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Brace yourself. A chemical hair straightener breaks down the structural bonds of the hair. There are several different formulations of chemical relaxers, but the most common are the sodium hydroxide (lye) and guanidine hydroxide (no-lye) mixtures. The lye concentrations are stronger and penetrate the hair shaft faster.
Careful, lye mixtures are powerful and, if applied wrong, can severely damage your hair and scalp. The no-lye products are considered less harsh, but they can be more irritating to eyes and skin. They're also very drying to the scalp. You win some, you lose some, huh?