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Keratin 101

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Most people who’ve tried keratin treatments love them. Then why all the bad press?

Keratin treatments—salon processes that use protein to smooth hair and reduce frizz for up to three months—have been under scrutiny ever since they hit the U.S. in 2007. Consumers love the results that include hair that doesn’t immediately puff out in hot or wet weather and reduced blow dry time. The concern, however, is that these formaldehyde-emitting, potentially carcinogenic solutions can expose salon workers to noxious fumes and health risks.

Government agencies, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the FDA, had to step in. For the consumer, however, the risks were minimal, and these services still grace most salon menus but with many new safeguards in place (including better ventilation). Here all the facts:

What exactly are keratin treatments? To start, hair already contains keratin. It’s a protein naturally found in strands, but one that diminishes as we age. This semi-permanent treatment essentially deposits additional keratin onto strands to keep them smooth.

The process: First hair is washed with a clarifying shampoo to eliminate any styling product residue, then blow-dried. The keratin solution is applied to the hair and brushed through. It’ll sit on hair for a good 20 minutes to really saturate the strands, then hair is blow dried yet again followed by some intense straight-ironing. The process can take upwards of one to four hours. Depending on which treatment you try, you may leave the salon with instructions to not wash your hair for 24-72 hours or do anything else than could leave a crimp in it (i.e., No ponytails, hair clips, or pushing it behind your ear). Once you’re allowed to wash as normal again, you’ll want to avoid shampoos with sulfates, which are stripping. The less you shampoo, the longer you’ll experience the effects of this treatment.

The best candidates: Although it’s said to work for all hair types (including colored), if your hair is damaged or too thin to endure chemicals and a 450-degree flat iron, this isn’t the right modality for you.

The formaldehyde-free controversy: The recent brouhaha began with the words “formaldehyde-free.” You see most of these treatments don’t contain any added formaldehyde. But what they do have are chemicals like formalin or methylene glycol which, when heated, become a formaldehyde gas that bonds the conditioners to each strand, keeping strands smooth for months. Once these bonds dissolve and wash away, hair’s natural texture returns.

 The FDA says: “Skin sensitivity can develop after repeated contact with formaldehyde-related ingredients. When formaldehyde is released into the air it can cause serious irritation of your eyes, nose and lungs. It is recommended that you limit your exposure to products that contain formaldehyde-related ingredients to reduce these health risks.”

Report (negative) reactions to such services to your nearest FDA district office or report it online to the FDA’s MedWatch adverse event reporting system.

We tried: Keratin Complex

Cost: Smoothing Therapy Treatment starts at $300

The results: Although Keratin Complex offers an express version that only requires a 24-hour abstention from shampooing, I went whole hog with the traditional treatment which promises longer-lasting results—three months instead of one. The whole process took 2 hours and boy were my strands stick straight when I left the salon; like Cher, circa 1970, straight. I wasn’t allowed to shampoo for the next 72 hours, normally not a big deal but my uber-straight locks were looking pretty limp and lackluster as day two dragged into day three. Plus I couldn’t put it up in a pony as any crimp in the strands could sabotage the whole process. But persevere, I did and once it was all over and my hair was shiny and clean, I was delighted with how much time it shaved off my morning blow-dry, not to mention how smooth it looked. No matter the weather, I could brave the elements confidently.

We Tried: Brazilian Blowout

Cost: $250-$450 on average

The results: Brazilian Blowout changed the game with a keratin treatment that could be immediately washed out. Stylists trained in the treatment can customize results, which was ideal for my frizzy, curly hair. I love my curls, but hate what happens on humid days. When I sat down to give the Brazilian Blowout a try, I asked that I maintain as much shape as possible, but lose the frizz. BB promises pret-a-porter hair; the process took a bit longer, but I left with the ability to put my hair in a ponytail or behind my ears, with none of the restrictions that other treatments impose. My curls reappeared with my first at-home wash; less structured than before, but definitely there and frizz-free! My hour long routine in the mornings has been cut down to 20 minutes, and it’s supposed to last for 3 months. I would have liked to keep my tighter curls, but as they say, you can’t have your cake and eat (all of) it too!

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