1. Introduction

    It is a common enough saying that the grass is always greener on the other side. Those gifted with curly hair wish for straight; those with straight hair wish for curly. The wish for curly hair was long easily granted through the use of perms and curling irons; straight hair was another beast entirely, bringing recollections of women in the time of free love and peace using clothing irons to literally iron their hair straight to look like the ultimate hippie chick.

    This is not so anymore. Now you, too, can have straight hair. Easily!

    Thermal reconditioning is a process that has swept America within the last few years, mostly through the process of high-profile mentions in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Lucky, Glamour, Vogue, Elle. It has a number of names associated with it: Yuko, Magic Straight, Ionic Perm, Bioionic Straightening, Liscio, Rusk STR8, etc. The process makes your hair pin straight, a waterfall of hair down your back.

    The three most common names associated to it are typically Yuko (Japanese), Magic Straight (Korean), and Liscio (Japanese), which can be confusing for a person who is first introduced to the very idea. Essentially, the process is the same, regardless of the name; the differences are in the minor details.

    The process originated in Japan and easily conquered Asia; despite general assumption, Asians don’t always have dead straight hair. Though it’s rare to see anyone with curly hair, wavy hair is not all that uncommon.

    The nice thing about thermal reconditioning is that until your hair grows out, it's permanent; if you have mildly wavy hair, it can take up to a year before you even need to bother to go back for touch ups. Those with heavily curly hair will find that they will need a touch up approximately once every three months (as curly hair shows very prominently when it grows out, while mildly wavy hair will be hidden largely by the weight of hair). The drawbacks to thermal reconditioning is that you can do very little with your hair (hair treatment-wise) afterwards and it costs a small fortune.

    To clear up a major point of confusion first: thermal reconditioning, despite its deceptive-sounding name, damages your hair. Terribly. Even processes like Liscio (which has probably the most failsafes associated with thermal reconditioning) will damage it, and it is not recommended that you go through with it if you have processed or dyed hair. With that warning out of the way, we’ll cover the basics.

  2. Where to Get It Done

    Go to a telephone book, look up hair salons. It’s about as simple as that. If you are located in an area where there is a very small Asian population (especially Japanese or Korean in particular), then this might be harder to find; look for salons that offer the Yuko System; out of all the systems used in the United States, Yuko is probably the best known as there is an official training center in Los Angeles where a hairstylist can receive certification in this procedure (I believe this was also the first treatment introduced to the United States public in magazines, though Liscio was probably introduced earlier). Another popular solution that is also recognizable in the United States is the Liscio system; either one should be advertised.

    If you do happen to be in a heavily Asian neighborhood, Yuko and Liscio will be advertised, but Magic Straight also comes up more often than not. Just walk into any salon and ask what process they use. Make sure you bring lots of cash.

  3. Cost

    Average price in the United States start, on the low end, at $400, going up to $1000 in some neighborhoods. This will largely depend on two factors: how long your hair is and where you go to get it. The shorter your hair is, of course, the cheaper it is (the process is much shorter if you have shorter hair).

    If you’re strapped for cash but you’ve got those Asian neighborhoods, then use them to save big bucks; Magic Straight can run as low as $150 in some places. Most people don't know about this as heavily ethnic neighborhoods, just in general, (1) don't advertise and (2) spook Americans into treating it like a miniature country within a country and copping a tourist attitude when traveling through it. (Not that it is entirely their fault; ethnic neighborhoods in general are just damn near cloistered.)

    However, the above half grand to a grand price, however, will generally apply if you are nowhere near one of these havens of ultra-cheapness, as that is a consequence of supply and demand. Non-Asian salons will charge a lot more money as it is still a new process for many of them.

  4. Process

    Before you even think about stepping into a salon, some basic preparation is involved so you don't drive yourself nuts.

