Straight Talk About Straightening Hair

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on October 30, 2013
3 min read

If you've got curly hair, you may daydream about having smooth, straight locks. There are several options for taming curls, and each has pros and cons.

Many women swear by this salon treatment, which smoothes and straightens hair by coating it with chemicals. Stylists say it provides a glossy, frizz-free finish and makes hair much easier to care for. To keep that finish, you need to reapply keratin treatments about every 12 weeks. Treatments can cost $200 or more.

Keratin treatments don't work well on tightly kinked hair. And they can make your hair brittle, so you'll need to use conditioner generously when you shampoo.

Or you may want to skip keratin treatments altogether. There have been safety questions about the treatments, particularly for stylists who work with them. Some brands may contain or release unsafe levels of formaldehyde, a chemical that has been linked to health problems, including cancer.

Salon and home chemical relaxers last longer than keratin. The treated hair stays straight permanently. If you have it done in a salon it's about half the price of a keratin treatment. But the roots grow back curly. That two-textured look bothers some women, says Anthony Cress, a hair stylist in Newport Beach, CA.

Salon stylists usually use relaxers with lye because they work faster. They can be more irritating to your scalp than those without lye and are best done in salons, says Paradi Mirmirani, MD, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo, CA. If you straighten your hair at home, use a no-lye relaxer, which is less likely to irritate your scalp, and don't leave it on longer than directed.

All chemical relaxers can make your hair dry and brittle and harm your scalp. And the damage can build up. For touch-ups, though, you only need to apply the relaxer to your roots, not all over.

Victoria Barbosa, MD, MPH, a dermatologist in Chicago, says she advises her patients not to use a chemical relaxer if their scalp is unhealthy or they have serious problems with hair breakage or hair loss.

To protect your hair, don't use a relaxer more than every 8 weeks, and use moisturizers generously on your hair.

If you don't want to pay for salon treatments or expose yourself to chemicals, you can straighten your hair between shampoos or swims with a blow-dryer or flat iron. “Heat rearranges hydrogen bonds in the hair, causing temporary straightening, which lasts until the hair is exposed to humidity or water,” Barbosa says.

Too much heat can also damage hair. To prevent damage, try these tips:

  • Blow-dry only once or twice a week on a low setting. “If you start getting flyaways, breakage, or the hair isn't as shiny, what you're doing is too much,” Mirmirani says.
  • To cut back on heat, wash your hair at night. Let it air-dry, and straighten it with a flat iron in the morning.
  • Use a flat iron on dry hair only. Keep it on a low setting and don't hold it in one place too long. "If the flat iron or curling iron is not moved along the hair shaft swiftly enough, an entire section of hair can be singed off at one time," Barbosa says.
  • Cress suggests stretching the time between stylings by using dry shampoo. "It absorbs the oils from your scalp, and you don't have to restyle," he says.

The simplest option is also best for your hair: Embrace your curls. "I don't like to say, 'Go straight for the chemicals,'" Cress says. "It can be an uphill battle to keep your hair moisturized if you blow-dry and color and have other products and treatments in your routine." Ask your stylist how to style your hair so its natural curliness is more appealing to you.

The trick is to treat your hair gently. Don't towel dry it vigorously like you're polishing a bowling ball. "It is instantly setting yourself up for failure and frizz,” Cress says. “Instead, use a wide-tooth comb to style it the way you want to wear it, then let your hair fall into your hand with a towel and gently squeeze the towel." Finish shaping it with a product like light liquid gel or mousse.