The Skinny on Straight

From the grace of the Geisha, to the quiet ritual of the tea ceremony, to the precision of a sushi roll, Japan has long demonstrated its prowess in all things aesthetic. Its newest gem is no exception. In the last five years, a technique known as the Japanese Relaxer, or thermal reconditioning, has been making waves, figuratively speaking, in salons around the world.

What is thermal reconditioning?
Thermal reconditioning, or TR, is a chemical process that permanently straightens wavy or curly hair. Unlike the relaxers of old, the so-called Japanese relaxer promises to leave your hair silky and pin-straight, often in better condition than before the process. There is usually little to no need for blow-drying, and only a minimal need for styling.

TR is based on the same premise as a perm. A permanent breaks down the chemical structure of the hair. The hair is then wrapped around coils, which provide tension and shape. The chemical process is neutralized, and the hair’s chemical bonds reform, taking on the shape of the coils. The same logic applies to TR, except that rather than a coil, a thermal ceramic-plated iron creates the new shape of your hair. Thanks to advances in the lab, TR now uses advanced, protein-rich products that share little similarity with their curl-producing cousins.

TR costs anywhere from $400 to $1000. Hair length and texture, color, time of processing, and experience of stylist are all the variables that contribute to the final number. It is rare to see this process done for less than $500, and anything over $950 is questionable. The process takes anywhere from four to seven hours and lasts from seven to ten months. The touch-ups are applied to the roots only, when there is enough new growth to necessitate it. Getting the roots done, however, may not be much less expensive than the original process, due to time and amount of work.

The Main Event
During the thermal relaxing process, proteins are applied to clean hair. The key chemicals are then applied in cream form. The structure of the hair is severed, and it loses shape. The hair is rinsed or washed and more proteins are applied. The hair is ironed in tiny, precise sections with ceramic-plated hot irons that can reach temperatures of 180 degrees C. These provide the tension and shape. The hair is neutralized in its new shape. The bonds are reformed and straight hair is achieved. More protein is applied and the hair is washed. Excess moisture is removed and additional ironing may be necessary.

Caring for your new baby
Your hair will require some very specific attention during the first few days after having TR. For women used to curl and body, the new state of the hair will seem alarmingly flat. Not flat-chic, but flat-lifeless. Do not despair, however, as this is normal and will not last. The tricky thing about TR is that you cannot wash your hair for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. Even if you feel like your hair is plastered to your head, and could use just a little lift, washing your hair before this time period is taking matters into your own hands. You may end up with some curl, wave, or even breakage. You cannot put your hair into a ponytail, or tuck it behind your ears, for the first two weeks. When washing your face during this period, gently cover the hair with a shower cap. Remove the cap as soon as you are finished, and make sure the hair is arranged in a straight position again. You may use a very soft hair band, but remember that time is of the essence.

Which chemicals are we talking about?
Patrick Evan, thermal reconditioning guru of 111 Maiden Lane Salon and Spa in San Francisco, says that it really isn’t important for clients to stress over which chemicals are used, although they invariably do. Patrick has been performing thermal reconditioning for four years, and currently does an unheard of three per day. He claims that magic starts with a good stylist. A competent stylist will know which products to use. Informed consumers that we are, however, will invariably want to know what is in this magic potion.

There are three main types of chemicals used in thermal straightening. They are sodium hydroxide, guanidine hydroxide and ammonium thioglycolate or thio. These are powerful chemicals and can potentially be quite debilitating to the hair, if used incorrectly or on damaged hair.

Sodium hydroxide is the most powerful relaxer. It is potentially the most damaging but also provides the most dramatic results. During the relaxing process the chemical penetrates the cortical layer and breaks the cross-bonds of the hair. The cortical layer is the layer that controls shape, elasticity and strength. Sodium hydroxide contains alkaline, and may have a pH factor of 10 to 14. Non-color treated or coarse hair may necessitate a strong relaxing formula and could be a candidate for sodium hydroxide relaxers.

Guanidine hydroxide is milder than sodium hydroxide. This chemical is made up of calcium hydroxide cream with a guanidine carbonate “activator” solution, and lacks the chemical lye. However, guanidine hydroxide is still a potent chemical and requires several forms of conditioning treatments. Virgin hair of normal texture could be a candidate for a medium-strength relaxer like guanidine hydroxide.

Ammonium thioglycolate is generally the most mild of the three. Thio affects changes in the cystine bonds of the hair. Thio’s pH is around 9 and while certainly more mild than sodium hydroxide, it should still be used carefully and requires neutralization. Hair that is fine, chemically lightened, or colored, may only require a mild relaxer like the thio relaxer.