    1. If You Are Being Subjected to This Torture: Wearing contacts will get painful, as you will be under a hot heat lamp for a period of time (~30 minutes), as well as having your hair blow-dried. Either you are lucky and you do not wear glasses/contacts of any sort, or you can sit blindly without your glasses for a period of several hours, or you can bring some type of eyedrop fluid so that your contacts don't stab your eyes and fall out from sheer contrariness.

      The second piece of advice is bring a book. A very long one; you'll probably run out of magazines the shop supplies you before you're done.

      Third piece of advice: go early. This process takes hours and you will be tired, hungry, exhausted, and poor by the time you leave.

      Last piece of advice is try to get this done in a cold, dry day. If it's raining, forget it, and hot days will give you that oh, God, what did I do to deserve this kind of feeling.

    2. If You are the (Unfortunate) Friend to Accompany Person Who Plans On Undergoing this Torture: Bring a long book. And I mean long book. Possibly bring lunch, or have money to get lunch. Remember to think up of a way to get back at your friend for making you sit through this nightmare. This will especially apply if the girl or guy in question has hair that goes past the shoulders.

    The following process is a basic outline of what happens. There are minor differences with each process, but the general outline is true for all of them.

    1. Prepping Hair

      This will involve washing your hair and drying it. They'll feel your hair and judge what kind of solution to use to straighten your hair, depending on whether or not it's been chemically treated before (or how curly it is).

    2. Relaxer

      The hairstylist with carefully comb your hair through with a goopy secret sauce. There are three types of solutions that are most often used:

      1. Sodium Hydroxide

        The strongest of three, it is the most basic of solutions (pH from 11-14). This is often used if the hair is very coarse and virgin (aka, natural, never been lightened or processed). African-American hair responds best to this.

      2. Guanidine Hydroxide

        Calcium hydroxide with a guanidine carbonate activator. I don't know much about this one, but from what I understand of it, it is milder than sodium hydroxide and more basic than ammonium thioglycolate (with probably a pH from 10-12). Virgin hair that is not particularly coarse would probably be a candidate for this.

      3. Ammonium Thioglycolate

        Ammonium Thioglycolate, which can be identified on hair bottles under its nickname "thio relaxer" or anything "thio-", is used by most of the major thermal reconditioning processes, including Yuko, Magic Straight, and Liscio. This is by far the most gentle of the three.

        What ammonium thioglycolate does is break the cystine bonds that give hair that curly or wavy appearance. It is only mildly basic (pH 9-9.5) compared to that of sodium hydroxide.

        This is especially popular to use among the Asian treatments because Asian hair tends to be thin and not extremely curly in the first place.

      After you hair has been coated with this stuff, your hair is usually wrapped in some sort of protective coating (i.e. saran wrap) and placed under some form of heat to speed up the process. Some places will precede the application of activator with a cream (usually petroleum) to prevent hair from being overprocessed. Some other places will fortify your hair a bit by some form of conditioning treatment before they apply the equivalent of Chernobyl to your hair. This will vary, depending on your hair.

      The hairstylist will do a hair test on you periodically to see how pliable your hair is; by the time your hair can stretch to twice its length without snapping, your hair is usally ready. After that, your hair will be washed again to rinse out the solution.

      Time: 45 minutes to 1.5 hours

    3. Flat Iron

      This is by far the most painful and tedious part of the treatment. After your hair has been washed and dried part of the way and combed to remove any tangles, the hairstylist will carefully separate your hair into small chunks and apply a flat iron from scalp to root. They will repeat this process twice, thrice (even more if you have especially obstinate hair) before moving on to the next chunk of hair.

      They will do this until all your hair has been ironed. And then smooth it over again to make sure everything is pin straight.

      As this process takes literally hours, you'll sometimes find yourself being worked on by two or more people. Overall results can be uneven if they're both not equally skilled, and if there is a newbie playing around with a flat iron, you might find your scalp getting burned more often than not.

