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If you have curly or wavy hair prone to frizz, you've no doubt envied the sleek, smooth tresses models and celebrities always seem to have. Who wouldn't want to have that kind of seemingly effortless hair, at least for a day or two?
Unfortunately, the dream of straight, thick, flowing hair day after day is never as easy as the ads and fashion magazines make it seem. Shampoos and conditioners claiming to straighten hair absolutely don't work, and styling products, while helpful, can't do the job alone. The key is a combination of the right products, the right tools, the right techniques, and, sometimes, a trip to the salon.
You Can Successfully Straighten Your Hair at Home
Depending on the length and thickness of your hair, straightening it yourself can be time-consuming, but it's also cost-effective and convenient. It requires a high-heat blow dryer and/or flatiron, a great round brush, a good straightening product, and hair serum for a smooth, shiny finish.
High-heat flatirons, blow dryers, and good brushes are easy enough to find. Blow dryers simply need to be 1875 watts and flatirons must heat at least to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (look for these heat ratings on the box). Flatirons should have a ceramic plate rather than a steel plate because a steel plate can pull and tear hair. You need high heat because you can't straighten curly hair or create a lasting style without it.
For brushes, just choose the type your stylist uses or look for similar versions at the drugstore. As for styling products, in most cases, what your stylist uses is great, but you don't need to buy the same products to get the same results. In reality, there are brilliant styling products at the drugstore that work just as well if not better than those at the salon. What we're saying is: You don't have to spend a lot of money on styling products!
Which Styling Products Work the Best?
The smallest differences among straightening products often make or break how they perform for any given person. For example, for someone with thick, heavy hair, a lotion-like smoothing product can be best, but if you have fine hair, a lightweight spray can do the trick, and gels can work better for those with normal hair that needs a bit more lift. For best results, finish with a silicone serum or spray appropriate for your hair type (serum for thick hair and a spray for thin or normal hair density).
Here are some of our favorite options for different hair types that will get you started in the right direction:
- John Frieda Secret Weapon Flawless Finishing Creme ($5.99).
- Got2Be Crazy Sleek XL Conditioning Flat Iron & Blow Dry Lotion ($5.99).
- Dove Hair Therapy Nourishing Oil Care Anti-Frizz Serum ($6.79).
- L'Oreal EverSleek Finishing Creme ($8.99).
- TRESemme Tres Extra Firm Control Gel ($3).
- Garnier Fructis Style Sleek & Shine Flat Iron Perfector Straightening Mist ($4.49).
- Pantene Pro-V Restore Beautiful Lengths Smoothing Hair Balm ($4.99).
- Smooth 'n Shine Polishing Instant Repair Spray-On Polisher ($5.49).
Note: Although most of these straightening products claim to protect hair from heat damage, they cannot come through 100%. These products help minimize the damage, but they're not an invincible shield. High heat is always damaging to hair. regardless of what the product says.
Technique is Everything
Here's how to straighten your hair at home, step-by-step:
- Wash and condition your hair. Use a gentle shampoo and a smoothing conditioner to prepare your hair for the straightening process. Straightening, no matter how gentle you are, is tough on the hair, so "babying" it with gentle hair-care products beforehand can help prevent more damage.
- Towel dry your hair until it's more "damp" than "wet." This means less time spent blow drying your hair, and that's a good thing! Try a microfiber towel, which is gentler on the cuticle of the hair than regular towels.
- Smooth a dime-size amount of a straightening cream, balm, gel, or lotion throughout the hair to get it ready for blow drying and flatironing. Make sure you don't overdo it; too much can make your hair limp instead of straight!
- Using a round bristle brush, carefully pull your hair straight as you blow it dry. You can alternate between your blow dryer's hotter and cooler settings to make sure you're not overheating your hair. Keep doing this until your hair is completely dry. Note: If you have very thick, curly hair, this can take a while! If you have a good round-brushing technique you can be done at this stage, but for lots of people it takes a bit more effort to get the smooth, straight (but not too flat) look you want. But don't worry: Using the flatiron will get the job done.
- NEVER use a flatiron on damp hair—you must blow dry your hair first. Using a flatiron on damp hair can lead to damage that literally breaks the hair because the temperature of the flatiron on damp hair can cause the water in the hair to literally boil, and then burst the hair shaft.
- Put the top half of your hair in a bun or clip it on top of your head. Divide the bottom half of your hair into small sections about one to two inches wide. Using a comb, pull out a section of hair as taut as possible with one hand, while smoothing a flatiron along that section with the other. Start at the roots of the hair and move to the end in one fluid motion, then repeat a couple of times to make sure that section of hair is straight. After one section is done to your satisfaction, repeat the process on the other sections.
- If you want a fuller look, apply a volumizing spray at the roots as you flatiron each section.
- When the bottom part of your hair is done, unclip the top part and begin working on those sections. Use a handheld mirror to check the back of your hair in a separate mirror to make sure you didn't miss anything.
