The curl-unfurling perm established a niche after the initial frenzy.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
CHICAGO -- A six-hour, $600 hair appointment isn't easy to reconcile with a Midwestern mind-set.
So when news circulated last year about a Japanese miracle cure for unwanted curls (yes, there are Asians with curly hair), most of the breathless reports came from the coasts.
"In New York, (pricing) got stratospheric," said Mary Atherton, editor in chief of Modern Salon magazine, based in Lincolnshire, Ill. "I heard $1,200 and $1,500."
Largely for that reason, Atherton suspected thermal reconditioning, a.k.a. Japanese straightening or thermal retexturizing, might be just a fad.
But as thermal hair-straightening reaches the year anniversary of its major rollout to the American masses, there's no sign that the pursuit of pin-straight, frizz-free hair has fizzled. Vogue reported that this month's cover model, Sandra Bullock, underwent eight hours of the straightening to save time on the set of "Two Weeks Notice."
And stylists between the coasts are being trained in the process or adding specialists.
The process combines chemicals called thioglycolates and a flat iron heated to 355 degrees to banish curl for up to six months. If performed properly, it leaves most manes softer and sleeker than before, with only a quick blow-dry at home to replace the tedium of previous straightening efforts.
"We probably get 200 e-mails a week asking where to get thermal reconditioning," said Carolyn Brundage, director of marketing for Chicagobeauty.com, which provides salon recommendations based on customer feedback and its own Spa Girl reviews. "It's our most popular request by far."
And here's the good news: As availability increases, prices are falling slightly, to about $400 to $800 on average in Chicago, Atherton said. The bad news: That's still expensive. And the proliferation of stylists performing the straightenings is raising some concerns about quality control.
"We had a girl who came in, someone did it for her at their home," said Philip Palmeri, colorist/chemical specialist and co-owner of Trio salon, which has performed about 150 thermal straightenings since the salon became one of the first to offer the service last April. "Imagine the crown of her head, with 60 percent of the hair broken off. She said 'What should I do?'"
It's more what shouldn't be done -- as in heavily color-treated or highlighted hair.
These thermal straightening solutions are distinct from stronger sodium hydroxide formulas and aren't effective for most African-Americans and others with particularly coarse hair.
Still, chemicals are at work. And too many chemical processes on top of one another equals "depilatory," Palmeri said.
"We've been saying no a lot," he said. "About two in five would be a good candidate for it."
That's where the consultation, which may include a strand test, comes in. Brundage and others said any stylist who books a straightening appointment for a new client without a consultation should be feared.
That argues for shopping around. The client should interview stylists and compare training and experience, not just cost.
"If they have a strong chemical background, you're better off," said Graciela Santiler Nowik, who has been a hairdresser for 22 years and owns Hair Base in Chicago, which has done about 25. "I'd ask, 'How long have you done it and how many have you done?' I would ask if they're working with one person or two."
She and Atherton agreed that at least two technicians are ideal at some points -- one can hold the hair while the other irons it, for instance.
Then there's the budget. Are a haircut and take-home products included in the cost estimate? And how much do follow-up straightenings cost?
Most say that retouches, which may be needed within a few months, are no less intensive -- or expensive -- than the initial process, although some touch up only the regrowth.
Price is based on time, Atherton said.
But time ultimately is what you save -- perhaps even money, said Serena Peterson, 36, dean of students at Pulaski Academy in Chicago and mother of 4-year-old twins. She spent $600 for a straightening from stylist Ingrid Trevino at Troupe salon in October.
"My husband wasn't thrilled," Peterson said. "But I was going twice a month for blow-dries, and those are $45, plus a nice tip, plus parking, plus the time and -- this is going to sound really dramatic -- but mental health. I don't stress about my hair anymore."
Now, even her husband, who "spends $15 for his haircut," she said, is sold.