Monica Forman liked the look of straighter hair but didn't want to deal with using a flatiron every morning to tame her curls. She figured thermal reconditioning (TR) '- even though it cost $500 '- would be worth it. At first, it was. After the hours-long straightening process her ringlets were gone, replaced by shiny stick-straight hair, and she loved it.
But her excitement was short-lived. Soon the reality of her new straight locks set in. Rather than being easier to manage, she says, her hair was harder to deal with. It actually took more time to style because it had lost most of its body. The process dried out and damaged her hair so much that within a month of the treatment she cut off five inches. And she lost the option of going curly '- something she had taken for granted all her life.
"I couldn't get any curl at all," Forman says. "After I had it done, I decided it wasn't really for me."
For more than a year, Forman has been transitioning back to her curly hair '- a process that has required several haircuts and a lot of patience. "I wish I had tried something less drastic," she says. "I appreciate my natural curls much more now."
Since the Japanese hair-straightening technique was introduced in the United States a few years ago, thermal reconditioning has taken the country by storm. TR uses a chemical straightener and heat from a special iron to restructure the bonds in the hair and reshape the hair follicle so it falls straight. The top methods by companies such as Rusk, Farouk Systems, Bio Ionics and Yuko System use roughly the same procedure: Relax the hair, apply proteins and conditioners, flatiron it straight and apply a neutralizing solution.
For many with curly hair, it has been nothing less than a miracle: a chance at having the straight hair they always thought they wanted.
"My hair was very curly and would frizz at the slightest hint of humidity," one member wrote on the message board of VincentJ.com, the Website of a Florida salon that has become an authority on thermal reconditioning. "Now my hair is sleek, silky and straight... something I never dreamt was possible. This is absolutely the best experience of my curly hair life."
But for others, the process has not lived up to the hype. For one thing, it's expensive '- in the hundreds of dollars. And it doesn't work on all hair types, especially very coarse, very kinky hair. If applied incorrectly or to hair that has been previously straightened by another technique, it can cause serious breakage, causing one New York stylist to nickname it the "Hiroshima hair treatment."
As Forman discovered, the upkeep can be more trouble than expected. New growth requires touch-ups. And the straightened hair isn't necessarily wash and wear.
"My hair was thick, curly and frizzy," one member recently wrote on VincentJ.com about her experience at another salon. "Sure it looked great when I walked out of the salon. But to maintain my straight hair, I still have to blow-dry it straight and flatiron it as well. Plus my roots are getting curly already. I assumed after spending $600, my hair hassles would be over."
Having new stick-straight hair has made some women appreciate '- and long for '- their old curls. "Now that I have gone curly, I can't imagine ever going back to TR," says Cindy Huddleston, who chemically straightened her hair for several years.
Veteran stylist Antonio Soddu, creator of the CurlFriends line of products, tells clients considering thermal reconditioning to blow their hair straight for two weeks first to see how they like it.
"Once it's straight, it's straight," Soddu says.
Meanwhile, there are other options to loosen curls and kinks and reduce frizz that don't totally straighten hair. These include reverse perms and "softeners."
Christo Fifth Avenue, a New York salon that specializes in curly hair, offers the Curlisto Bio-Softening and Bio-Reconditioning services, both of which redefine curls to create looser, softer locks. Ouidad, the "Queen of Curl," also offers softening services to loosen curls and reduce frizz without leaving you with stick-straight hair.
"My husband was a big factor in my stopping thermal reconditioning," says Huddleston, who had her last TR process in November 2003. "He said it was too straight. And I am happy to report that after 12 years together, he now says I have never looked better, which means my hair really looks nicer this way or love really is blind."
Resources for those considering TR or alternative softening techniques: