African American Hair & Japanese Thermal Straightening

Straightened African hair
Photo: Zdenka Darula/Shutterstock
Q: I read your comments on the Japanese Thermal Straightener. I too am an African American woman now living in Japan and am considering the straightener. I have basically relaxed my hair all of my life with no lye relaxers. However, my last relaxer was in November of last year as I began to notice considerable breakage.
I have mostly chosen braided hairstyles but since then I moved to Japan in August and can not find a braider although I would like to give my hair a rest from the pulling. Lately, I have been sporting the pulled back ponytail with a piece. But the humidity even as we approach winter makes my hair puffy, plus as I understand it is not good to pull your hair back daily.
I have had a consultation with a salon, and they think it will be fine. Of course, they are Japanese and this will be their first on an African American head. My friend had the Thermal Straightener here but opted to cut off about 2-3 inches of previously relaxed hair, from about 6 months ago just in case.
I am unwilling to do that. Do you think one year of no relaxers has been long enough to be safe? What is the process like? Do you absolutely not recommend it? What if I had a "Gentle Treatment No Lye Relaxer" sent here and had the stylists here apply it, what do you think? I am actually pretty curious about it and would love to feel good about my hairstyle again.

A: Well, as I mentioned before, Yuko Systems, who created the Thermal Straightening (Thermal Restructuring, Thermal Reconditioning) processes has said that African-ethnic hair is not suited to the straightening methods in their system. Because of this, I would be hesitant about having the service done. While hair will grow back, you have already expressed an unwillingness to lose any length of hair at all.
As to whether or not one year of "no relaxers" is long enough to be safe, the answer is simply, "No." It's not a matter of how long since your last relaxer service. It's a matter of what that service does to the hair. Relaxers permanently break the chemical side bonds of the hair chemically changing the bonds into lanthionine bonds. The change in these bonds doesn't go away over time. Because of this, the hair that has been relaxed with hydroxide relaxer can NEVER be treated with traditional perm chemicals.
This means that the Japanese Thermal Straightening may react badly. The fact that the salon is willing to do it at all MUST be tempered by your knowledge of their lack of experience with African-ethnic hair. I double-checked the Yuko Systems website, and their disclaimer that specifically references African-ethnic hair is no longer listed. However, I placed a phone call to the Yuko Training Academy and spoke with a representative and specifically asked about the suitability of the Japanese Straightening for African-ethnic hair and was told very politely that "No. Straightening cannot be done for African or other kinky-type hair."
Having a relaxer product sent from the U.S. (or ordered from some online resource) would be a good alternative. Just make sure that the no-lye relaxer is not a Thio-based product, or you will have the problems discussed above. Even relaxers that are listed as "no-lye" formulas are still hydroxide-based.
{Update: In previous articles and question responses, we have stated that Yuko Systems did not consider the Thermal Restructuring Service to be suited to African-Ethnic hair types. This information came directly from the Yuko Systems website. In addition, a call placed to a Customer Service professional at the Yuko Systems Training Academy where they teach the process, confirmed and clarified the restriction. Specific wave patterns found in African-Ethnic hair are not suited to the Thermal Restructuring Process and can be damaged by the service if attempted.
However, a recent reader questioned the validity of this statement since the Yuko Systems website no longer restricts African-Ethnic hair and says that the process is suitable to any hair type. I have once again spoken to a representative of the Yuko System Training Academy and once more verified that while their website has removed a statement that they felt was unfairly restrictive (given the wide range of wave patterns found in African-Ethnic hair) the problems with very tightly coiled and very kinky hair types is still at issue.
It is important that you see a professionally trained provider of these services to ensure that you do not damage your hair. Part of the Yuko Systems training is to teach stylists who perform the process how to properly determine which hair types are suited to the process and which are at risk for damage. For more information or to contact Yuko Systems you can go to}