There are three main companies that make thermal reconditioning products. Lithio and Yuko from Japan, and Bio-Ionics. Bio-Ionics is an American company, and seems to have a somewhat of a troubling track record.

Getting the digits
Your consultation will be as important for the stylist as it will be for you. The consultation is the time to get an exact price, to ask about which chemicals the salon uses, if you feel it necessary, and to interview the stylist. Ask how long he or she has been performing this service. If he or she has done this process “less than fifty times, I’d walk”, says Patrick. After having performed the service fifty times, a stylist seems to have “ironed out his learning curve”, so to speak. It is especially important to go to an experienced stylist when you go for your touch up, because the relaxer should be strictly limited to your new growth. A good salon will only use ceramic-plated irons. The earlier, metal-plated versions are more likely to burn or scorch. Ask about conditioning systems that you might take home after the process.

Who is eligible?
Eligibility is determined by the health of the hair, the length and texture, and the presence of other chemicals. Do not attempt to have this done without an extensive consultation from a stylist. Hair with an extremely tight curl may not be an ideal candidate, because when the new roots grow in, the difference will be painfully obvious.

Thermal reconditioning cannot be applied to hair that is already relaxed. Hair that has been treated with a tint or semi-permanent color may be relaxed, depending on the health of the hair. Highlighted hair can be tricky because the dark hair will take differently from light hair. If your hair is highlighted you should only perform the process with a stylist who has extensive experience performing thermal relaxers on highlighted hair. Bleached or double processed hair is very tricky, and generally less advisable. If the hair is too fragile, a stylist may recommend against thermal reconditioning or even refuse to perform the service. He or she may ask you to sign a waiver releasing the salon from responsibility regarding the final outcome of your hair. These waivers are usually a red flag. One way to safeguard against a hair nightmare would be to do a strand test…l know, it’s tedious but it will help you determine if this is the right process for you.

Warning signs
With a successful TR, and proper after-care, you should not experience breakage. Your hair should be smooth and even from the root. If your hair feels brittle and dry, and you are experiencing breakage, there is a good chance that something was not done correctly. In other cases, some women experience a ninety-degree “bend”. This happens when the solution is applied to the scalp (a big time no-no), and the heat from the scalp causes over-processing, resulting in two distinctive effects. If this happens to you, a high pH protein can be applied to the root to soften the effect. A deep conditioner may also be used. Breakage and bending are often an indication that the stylist messed up. It is perfectly acceptable at this point to return to the salon for further treatment (only if you feel the stylist is competent) or a partial refund.

Pros and cons
The main factors to consider when weighing pros and cons are cost, convenience, hair type and stylist. The process is expensive. If you have your hair blown dry weekly, however, you will likely save money. For example, a woman might pay $35 (or more) a week to have her hair blown out, for an average $1680 per year. Figure one relaxer per year plus a touch up, plus saving yourself around 50 trips to the salon, 50 hours in the chair…well, you get the picture.

If done properly your style time should be reduced dramatically, leaving your hair in better condition than it was before the process. An effective thermal relaxer will only require enough blow-drying to get the heaviest of the water out, with little to no brushing. Skipping brushing will give the hair a disheveled, hippie look. Patrick maintains that styling the hair dry is important, and everyone should “talk to their hair” on a regular basis. Conditioning treatments may only be necessary in some cases. Of course, as with any chemical service, you will always face pesky roots.

Two popular lines of products for care after TR are Crede and Phytologie. Crede ft shampoo is gentle enough for chemically treated hair, yet cleans build-up and pollutants without weighing the hair down. Crede er conditioner is an excellent conditioner for every time you condition in the shower, and ID Care Liquid PPT is a deep conditioner, to be used roughly once a month. It can be applied the first time you wash your hair after TR, if you have a little bit of frizz. Spray on Liscio Essence conditioner before styling to keep hair silky, supple and shiny. Call 1-800-337-1102 ext 4 or

Phytocitrus shampoo comes highly recommended by stylists and clients of TR . It is chemical-safe, and has nourishing grapefruit extract. It eliminates alkalinity and leaves hair smooth and shiny. Phytologie PhytoCitrus Mask is another rich, high-quality conditioner. It has botanical butters and grapefruit, too, and all-important keratin. (free shipping over $50)

These are the basics on thermal relaxers. Investigate your salon, and ask plenty of questions. If it seems that thermal relaxing is right for your hair, you could be tossing back silky tresses with fashonistas like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Patrick Evan’s website lists stylists in New York, and across the country, whom he considers thermal reconditioning experts. or

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