- When you're all done, use a small amount of a silicone serum or spray for a smooth and polished look. Serums work best on coarse, thick hair, while sprays are preferred for normal to fine or thin hair.
Straightening Treatments (such as the Brazilian Blowout)
If regularly straightening your hair is getting tiresome (and it is tiring), you can consider a popular process called thermal hair straightening, also known as keratin straightening or "The Brazilian Blowout." This straightening process definitely works: The results are impressive and able to defy even the curliest of locks, plus it lasts and lasts, at least until the chemically treated hair is trimmed or the roots start growing out.
Before you book that appointment, however, know that thermal straightening is neither easy nor cheap. It's a multistep process that can take as long as three hours, and, depending on the length and thickness of your hair, cost between $175 and $350.
The process starts with a shampoo. You may be told that it's to protect your hair from the damage caused by the heat and chemicals used during the treatment, but it's really about cleansing your hair to remove any buildup—no shampoo can prevent the damage this treatment causes.
Typically what follows is a straightening solution that's applied to the damp hair, which is then blown dry. After this, the stylist uses a flatiron to get the hair as straight as possible, then rinses the hair (without shampoo) and applies a conditioning mask (which is really just a conditioner) that sits on the hair for a minute before being rinsed.
After the mask is rinsed, a styling serum is applied, and then the hair is blown dry once again. By the time all this is done, you have unbelievably straight hair that requires little styling time to maintain the appearance. (Note: This is the step-by-step process recommended by the Brazilian Blowout company. Your stylist might not use the same number of steps, and might not perform them in the same order, depending on the type of keratin straightening the salon offers.)
Claims that thermal straightening doesn't damage hair are not true in the least. Anything that alters the structure of your hair is damaging. Unfortunately, the companies that make thermal hair-straightening products typically don't share their ingredient lists, and legally they don't have to do so because any product used strictly by licensed hairstylists and that is not being sold to the public does not have to include an ingredient list (Source: fda.gov).
You may have heard some controversy surrounding the safety of the Brazilian Blowout process. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a letter to the makers of Brazilian Blowout products stating that they mislabeled the product as "formaldehyde free," when, in fact, it does contain the liquid form of formaldehyde, and stating that the high heat used in the Brazilian Blowout process released formaldehyde into the air, where it could be inhaled (you can read the FDA's letter here ). Brazilian Blowout settled a class action lawsuit over the matter in 2012, but was not required to reformulate its products, which it maintains are safe. Similar products are believed to use formaldehyde and/or to include formaldehyde-derived ingredients because this chemical is integral to how these thermal straightening products work.
Even if the chemicals in the straightening formula weren't problematic (and when used as directed they should be safe, but that's debatable and a potential risk you must consider), the flatironing process is always damaging to your hair. The thermal iron reaches up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Think about it this way: The boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so how can 400 degrees be anything but damaging? That's why claims to the contrary are 100% false.
Perhaps the one negative—or positive depending on your outlook— is that after the treatment your hair will be really, really straight. Be prepared for your hair to possibly not even hold a curl. For some, perfectly straight hair can seem lifeless, and you may finally find out what your friends with straight hair have been complaining about every time you've coveted their smooth, orderly locks. The grass is always greener, indeed!
Your Hair Was Professionally Straightened. Now What?
Inevitably, you'll be told at the salon that you need to use special products to maintain your look. That is largely a sales pitch. The Brazilian Blowout or keratin straightening brands have several products; for example, the Brazilian Blowout brand has no fewer than seven "aftercare" products! In all honesty, there are plenty of drugstore products that will condition and smooth your hair just as well for a fraction of the price. Look for products that will be gentle on your hair, and choose styling options designed to reduce frizz (like silicone-based serums). After shelling out for the salon service, there's no reason to pile on additional costs with products that, despite the sales pitch you'll hear, are no different from their drugstore counterparts!
What about when your hair starts to grow and the untreated hair at the roots comes out curly again? Depending on how fast your hair grows, the new growth that appears will need to be straightened as well, though this is generally less time-consuming and less expensive than the original treatment.
Most hair types will have success with thermal straightening, except for some hair of those of African descent or hair that is double-processed or highlighted. African hair can be too fine and too fragile to handle the chemicals and heat, leading to excessive breakage and damage. For highlighted hair, the varying textures (healthy versus dyed—the dyed part being far less healthy) require different processing times, which cannot be accommodated by the thermal straightening system. And, if hair is already double-processed, forget it—at least if you want to keep some semblance of relatively healthy, smooth, intact hair!
Ultimately, there's no super-speedy way to transform curly or frizzy hair into stick-straight locks. You have to consider how much time, money, and effort you want to spend to get this look—and, of course, how long you want it to last, which determines whether you straighten your hair daily or go to the salon for a longer-lasting treatment.
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About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:
Paula Begoun in the Media