Straight Talk on Hair-Straightening Treatment

Thousands of teenage girls and women are trying to go straight — straightening their hair, that is. They're ironing, blow drying, using chemicals to get the look nature didn't give them. Now there's a new, high-priced technique that promises to tame those curly tresses for good. But is it too good to be true?

Over the years women have tried everything from hot combs to household irons to keep curly, frizzy, unruly hair straight. Now there's a hot new process from Japan that promises to turn curly hair pin-straight, without all those implements.

Called thermal reconditioning or "TR," it's considered revolutionary by industry insiders. Dozens of companies now sell variations of the process. The catch? It costs hundreds of dollars, can take hours to do — and it may be too good to be true.

In spite of the cost and time, however, salons say more and more customers are asking for it.

"There are people who just insist that they have to have it because their girlfriend has it, and they want it no matter what," says Carmine Minardi, one of New York City's top hair stylists.

Minardi says he'll do TR for his clients, but says there are less expensive less extreme ways to get that straight look.

He demonstrated different ways to get the straight look on three women with similarly curly hair. He straightened Sarah Carter's hair the way most women do — with a blow dryer. It took less than an hour and cost her $75. The curls will bounce back after her next shampoo though.

For Stephanie Epstein, Minardi used what he calls one of the best-kept secrets of the business, a relaxer. That's the chemical process African-Americans have been using to straighten their hair for years. The process took more than two hours to complete, and cost $300. It should last several weeks.

For Sheila Cosgrove, Minardi picked the new TR treatment. It's a chemical process too.

But TR is different from any other method of hair straightening. After the chemical is applied to a client's hair, a stylist painstakingly irons the hair, piece by piece, to lock in the straightness for good. The hair is then rinsed and blown dry.

When the TR treatment is done, Cosgrove's hair will stay straight, whatever the weather.

But TR meant spending more than four hours in the salon chair — and $800 at the cash register.

Thermal reconditioning will certainly do more damage to your wallet than buying a blow dryer and a brush, and some say it could damage your hair too. And as your curly hair begins to grow back, you'll need to go back for another treatment if you want it to look like your straightened hair.

Women Say TR Damaged Their Hair

After Sandie Carter had TR, she says her hair fell out in clumps. "I was lying on a black pillow and I got up and there was hair covered, all over the pillow," Carter said.

And Carter's not the only one who says TR damaged her hair. 20/20 spoke to a group of women swapping stories in an Internet chat room, part of the seemingly growing number of women who've had bad TR experiences.

Belinda Pagan wears her hair up to hide what she says is damage from her TR treatment. She said it caused so much breakage, she's got nothing left but a fringe of short hair all around her head.

Tina Cassaday, a Beverly Hills stylist who specializes in hair repair for celebrities like Liv Tyler, Penelope Cruz and Catherine Zeta-Jones, agreed to consult with the women who said their hair had been damaged by TR.

Cassaday's not just a hair stylist; she's also a trichologist, someone who specializes in the molecular structure of hair. She uses a handheld microscope to analyze the damaged hair.

When the TR craze first hit California, Cassaday said she saw an influx of clients with damaged hair. Cassaday doesn't offer TR to her clients, because she thinks it's too risky. The biggest problem, she says, is that some stylists don't know what they're doing.

But regardless of who's doing it, you shouldn't consider the process, most experts say, if your hair has been bleached or straightened with any other chemical process.

They also say most African-Americans have hair too delicate for TR.

But many women say they aren't aware of the risks. In fact, some women who tried TR believed it would make their hair healthier.

"This was supposed to not damage your hair. This was supposed to make your hair look beautiful. It was supposed to … make it better, make it be in better condition," said Bebe Michels.

Thermal reconditioning is marketed as a process that will improve the look, feel and texture of your hair. An ad for the Yuko System Repair, the company that put out one of the first and most successful Japanese straightening products, says, "We are actually repairing the hair."

In an interview with 20/20, Yuko's U.S. sales manager, Joe Furuhata, says, "It not only straightens curly hair but restores damaged hair to become healthy and beautiful."

When asked exactly what he meant by "repairing the hair," Furuhata said, "Repairing means giving very, very high-quality protein to inside your hair."

‘Consumer Beware’

There aren't any clinical studies to show the process actually repairs hair. According to Cassaday, from a molecular standpoint, TR hair is not healthy hair.

When told that some stylists refuse to do TR because it's too risky, Furuhata said it's just a matter of training.

"If they are trained properly and if they know more about the product," he said, "I don't think they have to be scared."

But while Yuko and other companies offer training, and recommend a consultation first, they don't require it. And because TR's not a food or a drug, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn't regulating the process or licensing operators who offer the process to their clients.

"It's basically consumer beware," Cassaday said. "Be educated. Go to a stylist that will run tests."

In Minardi's experience, he says only about 10 percent to 20 percent of people who are having TR done are appropriate clients. That's why Minardi and other experts say an advance consultation is essential.

And one last thing to consider: Curls are making a comeback. So if you like that new look, you might want to think twice before you go straight, because with TR, once the curls are gone they're gone for good — and it may be years until they grow back.