Conditioned Response

Hillary Johnson last wrote for the magazine about shopping L.A.'s ethnic neighborhoods.

I’m about 15 minutes away from turning 40, and I’ve begun to notice that an alarming number of the women of my acquaintance have begun to have a little nip and tuck done here and there. It surprises me, since not one of them earns a living based on her appearance, but one of the hazards of living in Southern California seems to be that nature is never good enough. A few of us pretend to be above such nonsense, but I sometimes suspect that, if it weren’t for squeamishness and/or poverty, we’d all be doing it.

What every Angelena I know does do, however, is alter the natural shape, color and/or texture of the hair on her head. Men too--a theater critic I know recently let drop that he perms his graying hair on a regular basis. There are very few holdouts. I’ve lived here for 12 years, and in that time I’ve known exactly three people who didn’t own cars, and about as many who didn’t color, straighten or curl their hair. If, like me, you have parents who live in a normal city and you visit them once or twice a year, you’ll know that people in other places have brown hair, gray hair, dishwater blond hair, usually topping a pair of healthy, blushing cheeks and bright, clear eyes surrounded by merry crow’s feet.

The problem with all this coloring and texturing is that it ruins your hair, and pretty soon your flaming pre-Raphaelite curls or your Veronica Lake platinum waterfall has turned into a brittle, thorny fright wig. Somewhere in the early ‘90s I bleached my hair to a tender shade of blond the color of jasmine petals. I looked great for about six weeks, but the bleach damage took its toll. For years after that, I had a head topped with an angry Brillo pad. When I combed it, I ended up with a lap full of pale little twigs. Despairing, I finally cut it all off. Since then, my excesses have often led me to resort to scissors, since hair damage can never really be undone. Or can it?

Conventional wisdom has long held that products claiming to “restore” or “repair” damaged hair are bogus. At best they coat the hair with something slippery like dimethicone, which gives the appearance of health but does not affect the hair’s structure. Hair cannot be “healthy,” the experts will tell you, because hair is dead. However, home conditioning treatments have improved greatly in recent years. Bumble and Bumble’s deep conditioning treatment, like the rest of its products, has no particular gimmick other than high-quality ingredients in quantities significant enough to actually have an effect. Most products, especially those you buy in drugstores, have only tiny amounts of the aloe, jojoba, tea tree oil, peppermint or ylang ylang that they tout as performing miracles, too little to be effective. When Bumble and Bumble puts an ingredient on a label, though, you can count on it being a major component of the emulsion.


Other lines, such as Prive and Graham Webb, also offer high-quality products for home use. Home conditioning has a lot going for it: there’s nothing quite like sitting in the bathtub with candles, a glass of wine and a fragrant coating of Prive’s Masque Intensif on your head. A new product, Phuse, is a fruit-acid based additive meant to turbo-charge your hair-care regimen. Like those quarts of high-octane stuff for your gas tank, it’s supposed to boost the performance of whatever conditioner you normally use. The revolution in hair fitness started when the Yuko hair-straightening technique migrated from Asia to Beverly Hills. Sure it costs up to $600 (how much is that per strand, one wonders?), but if it can make a Fran Lebowitz look like an Ali MacGraw, it’s worth it. And the price of miracles has just been lowered significantly with another Asian import, a process called ionic conditioning. It works whether your hair is straight, curly, long, short, permed or colored, and is about half the cost of the Yuko system.

Nelson Chan, a colorist who works out of Estetica Salon in Beverly Hills, was one of the first to bring the ionic treatment stateside and is teaching the technique to other stylists around the country. He claims to be able to restore any head of hair, no matter how damaged, to a state of leonine luxury.

The ionic conditioning treatment is the first procedure to introduce a substance that can actually bond with the structure of the hair. The stuff Chan uses is a gloppy paste dotted with little black specks. It’s painted onto the hair, and then a flat iron is used to heat it up. The specks dissolve, releasing ions--negatively charged particles that attach to the empty slots in “broken” molecules. The ions bond to the roughened the surface of the hair, thus smoothing out its texture. It’s a simple, easy procedure, and costs less than $100 per treatment. The results from the first treatment last for four weeks, and are cumulative over time if you keep coming back.

My friend Rola, a pediatrician, heard about Chan and went to see him in a state of absolute desperation. Egyptian by descent, Rola’s hair had a most unusual texture when left in its natural state. “I have schnauzer hair,” she says sourly. “It isn’t one texture but two, and neither one is good. There’s a baby-soft under layer, but then there’s this coarse, curly stuff that pokes out on the surface.” Throughout her residency, Rola got up at 4 a.m. to tame her hair. A particularly bad experience with an over-the-counter relaxer (her mother called; she left it on too long) had left her with patches where the hair had broken off entirely, and others where it was nearly ready to do so.

“She had some of the worst hair I’ve ever seen,” Chan says. “On a scale of one to 10, she was a 10. I like to say that I can fix any amount of damage, and I can. But the hair has to actually still be there. A lot of Rola’s hair was simply gone.” But when I saw Rola that weekend, her chin-length hair was a single texture (soft, with body), a uniform color, and the nearly bald spots had been cleverly camouflaged by the strategic use of--you guessed it--more relaxer. Rola was ecstatic; she and Chan had hatched a plan to make her leonine by the time her wedding rolled around in September. My friend Amy, a striking redhead who often goes by the nickname Goddess, recently returned from Paris, where she made a pilgrimage to the salon of Leonor Greyl, perhaps the world’s only true hair couturier. The grand dame herself looked at Amy’s hair under a microscope and dictated an elaborate sequence of potions and masques that left her with hair the texture of silk threads. Greyl’s products are available at beauty supply stores and salons in Southern California, and she has trained certain stylists in her secrets and methods, so you don’t have to go to Paris to get the treatment. But, hey, people have based vacations on stranger things.

If, like me, you’re short-haired by choice rather than breakage, conditioning is all about the scalp. Carla Gentile, owner of Steam, says that the scalp is the key to growing a good head of hair, and her trademark treatment focuses on the follicles. A scalp treatment at Steam begins in a massage chair with a long brush-out, followed by an essential-oil scalp massage. While the oils soak in, you get an out-of-this-world neck and shoulder massage. After that comes a rinse, shampoo (more massage action here) and the application of conditioner. Then you’re slotted under a hood-like contraption that directs warm billows of gentle steam over your sopping head while you flip through a copy of Paris Vogue. I walked out of Steam with my entire head a-tingle, and my hair, which is around two inches long, was so silky that it felt wet even when it was dry, an effect that lasted for days.

According to Gentile, one of the main causes of hair damage can be the use of too much shampoo. “I try to train my clients to wash their hair as infrequently as possible,” she says. “Get it wet and massage the scalp, but don’t actually wash it every time you shower. If you have long hair, you may only need to use shampoo once or twice a week. The hair’s natural oils are also the best conditioners. Why wash them out and replace them with product?” Since the shelves of my bathroom are lined with products designed to make my hair look stylishly gritty and unkempt, I can hardly argue with her.