It’s a war women have been fighting for centuries using all sorts of tools and methods. In ancient cultures in places like Egypt, pieces of metal heated over a fire were used. Others used heated combs. Today we have much safer flat irons, straightening brushes and chemical relaxers.
I’m talking about the war against unwanted hair curls and frizz. In their quest for neat and easy-to-manage straight hair people have tried all kinds of methods and technology which we discuss in this article.
Physical and chemical hair straightening methods
Most hair straightening methods used today fall into two major categories: physical (temporary) methods and chemical (permanent) methods.
In the physical group we have tools like flat irons, rollers and straightening brushes. These are methods that straighten hair only temporarily. Most (not all) of them rely on heat to force the hair to stay straight.
In the chemical category we have products like relaxers, oils and keratin that change the chemical makeup of hair, forcing it to remain straight until the product is washed off.
Below we look at the various techniques from each category, explaining how each method works as well as its pros and cons.
1. Physical techniques
As mentioned above, most physical hair straightening techniques rely on heat application to style hair. The heat changes the shape and structure of hair cuticles, removing curls and keeping the hair in a straight form.
The main advantage of physical techniques is that they are less damaging to hair than chemical treatments. When done with care, heat treatment produces minimal damage.
On the downside their straightening effect doesn’t last long. With flat irons you have to repeat the process 2 to 3 times a week. With a straightening brush you have to do it every day.
Here are the main physical techniques in use today.
The flat iron is the most popular heat-based hair straightening product. As with ancient heated metal pieces, a flat iron uses heat to change the shape and form of hair. The main difference with ancient methods is that the heat is electrically generated and better controlled.
The heated parts of a flat iron are called the plates. They are often made from ceramic which provides effective heat distribution and allows temperature to rise quickly when the straightener is switched on. Other, usually more expensive, models use titanium or tourmaline plates.
Because they can rise to a higher temperature than straightening brushes, flat irons are ideal for thick and extra curly hair. But for those with thinner and delicate hair, a flat iron hair straightener can cause more damage.
Straightening brushes are an alternative to flat irons. They are preferable if the risk of hair damage from a flat iron is too high.
A straightening brush also uses heat to style hair, though it has lower heat settings. This makes it ideal for those with thinner and more delicate hair. On the downside it does not straighten hair as effectively as a flat iron and has to be used on a daily basis.
If you don’t want to use a straightening brush or flat iron, a blow dryer can also be used to straighten hair.
The heat from a blow dryer helps remove excess moisture while also keeping the hair straight. The heat applied is less compared to that of a flat iron hence this method will not work well on hair with lots of curls and frizz.
But the biggest disadvantage is that it requires a lot of time and skill and even then it is still difficult to get your hair well done. It works best if you let a professional stylist do it. But that means frequent trips to the salon and more money spent every time you go for a styling session.
On the upside a blow dryer is relatively safer for your hair compared to both the flat iron and straightening brush.
2. Chemical techniques
The main disadvantage with physical methods is that they don’t keep your hair straight for long. You have to style your hair every day or every couple of days. For longer lasting results, chemical hair straightening methods are ideal.
These methods rely on various ingredients to change the chemical structure of hair, preventing it from forming into curls. Different chemical styling techniques use different ingredients.
While chemical styling is often described as permanent, it does not last forever. As new hair grows, the straightening effect gradually fades away. You have to retouch your hair or go back to your original look. Some methods last as long as 6 months while others last 2-4 months.
The biggest downside of chemical hair straightening is the damage it causes to hair. Many people tend to over-process hair, leaving it weak, dry and vulnerable to breakage. So make sure you don’t overdo it and only opt for techniques that cause minimal hair damage.
Here are some of the most common hair straightening methods that involve chemical products.
Japanese straightening (thermal reconditioning)
Japanese hair straightening uses a combination of chemical ingredients and heat to change the chemical makeup of hair. Specifically, it breaks protein bonds that lead to curly or frizzy hair, which allows hair to become less rigid and take on a straight form.
The method originated in Japan in the 90s but has since widely spread to other countries. It works best on bulky wavy and medium-curly hair. It is not recommended for those with kinky hair.
Japanese hair straightening has to be done at a salon. The hair dresser begins by applying a chemical solution to your hair, which breaks down the protein bonds in each strand. Later a flat iron is used to lock the hair into a permanent straight shape.
This method is extremely effective at hair straightening. For around 6 months after the straightening process, your hair will never curl no matter what. Even rollers and flat irons don’t have any effect on the hair.
