Hair Straightening Options: Which Is Right for You?

As a shy, awkward-looking girl growing up in impossibly humid South Florida, all I ever wanted in life was "Cher hair." No, I'm not talking about the Goddess of Pop's dark center-parted waves—what I truly coveted was Clueless heroine Cher Horowitz's stick-straight, silky blond mane, which she regularly ran her manicured fingers through with ease. Whenever I tried to do the same with my own frizzy tangles, my hand would inevitably get stuck somewhere between the crown of my head and the nape of my neck. Sure, flat-ironing helped somewhat, but the simple styling tool never yielded the stick-straight hair I so desired. Don't get me wrong—curls can be absolutely gorgeous. But rather than falling into Emmy Rossum-style swirls or Taylor Swift-esque ringlets, mine were more Monica-Geller-in-Barbados.

From kindergarten through middle school, I typically wore my hair in either a ponytail, long braid or (cringe!) banana clip every single day—that is, when it wasn't slicked back for ballet practice or hidden beneath a horseback riding helmet. In short, my hair was never exactly my best asset, but something I preferred to (literally) keep under wraps.

Until I discovered the joys of hair straightening. During my first year of high school, a family friend who shared my unfortunate hair texture recommended I give thermal reconditioning (more commonly known as Japanese straightening) a go. The process would be costly and time-consuming, she warned, but would leave my hair perfectly straight for up to six months—at which point I could simply maintain the style with biannual root touch-ups. And after sitting through the nine-hour procedure (my hair used to hang down to my lower back, and I have a lot of it) once, I was hopelessly hooked. At last, I could let my hair air-dry—no irons, blow-dryers, anti-frizz creams or round brushes required—into perfectly straight form. Moreover, I could run my fingers through it. I felt like I was living in a Pantene commercial.

Since then, I've continued to schedule thermal reconditioning appointments every six months or so. Thanks to constantly-advancing techniques and new formulas, the process now takes a third of the time it once did—and costs about half as much. Even if it didn't, however, I'd never stop. Friends of mine might extol the virtues of more modern Brazilian keratin treatments—a completely different procedure, as you'll learn below—but I'm sticking with what works. After all, I'm not giving up my "Cher hair" for anything.

Read on to learn more about the Japanese straightening process—plus the other options that exist for us curly-haired girls who prefer to keep our hair on the straight and narrow.

Thermal Reconditioning (aka Japanese Straightening)

What is it? This permanent process relies on a chemical that breaks down the protein bonds within hair, transforming its texture. After hair is saturated with the solution for a specific period of time, it's washed, dried and flat-ironed in teeny-tiny sections. This part is the most agonizing to sit through—you'll want to have a good book or stack of magazines handy, trust me. Post-ironing, a neutralizer is applied to "lock in" the hair's new shape.

What happens afterward? For 48 hours following your treatment, you cannot—under any circumstances—get your hair wet or even damp. No sweating, no washing, no romantic strolls in the rain. Bring an umbrella everywhere, even if there's a zero percent chance of rain. Additionally, avoid tucking your hair behind your ears or using any sort of hair ties or bobby pins to avoid denting it. The process is moderately damaging, so be sure to make moisturizing hair masks and conditioning treatments part of your regular routine.

Who's the best candidate? People with medium-to-long "virgin hair" that hasn't been colored. In general, prospective clients must schedule a consultation in advance of their appointment to make sure their hair can handle the process.

How long does it last? Depends on how quickly your hair grows, but anywhere between four months and one year. Keep in mind that once you commit to Japanese straightening, you won't be able to curl it. Ever. It just won't hold.

How much does it cost? Anywhere from $300 to over $1,000. Permanent solutions don't come cheap.

Brazilian Keratin Treatment (aka Brazilian Blowout)

What is it? This smoothing treatment essentially "slicks down" the hair but doesn't chemically restructure the bonds, so hair eventually reverts to its original texture. After the solution is applied, the hair is dried and flat-ironed, omitting many of the steps in thermal reconditioning. Be aware that the product used in many keratin treatments contains formaldehyde, making it a somewhat controversial choice. Still, for girls lusting after frizz-free hair that maintains volume and can still be worn curly on occasion, it's a solid option—and today, many formaldehyde-free versions do exist.

What happens afterward? Remember that no-washing, no-sweating, avoiding-rain-like-the-plague rule? The same applies here, though you're actually supposed to wait 72 hours after receiving a keratin treatment. Sponge bath, anyone?

Who's the best candidate? People with frizzy, damaged or previously-processed hair. In fact, most stylists swear that Brazilian keratin treatments actually work better on those with colored or highlighted hair.

How long does it last? Three to four months, typically.

How much does it cost? About $200 to $600.

Chemical Relaxers

What is it? Anyone who's seen the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair (if you haven't, get thee to Netflix—it's awesome) knows that relaxers can be harsh business. Especially popular within the black community, relaxers—much like Japanese straighteners—work by breaking down the chemical bonds within hair, a permanent process that lasts until the hair grows out. Unfortunately, most relaxers used to be made with lye (aka sodium hydroxide), an extremely corrosive and caustic alkali used in oven cleaners and Drano. Yikes. Nowadays, thankfully, there are safer options made from ammonium thioglycolate, calcium hydroxide and other safer (if still somewhat scary-sounding) compounds.

What happens afterward? The general advice is to avoid shampooing for both a few days before a relaxing treatment—to avoid scalp irritation—and a few days after, to allow the treatment to set. Some state that you can wash your hair sooner post-process, however—just make sure you condition aggressively, because relaxers can be quite damaging.

Who's the best candidate? People with coarse, frizzy hair of any length that hasn't been overly processed in the past. Those with fine or thin hair should avoid this method.

How long does it last? Six to eight weeks or so.

How much does it cost? Roughly $50 to $200, far less than other straightening options.

Photo: Perfectly straight, silky hair at Céline's Spring 2013 show, via Fairchild Archive

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