Keratin—the protein that helps strengthen hair to prevent breakage, heat damage, and frizz—is vitally important for maintaining strong and healthy hair. But keratin straightening, the salon treatment that promises silky-smooth hair, has long come with major health concerns. To get the breakdown of everything you need to know about keratin treatments, we spoke with celebrity hairstylist and NatureLab Tokyo brand ambassador Andrew Fitzsimons, Eva NYC hairstylist. Cooper, and celebrity hairstylist Annagjid “Kee” Taylor.
What Is a Keratin Treatment?
Keratin is a structural protein found in our hair, skin, and nails. It’s also commonly found in styling products to help strengthen hair—but the term keratin treatment is actually a misnomer.
“Keratin treatments are semi-permanent hair straightening treatments that smooth and add shine to frizzy hair,” says Fitzsimons. How the treatments work is not through the use of keratin, though. To make hair straighter, a solution containing a formaldehyde derivative or (the much safer) glyoxylic acid is worked through the hair to break the bonds and reseal them in a straighter position.
The solution is then blow-dried and sealed with a flat iron, and the results can last anywhere from three to six months. According to Fitzsimons, the treatments work well on most hair types, and he recommends it for anyone who wants to reduce frizz, boost shine, or cut out blow-drying or straightening their hair on a regular basis
What does a Keratin Treatment do?
During a keratin treatment, keratin is artificially added to the hair to make it look smooth, shiny, and frizz-free, thereby making it very popular among women and men. Such treatments fill in the porous spots in your hair that materialized due to loss of keratin. These overly-porous hair cause frizz, tangles, and breakage. A keratin treatment is basically rebuilding the hair by putting back the lost protein into your strands.
Are Keratin Treatments Safe?
Unfortunately, safe-enough-to-eat hair-straightening systems at the salon simply don’t exist. If you want to take your texture from coarse and curly to flat-iron straight with a salon keratin treatment, you’ll need some formaldehyde—which has a pretty bad rap.
Even if your salon uses a formaldehyde-free straightening treatment, the chemical may still be present. “Formaldehyde isn’t actually a single ingredient—it’s a gas that’s emitted from other chemicals being exposed to heat,” explains Kart. “So technically, a product can say it’s formaldehyde-free, but still contain the ingredients that create the gas.”
That said: “If you’re only getting the treatment done three times per year…the risk is very minimal,” Kart says. “Make sure you’re having the process done in a well-ventilated salon, or, even more ideally, with windows open or outdoors.”
What to Expect from a Keratin Treatment?
This treatment results in silky smooth hair which gradually fades out after a few months. Keratin treatment is unlike the straightening/rebonding process. Your hair will neither be flattened out completely, devoid of any volume nor will it make your roots grow in curly and your ends sleek. The ingredient Keratin is basically like a super strong deep conditioner.
The results of the treatment also vary from one person to another. It’s essentially rebuilding those parts of the hair which have been damaged. Shiny, less frizzy, and easy-to-manage hair are some benefits you can expect post-treatment. Someone with extremely curly hair might end up with less curly and mildly straight ringlets.
On the other hand, a person with wavy hair would end up with straight and polished hair. The effects of the treatment are going to be different for everyone so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the stick-straight hair you were looking for. A keratin treatment is more about manageable, smooth, fuss-free hair with a salon-worthy blow-dry look and less about stick-straight, unnatural-looking hair.
The treatment’s benefits may make hair seem to grow more quickly, but it’s really all about strengthening the hair. “Keratin helps to add shine, reduce frizz, and reduce the appearance of split ends by temporarily bonding the hair back together,” explains Taylor. All of these effects can help strands look and feel longer and stronger, “but [they are] ultimately growing at the same rate,” she says.
In other words, reducing breakage helps give the illusion of more hair growth. “The treatment makes hair more manageable by smoothing down the cuticle and sealing it, helping to prevent frizz,” says Fitzsimons. “This can make your hair seem to grow faster because the ends aren’t splitting, therefore allowing it to retain its length.”
Can you Get a Keratin Treatment If you have Natural Curls?
Taylor agrees with Fitzsimmons that keratin treatments work well on most hair types. Curly hair, in particular, will completely smooth frizz and add more shine. “Curly hair reflects light less easily than straight hair, so you’ll notice more shine after your keratin treatment,” she says.
Can You Get a Keratin Treatment If you have Color-Treated Hair?
Another added benefit is that it will keep freshly-colored hair vibrant. Taylor recommends talking to your stylist and colorist about getting your color refreshed right before your keratin treatment. The treatment seals in the color, making it last longer and appear brighter.
Is Keratin the Same as a Japanese Treatment or Relaxer?
Although it’s similar to other hair straightening treatments, keratin treatments are still distinctively different. Taylor explains that keratin treatments are a less harsh option than other straightening treatments like relaxers. “Keratin is great for those who have frizzy hair and want long-term straight and smooth hair,” she says. “The chemicals with keratin are a little less harmful than those found with other straightening treatments, like a relaxing treatment, which is very harsh.”
“The main difference between a keratin treatment and a relaxer is how long they straighten the hair,” explains Cooper. “A keratin treatment temporarily loosens your curl pattern and fades out over time. Your hair texture will eventually return to its natural state. With a relaxer, that is not the case at all.
