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Are curls and kinks getting you down? Do you want a smoother, sleeker look-looser curls, less frizz and more shine?

The new generation of hair relaxers provide curlyheads with a growing number of options. They are designed for all hair types from coarse and kinky to fine and curly. They can take out a cowlick or smooth an entire head of hair.

'What they do is break down the bonds of the hair,' said Khiara Nabifar, research and development product manager for Sebastian International. 'They give hair a softer look and flow. A relaxer can actually benefit you by changing the texture of your hair.'

A few decades ago, those with curls often resorted to strong straightening products. But they had their drawbacks. The hair broke. The scalp burned.

'Relaxers were very harsh,' said Laurence Nunes, a national advisor and coordinator with Paul Mitchell, which makes a 5-year-old product called The Relaxer.

Then and Now

The newer products, which use either a sodium hydroxide or a thioglycolic aid base (the same chemicals used in permanent waves), are now available in a variety of strengths for almost any type of hair. They contain more buffers to protect the scalp and to provide more nutrition and moisture for the hair.

Chemical hair relaxing products change the structure of the hair, penetrating the hair and rearranging the bonds of in the hair shaft so that the structure can change.

Steve Goddard, general manager of Rusk Inc., knows from experience about the challenge of relaxing curly hair. As a kid growing up, he was nicknamed 'Steve Fuzz.' Chemical relaxers left his hair looking like wood, with no body, no flow.

'They took all of the life out of my hair,' he said. 'It didn't look natural at all.'

Rusk came out with its popular AntiCurl relaxer in 1995 to provide a gentler option for people with curly hair. The company now has three formulas: one for virgin hair, one for color-treated hair and one for resistant hair. It is made with a thioglycolic acid.

The entire process takes about an hour. Phase I of AntiCurl is applied with a bowl and a brush. The product is applied in sections, about a half-inch away from the scalp. The hair is continuously combed with a wide-toothed comb throughout the process to provide a mild amount of tension as the bonds are broken. After the hair is rinsed, Phase II is applied to lock in the bonds to their new, straighter configuration.

'The concept is to take the same hair fiber altering mechanism used in a perm and apply it to smoothing the hair,' Goddard said. 'Because of the base and the formula itself, AntiCurl is able to smooth the hair, remove frizz, eliminate much of the curl and completely eliminate perms without damaging the hair.'

KMS Flat Out Chemical Relaxer, a sodium hydroxide formula, comes in gentle, regular and extra strength formulas. The difference is strengths is the amount of buffers in the product and the amount of sodium hydroxide. As a rule, the mild is best for color-treated and finer hair textures. Regular is for most people and is used to relax or retexturize hair. Extra strength is for very coarse hair or culr that is resistant to relaxing. The product can be used to straighten or retexturize, said John Sturgill, spokesman for KMS.

Thioglycolic acid relaxers, which tend to be milder and less damaging, last about a month before the curl begins tightening. In resistant hair, it can come back in as little as two weeks.

Sodium hydroxide relaxers, which tend to work better on ethnic hair, last forever. The relaxation cannot be reversed.

No matter what type of product you use, keep your expectations realistic. Don't expect your tight curls to be transformed into stick-straight, shiny Vidal Sassoon hair. The results will depend on the type of hair, the strength of the relaxer used and the length of time it is left on.

If you have coarse, kinky hair with a strong curl, you'll get a smoother finish to the hair and a relaxed wave pattern, Goddard said.

'A person who has curl hair who wants it straighter can expect a looser curl,' Nunes said. 'It's more of a control product – controlling frizziness and unwanted curls.'

For those who want a straighter look with their relaxed hair, they can blow dry it or use a product like Conair's new Steamer Flat Iron, which allows you to straighten the hair while putting moisture into it.

Don't Try This At Home

Just because the newer products are less damaging doesn't mean anybody can use them. They still use strong chemicals.

A professional stylist must determine the condition of the hair. Has it been colored? Have any other chemicals been used on it? If it is damaged and fragile, the process could seriously damage the hair. Some stylists do a patch test to see how the hair reacts. If there is breakage after the test, don't relax the hair.

In the wrong hands, the results can be disastrous. A person who uses a thioglycolic acid-based product on top of hair that's been relaxed with a sodium hydroxide relaxer can end up with a 'chemical haircut,' Sturgill said.

'You must find an experienced stylist who knows how to relax hair,' Sturgill said. 'This will keep damage to a minimum.'

Handle With Care

To keep relaxed hair looking good, it must be treated with care.

'Overall, hair tends to have less body and shine,' Sturgill said. 'It may even feel a little bit dry and brittle. Relaxing is not a delicate process.'

People who have had their hair relaxed should wait at least three weeks before coloring it. Make sure you tell your colorist that your hair has been relaxed because it may have a higher porosity, which can affect the color formulation and the timing.

Stay away from bleach, which add insult to injury.

Sturgill recommends using a good leave-in treatment such as KMS Liquid Assets and shampoos and conditioners with a lot of natural essential fatty acids and humectants. Avoid products with magnesium, he said. They can dry relaxed hair and make it more curly.

The shampoo must put moisture into the hair. Nunes recommends Paul Mitchell Shampoo 1, Awapui or The Wash for clients with relaxed hair.

It should be followed up with a good detangler or conditioner.

Deep conditioners are recommended at least once a week. Nunes likes Paul Mitchel's Super- Charged Conditioner.

Nabifar recommends Sebastian's Potion 7, a deep conditioner containing shea butter that soothes and smoothes the cuticle.

'After using it, the cuticle is like spun silk,' Nabifar said. 'I swear by it.'

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