It IS THE latest in exotic hair care: a Shu Uemura intense hair conditioning "ritual" at Luxelab in Santa Monica. It is, they say, based on the Japanese tea ceremony.
So, you settle into the shampoo chair, wrapped in a black kimono, as the technician sets out a lacquer tray precisely arranged with a matcha tea bowl, a whisk and vials of mysterious fluids. A paddle brush in each hand, she begins to sweep up portions of hair, letting it toss and fall, to gauge its texture and general well-being. Then the scalp is doused with jasmine oil and rubbed with a fingertip massage. After a splash of "rare" deep sea water and camellia oil are worked through with a goat-hair brush, you're left to marinate.
Is this a tea ceremony? A spa treatment? A tossed salad?
As more of us damage our hair with dye, bleach, heat styling and simple wear and tear, elaborate deep conditioning treatments are emerging as a new hybrid of hair care and spa treatment. With exotic-sounding ingredients, feel-good scalp massages and elaborate application techniques, the treatments resemble a multi-step facial for your hair, complete with the take-home maintenance regimen. They promise, and often deliver, shine, softness, deeper color and manageability, but also come with a hefty price tag and, sometimes, add-ons of questionable value.
Some have evolved into four-step, hour-long procedures that cost $200. Others cost $35, require a slathering of thick conditioner and 15 minutes under the hair dryer and are luxurious in name only. It's often hard to sort out what's worth the time and money, particularly when you know that a good at-home conditioner, allowed to absorb for half an hour or half a day, yields a similar result.
Yet, salons have adopted the spa lingo, learned massage techniques and added a few touches that help mimic, but rarely match, the tranquillity of a spa. And just as the effects of mud rubs and herbal wraps fade after a week or two, so too do the moisturizing benefits of these deep conditioning treatments. There is no permanent fix if your hair's been damaged by heat styling, coloring or just plain wear, according to Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, a dermatologist on the research team at the University of Miami Cosmetic Center.
The beauty-speak that ascribes curative powers to spa treatments also has slipped into the soft sell of these treatments. Some provide "cures" to conditions that aren't ailments. For example, some of the salon treatments and their complementary retail products claim to counteract a tightening scalp, a supposed side effect of aging.
"If the scalp gets tighter as we age, how is it then that our faces get wrinkles and sag? The logic isn't there," Woolery-Lloyd says. The doctor agrees, however, that aging can affect hair's shine because as we grow older, oil production slows, causing drier skin and hair.
Some treatments extol oil rubs and gentle scalp scrubs as essential to your maintenance routine, but Woolery-Lloyd says such treatments are unnecessary and may even aggravate some skin conditions, such as dandruff. They do, however, often feel great.
It's helpful, however, to go into the salon with your expectations in check: The best moisturizing conditioner can't seal frayed or split ends; for that, you'll need a cut. The conditioners work because they cause the cuticle -- the surface of the hair -- to lie down smoother, reflect more light and tangle less readily.
Ronald DiSalvo, who develops products for hair and beauty companies through his Marina del Rey laboratory, Integrated Research, says hair conditioning products, used correctly, do what they promise. They enhance the look and feel of dry or rough hair. Salon-grade products especially have improved as chemists formulate conditioners to work faster and easier on various types of hair and damage, DiSalvo says. Now even fine, limp hair can emerge from deep conditioning without looking greasy. Yet some treatments can be overkill.
"If you look at the average person who probably isn't going to the salon except for a hair cut, they aren't doing anything to their hair to damage it," he says. "So you can put a pretty mild conditioner on it."
The bells-and-whistles conditioning treatments are, no doubt, an extravagance. But they will produce hair that seems a little smoother and behaves a bit better. And sometimes, that -- and a neck rub -- is more than enough.
Carla Gentile's West Hollywood salon Steam takes a spa-like approach to the basic hair care routine. The shampoo room looks like a Moroccan hammam; the lights are dim, the music low and the staff speaks softly. Gentile offers seven moisturizing treatments that focus on conditioning, scalp "deep cleaning" or both. Some include a 10-minute head massage with essential oils and perhaps a 10- or 15-minute neck, shoulder and arm massage; a gentle hair brushing to apply a hair masque; and a session under a steam hood or dryer. One popular treatment uses roasted sesame seeds marinated in clove, lemon and thyme essential oils said to help clean the scalp and condition the hair.