Relaxers break down the molecular bonds in hair, and permanently straighten it.” Because Japanese hair treatments and traditional relaxers permanently break your hair’s bonds using ammonium thioglycolate and sodium hydroxide, they are far more effective on oily hair—but also more damaging. The growing-out phase will also be more intense than with keratin treatments since there will be a line of demarcation when your natural texture grows back in.
What Is the Process of Getting a Keratin Treatment?
The treatment takes a few hours, though it varies based on hair length and type. “Depending on the texture and density of your hair, you can anticipate your salon visit to be anywhere from two to four hours,” says Fitzsimons.
“Your hairstylist will first wash your hair, then apply the keratin treatment onto the wet hair, where it will then sit for about 30 minutes; however, some stylists might blow dry the hair first and then apply the treatment,” he explains. “Lastly, since the treatment is heat activated, the stylist will flat iron the hair in small sections to seal it in.”
The cardinal rule of keratin treatments is to stay away from water and ponytails for at least three days. You don’t want to risk creating a bend in your newly-straightened hair. Fitzsimons says the key to maintaining your treatment for as long as possible is using a sulfate-free shampoo on the days you wash your hair.
For those with natural curls, Taylor also says not to wet your hair for three days. She also recommends using sodium chloride-free hair products and to wrap your hair in a silk or satin scarf (or pillowcase) to keep the moisture locked in your hair as the treatment can cause your hair to dry out faster. She says that treatments can last up to six months, but does caution that it might impact your curl pattern permanently.
But most importantly, Fitzsimons says to consider a few key things before booking that appointment. “There are so many effective ways to smooth the hair while keeping it protected by using the right products and techniques—so a keratin treatment might not even be the right option,” he adds. “Depending on your hair’s particular texture, a different treatment, such as a chemical relaxer, might make more sense for you.”
Why Won’t Some Hairstylists Perform Keratin Treatments?
Part of the concern with keratin treatments revolves around one of the ingredients found in most traditional salon formulas: formaldehyde. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines it as a colorless, strong-smelling gas that is usually used to make building materials, and household products like glue and fiberboard, and used as a preservative when dissolved in water. In keratin treatments, it’s responsible for locking the hair into that new straight and smooth position for months.
But these treatments don’t actually contain formaldehyde, because, well, it’s a known carcinogen. What they contain instead are ingredients like methylene glycol, formalin, methanal, and ethanediol, which release the carcinogenic compound when mixed with water during the treatment. So while the formula might technically be formaldehyde-free, it’s not once mixed with water.
This poses a potential risk not only to you—but also to the salon technicians who perform the treatments over and over again in enclosed spaces. “Some stylists refuse to do keratin treatments because there is research that shows that continued use of formaldehyde over time can have some serious consequences,” says Cooper. “The risks can be as minor as watery eyes and skin irritation to as serious as cancer and respiratory illness.”
Indeed, the CDC lists common formaldehyde exposure including sore throat, nose bleeds, and scratchy eyes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also warns about potential health hazards for those exposed and notes that formulas and products that claim they’re natural, organic, or formaldehyde-free may not be entirely accurate. The FDA encourages people to always read the label, ask hair professionals for an ingredient list, and to report any and all bad reactions.
So-called keratin treatments can also do a lot of harm to your hair over time. Fitzsimons says because these treatments require high heat to lock your hair into place, he wouldn’t recommend them for those with super-fine or damaged hair. If you’re looking for a less-damaging, truly formaldehyde-free treatment, ask your salon if they use a treatment containing glyoxylic acid instead. They don’t straighten hair as dramatically (they’re more for boosting shine and fighting frizz), but they’re also a lot safer.
The short answer is yes, but it won’t be as effective as professional treatment. “At-home treatments coat the hair, rather than penetrating the hair shaft, so results will only last about a week,” says Fitzsimons.
And whatever you do, only use treatments intended for at-home use. “Do not purchase professional-grade products for home usage because they require an expert to apply them correctly,” says Taylor. Even when using a formaldehyde-free formula, “Remember to always read and follow the directions carefully and use in a well-ventilated area,” she says. While the products may not give you salon-level results, “it will get the job done without breaking the bank,” says the styles.
Care and Maintenance?
After a keratin hair treatment, a person should avoid washing their hair for at least 2 days. They should also avoid:
- putting their hair up in tight styles
- using harsh shampoos and conditioners
- exposing their hair to saltwater or chlorinated water
It is also important to use sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner to help prolong the treatment. These products are widely available in beauty supply stores, online, and in hair salons.
People should avoid washing their hair too often, as this can strip away the keratin treatment. Instead, aim to wash hair every 3–4 days using lukewarm, rather than hot, water. Applying a leave-in conditioner can also help protect the hair and keep it feeling moisturized.
When blow-drying, use a lower heat setting to avoid damaging the hair and use a heat protectant product before using any hot styling tools.
It is also advisable to refrain from coloring the hair for at least 2 weeks after getting a keratin treatment. This allows the treatment time to set and helps prevent damage to the hair.
The effects of keratin hair treatments can last 12 weeks or longer. However, the results will eventually fade, and an individual will need to repeat the treatment to maintain straight, smooth hair.
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