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Japanese hair straightening is a popular method for straightening curly or wavy hair. Many women with curly hair swear by it, and it can create a shiny, sleek style. But it comes with some controversy. Sadly, it can wreak havoc on hair if it's done incorrectly or by an inexperienced or uneducated stylist. For that reason, it's important to understand all the benefits and drawbacks while you consider if it's right for you.
The History of Japanese Hair Straightening
Also known as thermal reconditioning, Japanese straightening was all the rage in early 2000s New York City. For women with curly hair who have long envied silky straight tresses, it seemed like a miracle procedure. You walked into the salon with curly hair, dropped $150 to $800 for hours of chemical treatment and flat-ironing, and walked out with super sleek, straight hair that stayed straight until it grew out. The treatment was so popular that it jumped coasts and became a hit on the west coast and then in big cities across the country.
Brazilian Blowout vs. Japanese Straightening
Soon after that, Brazilian straightening (also called the "Brazilian blowout") hit the coasts. It became the hair straightening treatment of the moment and the popularity of the Japanese method waned. A couple of years after keratin treatments like the Brazilian blowout became popular, reports emerged about how much formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) is sometimes used in the Brazilian treatments, and their popularity decreased as a result. Since then, Japanese hair straightening has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, as some people still feel burned by deception from the Brazilian technique.
What Is Formaldehyde?
A colorless, strong-smelling chemical used as a preservative and binding agent. It can be found in products like particleboard, glue, and cosmetics.
How It Works
Japanese hair straightening relies on a special solution that's applied to hair, similar to a flat perm. This solution breaks down the hair's bonds that give it shape, allowing it to become pin-straight when the flat-iron is applied. The hair is saturated with the solution, rinsed, dried with a blowdryer, and then flat-ironed with a ceramic iron in small 1/8-inch sections. Also like a perm solution, a neutralizer is then applied, which locks the style in place. The entire process is labor and time-intensive. Depending on the length of your hair and its thickness, you can expect to be in the salon for a few hours.
Is It Damaging?
Though Japanese hair straightening didn't get the same bad safety reputation as the Brazilian blowout, it is still known to cause damage. Some women have reported highly damaged hair and even hair loss, which has led to some salons no longer offering the service.
If your hair has been colored or received other chemical treatments, you're at a higher risk of damaging your hair with thermal reconditioning. An experienced stylist should know if your hair is a good candidate for treatment. Be honest and if your hair has been processed in any way, speak up about it.
Select a stylist who is experienced in Japanese hair straightening. Before scheduling an appointment, ask how many treatments they've done and how many years they've been doing them.
Is It Permanent?
The solution tends to last about six months which is about twice as long as keratin straightening treatments. While both treatments are referred to as "permanent straightening," it's only permanent in the sense that it's not reversible and you will have to wait for it to grow out. This is one of the downsides: It doesn't necessarily look great when the top of your hair has waves while your ends are still pin-straight. In that way, it's kind of the opposite of a classic curly perm, which many women can deal with given the fact their hair grows in straight after they decide they no longer want the curls. With straightening, you either have to be patient and get creative with your style, get it retreated, or go for a drastic cut.
How to Care for Your Hair Post-Treatment
You have to be very careful with your new pin-straight hair after treatment. You can't wash it or pull it up into a ponytail for at least three days while it sets. You can also totally forget about getting a perm or anything involving chemicals to restore your hair's natural waves. Any additional chemicals will only add to the damage, so you have to be prepared for the commitment to let it grow out.
Hair texture plays a big role in the success of the treatment, particularly for African American women. Depending on your hair, you might be better off with chemical relaxers. Before you schedule an appointment for the treatment, consider booking a consultation first. It's important to fully understand the risks involved and to determine if you're a good candidate.
Where to Get Japanese Hair Straightening
You can get Japanese hair straightening treatments anywhere in the country, but your best bets are in larger cities. In New York City, for example, the treatment is mainly offered in the trendy salons sprinkled throughout downtown, with some in Brooklyn and Queens. Still, the big hitter salons, such as Eva Scrivo, Ted Gibson, Mark Garrison, and Charles Worthington no longer offer Japanese treatments, according to an article in NY Magazine. For these places, the damage that it inflicted on women's hair wasn't worth it. The costs for this treatment will vary drastically depending on where you live, but you can expect to pay between $400 and $800. Because there is some risk of damage involved, it's best to pick a salon and stylist based on experience rather than price.
Pierce JS, Abelmann A, Spicer LJ, et al. Characterization of formaldehyde exposure resulting from the use of four professional hair straightening products. J Occup Environ Hyg. 2011;8(11):686-699. doi:10.1080/15459624.2011.626259
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem compound summary for CID 712, formaldehyde. Updated October 31, 2020.
McMullen RL, Zhang G, Gillece T. Quantifying hair shape and hair damage induced during reshaping of hair. J Cosmet Sci. 2015;66(6):379-409.