As beauty services go, keratin hair treatments might be the most controversial of the last decade, second only to indoor tanning, and maybe fake Kylie lip kits. And yet still two truths remain. Keratin treatments are A.) wildly popular and B.) widely misunderstood. We asked Cincinnati-based cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos and Los Angeles hairstylist Clayton Hawkins to give us the facts, both in terms of science and in terms of looks.
A little backstory.
In the mid aughts, a miraculous hair smoothing and straightening system, Brazilian blowouts, swept salons across the country. The results were so miraculous, the New York Times wrote about them; then, three years later, they took it all back. Heated methylene glycol in Brazilian blowouts realigned the disulfide bonds in curly hair, leaving it completely smooth—and releasing carcinogenic formaldehyde gas in the process. Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found dangerous levels of formaldehyde in many Brazilian blowout formulas and salons, which was risky, yes, for consumers, but mostly for hairstylists and technicians who inhaled the stuff everyday.
A rose by any other name.
Regulations were put in place, the treatments were monitored to the extent that they could be. And Brazilian blowouts got rebranded. “After the backlash against Brazilian blowouts, many hair straightening products changed marketing strategy to call them keratin treatments,” says Dobos. That’s all well and good—but it doesn’t really mean anything. “Keratin is an important structural protein in the hair but incorporating it into a topical formulation will do very little other than mild conditioning of the hair,” Dobos continues.
Still, though, safety is possible.
If you want to get a formaldehyde-free keratin hair treatment, ask the salon technician to see the ingredient list or the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the product they’ll be using. If methylene glycol, formalin, methylene oxide, paraform, formic aldehyde, methanal, oxomethane, oxymethylene, or timonacic acid are listed, steer clear. All of formaldehyde gas when heated. As the FDA notes, though, not every company has been honest with their ingredient reporting, and some of those exact ingredients have been found even when they aren’t listed. So consider the conditions of where you’ll have the treatment done. Above all, it should be well-ventilated.
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And consider efficacious alternatives.
“Today, there are other ingredients like glyoxylic acid that can effectively smooth the hair,” says Dobos. “The results may not last as long, but it’s a safer alternative.” Magic Sleek offers a treatment entirely free of formaldehyde releasing agents, instead turning to a mix of tannin and amino acids to work on the peptide bonds in the hair. And the results are impressive. (James Franco, Bethenny Frankel and Sarah Jessica Parker are reportedly all fans.)
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Keratin shampoos and smoothers are great. They just aren’t the same thing.
If keratin is touted as an ingredient on your favorite hair product, excellent. But don’t expect to get sleek hair for twelve weeks. “Keratin may act as a conditioner by filing areas where scales of the hair cuticle have lifted,” says Dobos. But the truth is “silicones and quaternary conditioning agents really do the heavy lifting when it comes to smoothing and conditioning.”
Finally, manage your own expectations.
“In my experience with my clients, keratin treatments used to make hair super-limp and volume-less but now they’re midler, and you don’t get that awful regrowth line,” says Hawkins. “I would always say ask your stylist for a mild one. If your hair has a slight wave, you’re going to get pretty straight hair right off the bat. If your hair is super curly and frizzy, you’re gonna loosen the curl and diminish some of that frizz.”