Why Straightening Your Curls Is (Sometimes) A Good Idea

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Natural hair is indisputably amazing. The gravity-defying glory of a 'fro. The bounciness of healthy curls. The coils, puffs, and rolls. Each woman's locks are so unique that having natural hair is like having a very chic, bespoke accessory (“Where did I buy this? Oh, I’m sorry. It’s custom”). 

Though there's a lot of variety to natural hair, many who have it miss out on a very viable styling option — straightening. Sure, one could argue that blowouts and flat irons are anti-naturalista. The hair isn’t in its natural state, and has in fact been manipulated to be the opposite — coils flattened out by heat. If you’re on Team Straight Hair Isn’t Natural, even an occasional blowout isn’t right for you. But, if you’re open to straightening, and haven’t touched a blowdryer in months because you’re terrified of curl damage, you’ll be happy to know there’s a camp of stylists who say, “Just go for it!”

Ron Williams, Phyto national educator, is one such stylist. When he’s not teaching healthy hair-care techniques across the country, Williams works out of Phyto Universe, the brand’s Midtown Manhattan hair spa. He suggests straightening every six to eight weeks. “There are definitely benefits. First, there’s the variety in your look — you can appreciate your hair in a new way,” he says. “It also gives you an opportunity to assess the hair’s genuine health. When your hair is always curly, you can’t see how bad the split ends are. Regular straightening leads to a better maintenance program.”  

Also, since curly hair has varying textures throughout — often with kinkier strands on the crown — straightening “levels the playing field,” so you can assess where there’s thinness, breakage, or damage. “When hair is curly, all you see is volume. You can’t get the full picture,” says Williams.

A blowout or flat-ironing can also act like a curly-hair reset. Yes, of course, ladies with natural hair should be thoroughly detangling once a week. But, is everyone that diligent? Is everyone meticulously and gently combing out every knot, tangle, and burgeoning dreadlock? Um, no. A professional or at-home straightening is a moment of mandatory detangling that your kinks and curls will thank you for.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.

Another benefit? Natural hair tends to require a lot of product, which can build up on the scalp. Regular straightening allows for a thorough scalp treatment. “Right before your next shampoo, you can do the ultimate scalp-clarifying treatment,” says Williams. “And, that’s very easy. Part the hair in four sections, and then gently massage the scalp in a circular motion with a boar-bristle brush.” Williams says that although you can do the exfoliation when you have curly hair, it’s more effective when hair is straight since the scalp is more accessible.

Though there are plenty of benefits to occasional straightening, you should also know the risks. For one thing, there’s potential for permanent heat damage. For Syreeta Scott, the owner of Philadelphia salon Duafe Holistic Hair Care, that risk is too great. “My new clients who have pressed and damaged their hair often cry when they find out that they have to start [growing out their natural hair] over,” says Scott. “Please understand how your hair responds to heat. There are some women who can press their hair biweekly, and it reverts back to its natural curl pattern, while others damage it the first time.”

There’s no way to know how your hair will react without experience, but you can reduce the risk of damage. “I don’t think heat is something that needs to be avoided at all costs, but you have to use caution,” says Raechele Gathers, MD, senior staff physician at the Henry Ford Multicultural Dermatology Clinic. If you’re straightening at home, use ceramic tools because they distribute heat evenly across strands. Start at the lowest heat setting. “Perhaps going for stick-straight isn’t appropriate for your hair type. The heat needed to get very straight hair is going to be much greater and can cause damage,” says Dr. Gathers. Never set your flat iron for more than 350 degrees, she adds.
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For in-salon straightening, Williams suggests first interviewing your stylist about their techniques. Avoid those who use “contact blowdrying,” in which the nozzle is constantly pressed against the hair on a high-heat setting. They should only pass a flat iron through each section once. “Show up 15 minutes early for your appointment and watch your stylist with other clients. Can you smell hair burning? Is she applying the blowdryer directly onto clients’ hair?” says Williams. “You can’t just show up, sit in the chair, and hope for the best. You’re honoring your curls and caring for them regularly, so you should take a proactive approach to finding a good stylist.” 


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