Dangers of Hair Straightening


I’ve had issues with my hair for as long as I can remember. I was always jealous of the girls in my grade school whose blond and brunette hair fell gently on their shoulders — shiny, straight and full of bounce. I detested my black, thick Asian hair. My natural wave made the problem worse and I was a slave to blow dryers and round brushes for years.

In college, friends were getting their hair straightened professionally in salons. I would have gone, but couldn’t afford it. So I continued blow drying and then discovered flat irons. In less than 20 minutes, I could achieve a smooth and straight look.

After years of blow drying, coloring, and straightening my hair, a stylist in Los Angeles finally told me to free myself form the shackles of blow dryers and flat irons. He showed me just how damaged my hair was. I was shocked. All this damage just so I could have that J.Lo caramel honey color and Jennifer Aniston straight hair? It wasn’t worth it, and we agreed to only blow dry and straighten my hair once every two weeks. And in-between the hair straightening, I would have to learn to love my wavy hair.

It’s difficult to not desire straight hair that doesn’t frizz-out at the first signs of humidity. We’re surrounded by photos and movies of models and celebrities who go from one hair style to another. Sleek, straight hair captivates us. It looks cleaner somehow, confident and fuss-free. And don’t we all want that? Hair straightening has thrown a wide net and captured the attention of women all over the world. There are products and tools that promise beautiful, lustrous, and straight hair, but at what price are we willing to sacrifice our hair and our health for beauty?

Flat Iron

One of the more affordable straightening tools is the flat iron. There are many new kinds of irons which include gold, jade, and sapphire-plated irons, but the most popular are still the ceramic and metal-plated ones.

Ceramic flat irons evenly distribute heat through the plates and is therefore more gentle on the strands of your hair. Unfortunately, cheaper ceramic flat irons do not distribute the heat properly and you can easily damage your hair, making it dry and brittle.

Metal flat irons damage your hair because the temperature heats the plates unevenly. Also, these metal plates don’t move smoothly through your hair. Instead, the metal pulls and snags your hair and damages your hair follicles.

Japanese Hair Straightening

10 years ago the Japanese hair straightening phenomena took over the United States, and it was difficult to find a salon in a major city that did not offer it. This process takes curly and frizzy hair and manipulates it into soft, straight hair that is manageable.

Depending on the length of your hair, the process can take more than 4 hours and can cost $400 and up. After washing your hair, a stylist adds iron and other essential proteins to cut the bonds in your hair that hold your curls and waves together. This is basically a relaxer. Your hair is then rinsed and another protein solution is added. After some blow drying, your hair is flat ironed in order for the chemicals to more deeply penetrate the hair shaft. A neutralizer is added before washing your hair with a deep conditioner and then flat ironing once again. This technique can leave your hair straight for up to 6 months, but any new hair that grows will need a touch-up.

Unfortunately, with the introduction of any chemicals to your hair, there is a risk of damage. Chemical processing tends to leave your hair dry and course. Your hair can start to fall out and leave bald patches in your scalp. Also, Japanese hair straightening is not recommended for hair that has recently been chemically colored.

Brazilian Hair Straightening (Escova Progressiva, Brazailian Keratin Treatment)

This is the most controversial hair straightening process to date. It was marketed as providing women with the best straightening effects ever. Virgin or chemically-treated hair — “It doesn’t matter,” ads touted. Straight hair could last up to 5 months, and the price was more affordable than its Japanese counterpart.

Although the process is similar, the Brazilian treatment contains one ingredient that can be lethal to anyone: formaldehyde. Many salons also boast using keratin (a protein which is a component in hair and skin) in your hair during the straightening process. Keratin also contains high doses of sulfur. However, it is the use of formaldehyde that breaks the chemical bonds in your hair and ensures straighter strands.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, meaning it can lead to cancerous cells and tumors in your body and ultimately death. When the formaldehyde is applied, it can emit toxic fumes that both you and your stylist can inhale. When Brazilian hair straightening came to Miami a few years ago, I remember hearing reports of clients and stylists donning surgical masks to prevent inhalation of the formaldehyde — as if that would stop this carcinogen from getting into your lungs. Supposedly, these treatments contain at least 2% formaldehyde.

Now some salons around the country are marketing a newer process that is formaldehyde-free, but instead of formaldehyde, these treatments contain at least 2% ether, which is, by the way, an anesthetic and solvent. Ether can make you nauseous, can over-relax your muscles and can hinder your breathing.

As women, we usually want hair that we are not born with, but what’s the point in having this hair if we put ourselves in danger? Embrace your own, natural hair. If you must engage in having your hair chemically straightened, educate yourself, ask a lot of questions, and make sure your stylist truly understands the chemistry behind the entire process. You shouldn’t have to feel sick to feel beautiful.

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