      Time: 2 (chin length hair) to 6 (waist length) hours

    4. Neutralizer

      After the tedious part is over, they apply a neutralizer to your hair so that the cystine/protein bonds reform again, this time in the shape of your current hair (straight). They apply a protective covering again (saran wrap, yep), and you're forced to sit there for another 30-40 minutes twiddling your thumbs.

      Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour

    5. Clean-up

      After your hair has been washed for what is hopefully the last time, the hairstylist will dry your hair and you'll be confronted with pin straight hair.

      Depending on the treatment you opt for and/or what extras you pay for, this might still not be the end of it. Some salons will run a flat iron over the entire thing again just to make sure. Processes like Liscio will apply a type of deep conditioning treatment on top of all this to protect your hair from further damage.

      Really, at this point in time you really don't care whether or not it comes out good or bad, you just want to get the hell off the chair, you've been there for at least 3 or 4 hours and you finished whatever big book you read.

  5. Differences

    Some of the major differences between the different processes (note: I may be wrong with some of them):

    1. Liscio: Introduced by Milbon (and patented by same said person), Liscio is probably one of the first thermal reconditioning treatments out there introduced to the United States (1998), and probably the gentlest on your hair. There are a lot of safeguards in this treatment (some of the chemicals are used to prevent your hair from burning while it's flat-ironed, etc) and the heavy conditioning afterward helps keep your hair from getting damaged.

      Key note: it does not make your hair healthier. The conditioning afterward merely preserves your hair from getting more damaged from external factors after you walk out of the salon. But it is certainly less painful on your hair than the other treatments (which is not saying much).

      Last note: Liscio is by far the most expensive.

    2. Yuko: Uses the same chemicals as that of Liscio, but apparently one strength formula only (unlike Liscio), which means that previously treated hair or dyed hair is a nono (unless you want those bits to fall off during the straightening).

      This is a pretty popular treatment as there are training centers in the United States for this.

    3. Magic Straight: This is a pretty straightforward process; look above for basics.

    4. Rusk STR8: No heat protecting chemicals. This could mean, literally, fried hair. Also their unique flat iron reportedly sucks, as the heat is not distributed evenly in the iron.

  6. Treatment

    After you have peeled yourself from the seat and paid your money and walked out the door, realize that it’s not over yet. There are several things you must do.

    1. Don't wash it. Depending on how cautious your hairstylist is, you're not allowed to wash your damn hair from anywhere from two days to five. This is why it's best to have this process done on a Friday so you have all of Saturday and Sunday to stink quietly in your home. Two days is typically fine; five is overkill and the rest of your family, friends, and coworkers will hate you for good reason.

    2. Let it hang free. For a whole week, do exactly what it says. Don't attack your hair with pins, hairclips, scrunchies - nothing. Don't even push it behind your ears. Unless you want to have a permanent bend in your hair where you clipped it/tied it back/tucked it in/used a curling iron on it.

    3. Head straight to the nearest store and buy conditioner. Used to use conditioner for "fine hair"? Used no conditioner at all? Well, it's now time for you to buy the greasiest, heaviest conditioner you can find. Things that say "deep conditioning" or "moisturizing" will clue you in.

      After your hair has been fried like that, your hair will need help; it will be very dry, even if you opted to pay a little extra for "coating" and "glossing" as some people do to preserve their hair.

      Drawback to all this conditioning: you may break out on your forehead. It is not pretty.

    Don't be too surprised as to how you look. Many people, when going for straight hair, have this idea of straight hair with bounce and liveliness. No, when you walk out of the salon, your first thought will be more along the lines of, gosh, I look like a drowned rat. Your face looks a lot, well, larger, than you expected it to be. This will go away in a few months when your hair grows out a bit and puts a bit more body to your hair.

    Other than that, enjoy your newfound straight hair and marvel at the extraordinariness of human technology.

http://www.beautynewsnyc.com/newsletterjune2003/april.html - for the names/info on the chemicals used.
Most of this writeup is from a writeup I did for a mailing list some time back, reading the back of the bottles while waiting for a friend to finish this hellishly long process, and personal witness accounts.

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