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Styling natural African-American hair is a major strand-induced stressor for some ladies, so opting for more manageable alternatives is a popular beauty trend. Pressing and relaxing both leave natural black hair smooth, soft and style-ready, but the two procedures are hardly interchangeable. If you're longing for tamed locks, get savvy about your straightening options before you hit the salon chair.
Tools of the Trade
You may have heard of pressing under the more old-school moniker of "hot combing." Pressing natural African-American hair involved pulling the strands through a heated metal comb to flatten out curls and coils. Since African-American hair is typically in need of more moisture and protein than other hair types, most salons treat the hair with a styling oil or cream first to limit the amount of moisture loss. Relaxing relies on chemicals rather than mechanics to achieve the straightening action. A super-high alkaline chemical formula, typically containing lye, coats your strands to bust the bonds that keep your coils curled. A few rinses with a neutralizing shampoo stops the straightening action and a deep conditioner replenishes lost moisture.
Both pressing and relaxing will leave most types of African-American hair sleek and straight. Pressing can be time-intensive because longer, thicker or coarser hair types may need more than one pass with the hot comb for each section. Relaxers typically soak into the hair for between 20 and 30 minutes, so the entire process can be completed in under two hours. Both options give you hair that can be easily styled, but since chemically relaxed hair is more prone to damage and breaking, heat styling is discouraged to keep you hair intact.
Maintaining the Do
The major difference between pressing and relaxing is longevity. Hot pressing will give you straight strands for up to three days or until the first shampoo. Relaxing will last until new hair growth sets in. If you are just looking to go straight for an event or a temporary reprieve for your natural do, hot pressing is a cost-effective solution. If you are ready to say, "So long" to your curly locks, chemical relaxing is as close to a permanent solution as you're going to get. If you go the chemical route, expect to pay up for touch-ups every three to four months.
Straightened Strand Safety
African-American hair rocks some unique properties: It's less dense, less elastic and more in need of protein and moisture than other hair types. The translation is that natural black hair is even more prone to damage from extreme treatments than other kinds of hair. Generally speaking, the occasional hot-pressing treatment delivers less damage than regularly chemically relaxing your strands. If you opt to go hot, start with the lowest temperature possible. Combs that are too hot will burn your hair and superheat the oil, leaving you vulnerable to scalp burns. Chemical relaxers should only be trusted in the hands of professional stylists. The wrong chemical cocktail or a too-long treatment can lead to broken, busted strands or even significant hair loss.