So if you choose this method get ready to stick with a single hair style for months. Also note that this technique is quite expensive. In fact it is the most costly among all others we have mentioned in this guide. A single session costs between £500 and £1,000 and can take over 5 hours to complete.
Brazilian hair straightening
This is a popular alternative to the Japanese method. You’ll hear it called several different names including Brazilian Keratin Treatment and Brazilian blowout.
Unlike the Japanese technique, a Brazilian blowout does not permanently alter your hair’s chemical makeup. While this means less damage it also means your hair will not stay straight for as long and the styling will not be as pin straight as with the Japanese method.
The first step before getting a Brazilian blowout is to check whether your hair is a good candidate. If you have weak or too-thin hair, your hair professional may advice you against the treatment.
The Brazilian hair straightening process is roughly similar to the Japanese one only that it takes a much short time; around 2 hours. A keratin-based compound will be applied on your hair to make it lose its curly shape. A flat iron is then used to lock the new form into place.
A common concern with Brazilian treatments is the presence of formaldehyde in the conditioning products used. Although the levels are quite low, there is widespread concern that the carcinogenic fumes could cause long term health problems.
In terms of cost, the Brazilian technique is much cheaper, costing between $150 and $600 depending on the salon and your hair length and volume.
If the above two methods sound too expensive or time consuming, try hair relaxers. You don’t even have to go to a salon. Most hair relaxers can be used at home as long as you carefully follow application instructions.
There are two types of hair relaxers: lye and no lye relaxers. Lye-based relaxers are harsher and can be especially damaging for already weak hair or if you have a sensitive scalp.
No lye relaxers will take longer to set but they are safer and can be easily applied at home. But if you have really curly hair, a lye relaxer will be more effective. If possible get a professional hair dresser to apply it for best results.
When choosing a relaxer, check the label to see what kind of hair it is made for. Some relaxers are ideal for wavy hair, others are designed for curly hair and others are specifically for damaged hair.
The most important thing when it comes to using hair relaxers is proper application. If the instructions say you should use a specific shampoo, make sure you have it. If it advices you have gloves on when applying, check that you have a pair around before you start the process.
Don’t forget to double check for how long you should leave the relaxer in your hair. It could cause some serious damage if it is left in for too long.
3. Other techniques
Hair dressings, creams, shampoos and conditioners
If you just need your hair to remain straight for 24-48 hours, try one of the numerous hair straightening creams and conditioners in the market.
These products work in different ways. Some change your hair’s chemical structure for a short time whole others work by locking moisture in your hair. Some such as certain shampoos and conditioners are designed to be used together.
On the upside, these temporary methods cause less damage than either heat or chemical-based techniques. You can also use most of these products at home. On the downside their effects don’t last long and may not be very effective on really curly hair.
Basic home techniques (Rollers, Hair masks, Brushing)
If you want to avoid all the risk associated with chemicals and flat irons, you could use rollers. These will only work if your hair is already fairly straight in its natural form. It cannot help with kinky hair.
For this method to work you need large rollers. You’ll then have to secure sections of your hair (when wet) tightly against your head. This prevents the formation of curls as the hair dries. Once your hair has completely dried, you can remove the rollers.
Alternatively just brush your hair until it dries. You’ll have to keep brushing every few minutes to prevent your hair from curling as it dries. As with the rollers, this method works best if you don’t have kinky or extra curly hair.
Another natural method is to make your own hair mask at home. There are several recipes you can get online. A good example is the milk and honey mask. You may have to try out several recipes until you find the one that works best for your hair. But don’t expect anything close to what a relaxer or Brazilian blowout would do.
Safety tips when straightening hair
- Get a hair diagnosis first. This is especially important for heat and chemical treatments. Knowing the state and type of your hair will help you avoid any damaging treatment. Some salons will actually insist on testing your hair first before any straightening process is started.
- Avoid over processing your hair. If you interfere with your hair’s natural form too much, it will eventually become weak and delicate. It will start breaking and falling off. Your hair will start thinning while you are still young. So even as you strive for straight hair, be moderate. Avoid harsh chemicals, don’t set flat irons and straightening brushes too high and give your hair a break now and then.
- Buy the right products. Substandard straightening products can cause more damage than any harsh chemicals in hair products. Even worse, they are a health and safety hazard. If it is a flat iron, avoid using any old one you find lying around the house. Buy a quality brand that is trusted. As for chemical relaxers, the most important thing is looking for those that match your hair needs and type.
As you can see, there are numerous options to choose from. The best one will depend on what you want, what kind of hair you have and of course your budget.