314 N. Harper Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 966-0024;
conditioning treatments, $20 to $125.
The Santa Monica salon also offers seven ways to deep condition, including three new ones inspired by the Japanese tea ceremony. The $75, 25-minute take ceremony we tried isn't nearly as stylized as an actual tea ceremony, yet tea tools set the mood. After a stylist examines the hair, the scalp is cleaned with an application of jasmine oil. The big payoff? A 10-minute shiatsu scalp massage. Using a whisk, and what looks like a matcha teacup, the stylist combines a fast-absorbing camellia essential oil with a cream made with deep sea water said to provide minerals. The mixture is painted down the hair strands with a short-bristled goat-hair brush and left to sit for 10 minutes. Unlike most salon conditioning treatments, the Shu Uemura products used here contain no silicone and require no heat to penetrate the hair.
1408 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 255-9900; Shu Uemura ceremonies, $35 to $150.
Stylist Corey Powell ministers to the lovely locks of celebrities such as Mary-Louise Parker, Holly Hunter and Renee Zellweger with herbs he grows and infuses in oils himself. His "hair therapies" might contain rose geranium, lavender or rosemary steeped in cold-pressed oils such as camellia seed, kukui nut, avocado or hemp seed. Powell brushes in the oils, warms them with a blow dryer and then calls in an assistant who applies a type of shiatsu massage. While the oils are absorbed, clients have a warm, lavender-scented towel wrapped around their necks. To smooth the hair, he coats it with a custom-blend of moisturizers and honey. The finishing touch: 15 minutes under a micro-mist steamer to help open the hair cuticle and drive in the moisturizers.
818 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood;
(310) 854-1030; custom treatments $125 to $165.
Stylists prescribe one of 10 conditioning treatments to address dryness, sensitive scalps or damage caused by coloring, heat styling, sun exposure or even aging. The $37, half-hour "luxury" deep conditioning treatment at the Beverly Hills Sassoon begins with an assessment and a prescription (thick Kerastase Oleo-Relax conditioner is popular for addressing heat-styling damage). A colorist selects the appropriate conditioner for the hair type, which is stroked through the hair, roots to ends, then followed with 15 minutes under a hair dryer, your head covered with a plastic shower cap. The helpful follow-up? A cut and instruction from a stylist on how to properly blow dry, style and condition (weekly, at home) so you learn, for once, to stop torturing it. Some sessions can combine a cut with an express, heat-free conditioning treatment in which the action of combing and stroking is said to help the conditioner penetrate the strands.
9403 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills;
(310) 274-8791; South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Suite 1606, Costa Mesa; (714) 556-5673; conditioning
treatments, $30 to $37.
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In top condition at salons
Why do salon conditioning treatments work better than slathering on a handful of conditioner in the shower?
More than anything else, it's the combination of time, heat and application.
Your stylist, unlike you, will patiently apply an even coating of conditioner to every strand of hair. That means stroking a generous amount through your hair, beginning a few inches from the roots and working it through the hair, concentrating on the ends (using your hands or a comb work best). Don't just glop the conditioner at the roots -- that will likely leave hair limp.
Next, the pros will wrap your head in a warm towel or cover it in a shower cap, and put you under the hair dryer. The heat helps the product penetrate the hair fiber in a way it usually can't on its own.
Finally, there's the benefit of time. It takes at least 15 minutes for conditioner to have an effect, and the longer you leave it on, the better the results. Some stylists even recommend overnight in extreme bleach-out situations.
And what about choosing the right product?
Your stylist has an advantage here. Professional formulas target specific hair types and problems, while commercial conditioners tend to be all-purpose. The good news is that even the most basic products will give good results, says Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd of University of Miami's cosmetics research lab. She recommended VO5 Moisturizing Hot Oil Treatment ($3.50 in drug stores).
"It boils down to buying something and trying it and if you don't like it, try something else," says Ronald DiSalvo, a Marina del Rey hair-products chemist. And you needn't worry that you'll hurt your hair from over-conditioning -- especially in the summer. Armand de Leon, creative director for Sassoon Salon in Beverly Hills, says hair can fade from exposure to sun and swimming-pool chlorine, and weekly conditioning sessions are in order.
-- Valli Herman