Summer may be winding down, but the humidity doesn't seem to be. This means a lot of us are likely considering getting keratin treatments—for good reason. For many, they're a dream come true (smoother, frizz-free hair and no fighting your strands in the morning!). For others, they’re still a source of confusion, from the potential health risks to the process to the outcome. The reason for the confusion, in part, is the fact that the term "keratin treatment" actually encompasses a range of formulas, application processes, and results. (Some "keratin treatments," for example, saturate the hair with a formaldehyde solution—yes, formaldehyde—before the hair is dried and flatironed. The solution locks the hair straight so it stays smooth.) Read on to learn the truth about keratin treatments so you can decide whether to get one and, if so, which one is right for you.
Keratin isn't really the star of the show.
"Keratin treatment" is something of a misnomer. The ingredients that actually matter in permanently breaking the hair's bonds—ammonium thioglycolate and sodium hydroxide—are just harder to pronounce. Others, such as methylene glycol, formalin, methanal, and methanediol, release formaldehyde when heated or mixed with water. The high heat of a flatiron, used at the end of the process, accelerates the cross-linking of hair bonds. Some treatments dictate a waiting period before washing your hair—allowing cross-links to fully set—although the ones with the strongest concentrations of formaldehyde can allow immediate washing.
Ventilation is key
As we reported back in 2008, formaldehyde, in low dosages, is found in household cleaners, synthetic fabrics, carpets, plywood, tobacco smoke, and smog. And while it can be corrosive, touching it isn't the most hazardous factor. It's inhaling it, day after day, year after year, that has been linked with nasal and brain cancers, and possibly leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute. So if you are going to get a keratin treatment with formaldehyde (or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients), do make sure the area is properly ventilated. (More on that below.)
If your goal is to reduce your hair’s curl, a formaldehyde-free version probably won’t do the trick.
The ones that don’t contain the compound simply coat the hair in a film that smoothes the hair, but the effect is more temporary and less significant. To change the hair’s texture, you need a powerful chemical to create those cross-links, says Sheenon Olson, a celebrity hairstylist and creative director for Atma Beauty. The truth is whatever your goal is and whatever type of hair you have, there’s probably a formula out there for you, says Katy Ryan, owner of Katy Ryan Studios in New York City. "The ones promising straighter and longer-lasting results will no doubt have more formaldehyde," she says. "If you want to maintain more body and curl, a formaldehyde-free formula might work best. It’s all about a solid consultation with a knowledgeable stylist."
Choose a salon that respects your health and your stylist's health.
If you ask your stylist about the formaldehyde content in the treatment you’re considering, she should be able to tell you the exact name and brand of the treatment , and ideally, she'll know the amount of formaldehyde, says Olson. (If not, you should at least be able to gather enough information to research it on your own, says Rudy Pena, the curl and defrizzing specialist at Julien Farel Salon in New York City.) And there should be adequate ventilation, says Pena, whether it's from fans or special vents that circulate air away from your eyes and mouth during the treatment. Paul Labrecque, a stylist in New York City, says that an even better option is to seek out someone who uses a product like the Fume Iron. "This iron evenly distributes the heat while vacuuming away all the fumes from myself and the client," says Labrecque.
Keratin treatments every few months can be healthier for your hair than daily heat styling.
While the high heat (450 degrees) of the flatiron used to set the treatment is not the easiest on your hair, it’s still probably better than heat styling yourself day in and day out, says Olson. "Using a flatiron every day is the worse thing you can do," he says. If having a treatment allows you to set aside your iron, the single dose of high heat may be well worth it. "Plus a good technician should be able to actually vary the temperature based on your hair," says Labrecque. "For a client with bleached hair, for example, I’d reduce the heat."
If you want to prolong the treatment, watch out for sulfates and stay away from salt.
While sulfates are the boogeyman in many hair-care products today, if you want to keep your keratin treatment from washing out too quickly, sodium chloride (a.k.a. salt) should also be on your watch list, says Labrecque. And yes, unfortunately, that means dips in the ocean and pool (chlorine is also hard on a treatment's longevity) should be kept to a minimum. It's also probably a good idea to swap in a new shampoo, says Ryan
Finally, beware of bargain-basement keratin.
Just like anything else, you get what you pay for, and when you see a keratin treatment that’s dirt cheap, think twice. "When you pay more, you're usually paying for a very skilled technician who can feel your hair and know what's on it and what formula should be picked for your needs and hair type," says Labrecque. "It’s definitely all about the ironing," says Nicole Descoteaux, a master stylist and educator at Butterfly Studio Salon in New York City. "You can have someone who is very careful about how many times the iron is passed on the hair or someone who is not as diligent."