If you have a head overflowing with curls but want the sleek, straight look without the fuss of a flatiron or blow dryer, a permanent relaxer is your best bet to unfurl those strands for good, or at least a good six weeks. But what's a safe, effective method to tame your mane that won't cost a small fortune?
Here's a primer on the straightening options available -- including the Japanese method that recently garnered big-time media buzz, as well as old-school salon relaxers. Beauty insiders also offer ways to save when getting those locks in line.
Japanese hair straightening, also known as thermal straightening, seeped into the public consciousness about a decade ago with celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Tyra Banks and Julianne Moore reportedly having it done.
The method, which originated in Asian markets, is used most commonly on people with a loose curl pattern and "won't work on the most extreme curl of ethnic hair," said Meri Scals, stylist and editor of Allbeautyanswerscom.
Thermal straighteners will keep you in a salon chair for about three to six hours, but will last six to eight weeks. A cream or gel solution is applied to the hair and small sections are thermally restructured with a flatiron at a high temperature.
If you go the thermal route, be prepared to cough up some serious cash -- from $300 to $1,000.
Keep in mind that thermal straightening tends to leave hair bone straight, so you'll have a tough time holding a curl, experts say. You'll also need to get regular touch-ups since new hair growth will not match the straightened hair.
In a scene from The Way We Were, Robert Redford asks Barbra Streisand what she'd done to her hair. She tells him that she went to Harlem to get it straightened.
The Streisand character was onto something. Hair relaxers have been used by women of color since time immemorial and are considered some of the strongest straighteners out there.
And while they're most common in the African-American and ethnic markets -- and there's a widespread perception that relaxers are only for those with tightly coiled and kinky hair -- that's not necessarily true. That notion comes from a lack of education on the part of consumers and the salon industry alike, says Yvonne Morrison, director of education and a hair designer for Loreal's Mizani division, which distributes its relaxers to salons nationwide.
"It can be safely and effectively used just as long as the hair texture requires it," says Jesse Hille, a hair designer with a Canton, Ohio, JCPenney salon, who is trained in the process. "It's a best-kept secret."
These sodium hydroxide or guanidine hydroxide relaxers, in a cream-based product, break down certain bonds in the hair shaft. The process takes about an hour and a half to complete.
And relaxers won't break the bank: The treatment averaged $95.60 in 2010, says American Salon magazine.
A professional stylist would have to assess whether this method, designed for tighter curl patterns, is right for your hair. And like the thermal straighteners, relaxers require regular touchups.
Stretching the Life of Your Straightener
A major way to save money on straightening is to stretch the life of the treatment.
Try a weekly professional blowout, which can cost as little as $20 and can double the life of your straightener.
Skipping daily shampoos will also prolong the life of your straightener. If that's not appealing, try a dry shampoo: They're sprayed onto the roots and don't strip the hair of natural oils, which keeps your locks straighter longer.
Be a Beauty School Subject
You also can save big bucks on your straightening by having it done at a beauty school, where clients can pay is little as 10% of what it would cost at a salon.
At many of these schools, students/stylists have undergone hundreds of hours of training and are supervised by a professional. Ask clients who are leaving the school about their salon experience.
Opt for a beauty school that is licensed by the state, and consult with the Better Business Bureau in your area to help find a reputable one.
Buyer Beware: Brazilian Straighteners and DIY Relaxers
Until the smoke clears on Brazilian blowout -- also known as keratin -- straighteners, avoid this method. The Professional Beauty Association issued a warning against the potential dangers of Brazilian straighteners, amid media reports of formaldehyde being used in many of these treatments.
You can find do-it-yourself relaxer kits at your local drugstore that are an undisputed bargain at $4.99 to $8.99. Although you might be tempted, don't play hairdresser. The process involves harsh chemicals that should be applied by a trained professional. Missteps can result in scalp burns, serious hair loss, even blindness, according to experts and product warning labels.
If you're thinking of taking the straightening plunge, be an educated consumer.
• Schedule a consultation with a stylist beforehand to discuss if your hair is in shape for a chemical process (stylists discourage straightening hair that has been dyed or bleached), and to determine the method that's best for your hair.
• Like many chemical salon processes, Japanese straighteners and relaxers done incorrectly can dry out and damage hair, and cause breakage. Make sure that the salon and stylist is licensed by your state's cosmetology board.
• Find out how often the stylist has performed the straightening method and if they've received training from the manufacturer or distributor.
• Ask what products you should use to maintain the treatment.
• When straightening your hair, it's critical to condition it to prevent damage. Consult a hair professional on how to best protect your crowning glory.
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