Hair: thread-like strands that have the power to make or break a girl’s day. Since ancient times, women have resorted to various remedies and strategies in an infinite quest of taming their hair, the most recent of these strategies being hair straightening chemical treatments. With various products on the market and a large clientele, the already solid chemical straightening industry is only gaining more and more ground in Egypt. However, there are increasing concerns about the side effects of such products on hair health as well as a growing inclination towards an “all natural” beauty mentality. This creates a dilemma for girls who are left with the persisting question: to straighten or not to straighten?
On one side, it is becoming an increasingly widespread conviction that hair straightening treatments are harmless. Yasmine Al-Zawahry, Lecturer of Dermatology and Cosmetology at the National Research Center says, “Although they are marketed as such, chemical straighteners are not treatments. They are, first and foremost, beauty products designed to make the hair look better, straighter and less frizzy. Hence, contrary to popular belief, chemical straighteners do not worsen nor improve the condition of one’s hair.”
Al-Zawahry suggests that even if the treatment does not deliver the desired beautifying effect, it cannot and will not degrade hair’s health. She proceeds to note that unsatisfactory results are mainly due to having already damaged hair, picking the wrong type of chemical straightener for one’s hair type or choosing the wrong hairdresser.
It is therefore important to know one’s hair type and hair preference before choosing the right chemical straightener. According to Al-Zawahry, Keratin is the most straightening chemical treatment followed by Protein, and then Collagen, with Botox being the least intense of the four and the most popularly marketed chemical straightener. Different mixes also deliver different straightening effects. Al-Zawahry mentions that while it is not common to find pure Botox treatments, it is very easy to find, for example, a Botox-Protein mix that creates a more natural yet still straightened hair look. Women must choose the right mix to help preserve the desired degree of waves –if at all– and achieve the look they are most comfortable in.
In addition, the degree of heat the hair dresser uses during the treatment is crucial, as too much heat can weaken tresses. Al-Zawahry notes, “More often than the clients think, hairdressers add substances to the treatment to be able to cover more heads with a smaller amount of treatment.” These substances are what cause harm to the scalp and the hair, not the treatment itself. It is therefore essential to make sure that the treatment is properly prepared and that an adequate heat level is used.
According to the pro chemical straightening school of thought, addressing these concerns makes chemical straightening harmless, as long as it is done at a healthy frequency of no more than two to three times a year.
On a further end of the spectrum, some will go as far as to affirm that hair-smoothing treatments are not only harmless but also beneficial. Ayman El-Meery, owner of the Beauty Hub hair salon, says, “Chemical straighteners coat the hair, hence protect it from dirt, heat and humidity.” He also states that getting a hair treatment decreases the daily usage of heat, which gives the hair shaft a much-needed break from a heat-infused hair routine that most women follow nowadays.
However, contrary to what El-Meery says, the opposing side denies any benefits chemical straightening treatments may bring about and insist they are harmful. Some argue that even if the concerns stated by Al-Zawahry are dealt with, chemical straightening will have long-term side effects on the quality and health of a woman’s tresses. Naglaa Sameh Zaki, Professor of Dermatology At Qasr El-Einy University explains, “Hair has three layers. The chemical treatment damages the outermost layer, the cuticle, which is responsible of protecting the inner layers leaving the hair shaft weaker –if not damaged.”
Zaki thus advises to only get such treatments if necessary: if one’s hair is coarse and wiry with a thick follicle that could handle the chemical effect, or as a one-time thing for a specific occasion -one’s wedding for instance- without making a habit of it. The two dermatologists noticeably agree and advocate a regulated usage of such treatments. However, Al-Zawahry confirms that if used right, these treatments are harmless, while the second brings forward the idea that such regulations of usage are important to minimize long-term side effects and not to prevent them completely.
Many users are of the same mind as Zaki and have come to accept that such treatments have a cost that unfortunately is their hair health. Some of them, however, such as Farah Atef, a 23 year old engineering student at the American University in Cairo who gets Botox-Protein treatments frequently, said, “I’d rather get the treatment once a year before my holidays, enjoy my effortlessly good hair for three months and then spend the remaining nine months of the year fixing the damage.”
Manal Zaki, a 36 year old working mother, also stated that the side effects of hair thinning and hair loss are not too much to bear comparing to the effort and time Keratin helps her save. Others, such as 25 year old lawyer Sara Ayman, deemed the price too high to pay and stopped chemical straightening. Ayman claims she no longer “has to fear being bald at forty because of the long-term hair loss chemical straightening normally causes.”
Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to the hair straightening dilemma. What is certain is that chemical straightening is not for everyone: it depends on a woman’s hair type, hair preference and lifestyle. All a woman can do is to know herself, her body and her preferences. Only then can she be able to not only fulfil her beauty quest, but to rock gorgeous, healthy hair.