Deep conditioning treatments: facials for your hair
Salon treatments are going the way of spa services. Japanese tea ceremony and shiatsu scalp massage, anyone?
Treatments at Steam salon in West Hollywood focus on conditioning and scalp cleaning. Some include a head massage with oils. (Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
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 také 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.