"Every time I show someone a photo of my 'old' hair, they gasp."

By Jillian Ruffo
Jan 20, 2019 @ 9:00 am
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Every time I show someone a photo of my “old” hair — that is, the long, curly, thick mane I had when I was 14 — they gasp. It looks totally different now, and will probably never look like is used to again. The reason, I believe, was because of a Japanese straightening treatment I started getting in high school.

Before I decided to get a straightening treatment, I struggled with my hair for years. When I was in high school, beauty standards mostly dictated pin straight hair — all I wanted was to be able to achieve that look on an everyday basis like my friends did. I had no idea how to deal with my curls. I’d go through a gallon of conditioner every few months, but my hair was still impossible to detangle. Plus, my curls were frizzy beyond belief — it felt as if there was no gel or serum on the market that could actually help.

In my mind, the only solution was to go straight. I’d get two hour-long blowouts for special occasions, and I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when my dad bought me my first flat iron. Still, no amount of time or energy could get my hair perfectly straight. Then, I found out about Japanese-style chemical straightening, or thermal reconditioning, through a curly-haired friend at my sleepaway camp. I thought it was the perfect solution. 

It seemed too good to be true: With just a few hundred dollars and multiple hours in a salon, I’d walk away with hair that dried without a single kink. I begged my parents for what I was certain would be a life-changing experience. After much resistance, they agreed.

So, what exactly was I getting into?

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As Amber Maynard Bolt, a master stylist at 901 Salon in Los Angeles explains, the treatment was created in Japan in the late ‘90s and was developed to break down the bonds in the hair in order to re-shape each strand. 

“The chemicals used in the process are extensive, but the active ingredient that produces change is ammonium thioglycolate, which breaks the protein bonds in the hair,” she explains. “Once those bonds break, the hair is in a limp state, allowing you to reshape it into its new form. Flat-ironing the hair creates the straight texture. Once the hair is completely flat-ironed, a neutralizer is applied in order to reattach the protein bonds in its new shape.” 

(My hair at age 13, before Japanese hair straightening.)

I couldn’t sleep the night before my father and I drove into Woodside, New York for my treatment. The salon, which still performs Japanese straightening according to reviews on Yelp, was a word-of-mouth type of place that I had heard of through friends. It charged a fraction of the prices in Manhattan and New Jersey. When we arrived, there were about 40 clients in the room, which was no bigger than 600 square feet. The hairstylists all wore masks over their noses and mouths, and worked at a rapid pace. It was set up assembly line style, with a consultation as the first order of business. After examining your hair, the owner of the salon would write down your price on a sheet of paper, depending on your hair’s length, volume, and texture. Some women paid $90 for their treatment. Mine was $180. 

Typically, the entire chemical-filled process took about eight hours. For me, it took 10. It wasn’t just exhausting, it was painful. Really, really painful. Imagine someone pulling at your hair while clamping a 450-degree flat iron as close as they could to your scalp. When I left, I had chemical burns and scabs all over my scalp. My hair? It was shiny, smooth and so, so straight, and I was obsessed. Little did I know that 15 years later, I’d have scars on my scalp from picking those scabs, and half as much hair as I started with.

(My hair now, years after the treatment.)

As Maynard tells me, there are many issues involved with the treatment: breathing in harsh chemicals, damage to the hair, and much more. Unlike a Brazilian Blowout or Keratin straightening treatment, Japanese straightening doesn’t gradually wash out of the hair. Instead, the straight texture stays in place as new hair grows in at the roots. Meaning without maintaining the treatment on a monthly basis, I had kinky curls growing in at the top of my head, and pin-straight hair to follow. That meant flat-ironing my hair on a daily basis and repeating the treatment, causing more damage than what had already been done — something Maynard says is a common mistake.

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Maynard says that while the hair’s texture and color could change due to natural hormonal causes, the treatment might also have some effect on the way hair grows and changes. “I have seen throughout the years some individuals hair go through these changes quicker than others by using a chemical process such as Japanese straightening,” she says. 

Unfortunately for me, those weren’t the only negative effects. After returning time after time, I ended up with a small set of bangs — not because I cut them, but because heat and chemicals broke off the front section of my hair. The head of hair that I was once barely able to wrap an elastic band around twice thinned out due to the breakage, and turned into a loose, frizzy wave that never looks quite right. And as for my beautiful curls? I haven’t seen those since 2005. 

It's possible that if I had quit while I was ahead — that is, realized that having pin straight hair wasn't worth the process — the long-term effects on my hair may have been different. It's also possible that the treatment damaged my hair, but that it also changed with age, over time. Additionally, all chemical treatments aren’t created equal, which is why it’s important to do your research before heading to the salon. As Maynard tells me, “It’s possible to get Japanese straightening without serious damage, since there are different strengths available. You may not get the exact straightening results you want, but it’s better to have a slight bend with healthy hair, than straight hair that is limp and broken.”

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And make sure to ask your stylist about strengthening add-ons like Olaplex, she advises. “The great part about technology today...is bond builders like Olaplex, which you can add into the chemical service to help keep your hair stronger throughout the process. We also currently use Liscio, a different straightening treatment, at 901 Salon. I find that it is a reputable product that maintains the hair’s quality.”

Today, my hair dries in a loose, puffy wave-like texture. I’ve accepted it for what it is, and I treat it well. I get routine trims and use a hair masque regularly in order to keep it strong and healthy. Is it easier to blow out these days? Absolutely. But if I had known as a teenager then that my texture would never be the same, I would have committed to the frizz — no matter how much conditioner it required.

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