few hours) to spare. Exact methods vary, but it's a long process involving relaxing chemicals (usually a glycolic acid derivative), "neutralization" treatments, deep conditioning, and the repeated, high-temperature ironing of small -- 1/8- to 3/8-inch -- sections of hair. The good news is that you should have to go through the whole thing only once, and then pop in for regrowth touchups every few months.


The Full Brazilian?

Blond woman with straight hair
How did she achieve such straight, lustrous locks -- could it be a BK?

The newest thing in hair straightening is the Brazilian keratin treatment -- also known by the incredibly creative nickname "BK." It started popping up in the United States in the mid-"naughties" and has since garnered a ravenous cult following -- and a good bit of controversy. Keratin treatment, which costs several hundred dollars, involves a lot of chemicals and hours of painstaking straightening, but devotees swear by the silky results. The thing is, it's sold as a natural treatment, but the active ingredient is actually formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. It's not FDA-approved, and a study by Allure magazine discovered illegally high formaldehyde levels in all of the salons they tested [source: Fischer]. So -- yes, the Brazilian keratin treatment does seem to work wonders, but try it at your own risk.

You'll find more info about hair straightening on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • "Straight Talk on Hair-Straightening Treatment." Aug. 13, 2004. (Accessed July 21, 2010)
  • "Phytorelaxer: the Lie of No-Lye Relaxers." Jan. 7. 2008. (Accessed July 21, 2010)
  • "Health Alarm Over New Hair Straightener." Oct, 26. 2007. (Accessed July 21, 2010)
  • Fischer, Mary. "Scared Straight." (Accessed July 21, 2010) July 7, 2008.
  • "Choosing the Best Hair Straightener For You." (Accessed July 21, 2010)
  • Hayt, Elizabeth. "Curls, Split! Ringlets, Begone!" July 19, 2007. (Accessed July 21, 2010)
  • La Ferla, Ruth. "Do Straight-Haired Women Have More Fun?" March 17, 2002. (Accessed July 21, 2010)
  • Landman, Beth. "Score Discounts on the City's Best Hair-Straightening Treatments." June 25, 2010. (Accessed July 21, 2010)
  • Sainani, Kristen. "Hair at Risk." April 19, 2010. (Accessed July 21, 2010)