If you've ever experienced even a smidgen of frizz before, you've probably been told by a stylist to try a keratin treatment, the "miracle" way to get smoother, glossier, and shinier hair rivaled only by an actual piece of silk.
But like most chemical-laden beauty treatments, keratin treatments (or Brazilian blowouts, or smoothing treatments) are not created equal, nor are they meant for every hair type or texture. So to clear the air before you commit, we went to the experts to find out every single fact you absolutely need to know.
1. Know What You're Asking For
"It's honestly all so super confusing now, because people use different names for different treatments interchangeably, which is incorrect," says Meri Kate O'Connor hairstylist and colorist at Eva Scrivo salon in New York City.
"You either have your traditional keratin straightening treatment, commonly called a Brazilian blowout, which really straightens your hair texture, or you have your smoothing treatments, like Goldwell Kerasilk and Cezanne, which help de-frizz hair and add shine."
2. Understand What You're Getting
Sure, all of the treatments do involve keratin, which explains why people lump them all under the umbrella of "keratin treatments," but keratin isn't really the hero of these smoothing treatments—the other ingredients are.
"A traditional keratin treatment involves saturating your hair for 20 minutes in a what is often a formaldehyde-releasing solution that basically coats each strand like armor, before you blow-dry it and methodically flat-iron it," says O'Connor. "The entire process, when done correctly, will straighten out your hair texture and completely eliminate frizz for up to three months."
"The smoothing treatments, on the other hand, are formaldehyde-free and deeply permeate the cortex of your hair, rather than sitting on the outside of your cuticle," she adds. Though the application process is similar, the formula isn't as potent (formaldehyde is key, sadly), so don't expect it to straighten your hair. "It will, however, last longer—generally anywhere from four to six months," says O'Connor.
3. Be Prepared for Some Questionable Chemicals
Sorry, but organic, natural, safe-enough-to-eat hair-straightening systems simply don't exist. If you want to smooth your frizz and straighten your hair texture, you need to accept that your hair will be doused in some chemicals that may or may not be FDA-approved. And if you want to take your texture from coarse and curly to flat-iron straight, you'll need some formaldehyde.
Of course, you can always opt for formaldehyde-free options, but be leery of any salon that offers a traditional Brazilian blowout or straightening system without formaldehyde. "Keep in mind that although the treatments may not actually list formaldehyde in the ingredients, it may still be present," says Brenda Kamt, colorist and keratin specialist at 454 North Salon in Los Angeles.
"Formaldehyde isn't an ingredient; it's a gas that's emitted from other chemicals being exposed to heat," she adds. "So technically, a product can say it's formaldehyde-free, but still contain the ingredients that create the gas."
4. Don't Feel Bad for Opting for Formaldehyde
"According to the EPA, formaldehyde is a carcinogen that could possibly cause respiratory problems if exposure is frequent," says Kamt. But it's also the stuff that makes traditional keratin treatments so effective, loosening tight curls and completely eliminating frizz, giving you that just-flat-ironed look.
But don't let that completely deter you, because "if you're only getting the treatment done three times per year—and I definitely wouldn't recommend more than four—the risk is very minimal, though you still want to make sure you're having the process done in a well-ventilated salon, or, even more ideally, outdoors or with windows open," she says.
5. You've Gotta Be Okay with Some Sacrifices
"If you get a traditional keratin smoothing treatment, you can't really touch your hair for three days afterward," says O'Connor. "You can't clip it back, you can't put it in a ponytail, and you can't wash it, or you'll risk denting it."
Plus, if your hair is colored, you run the risk of some minimal fading or lightening after the treatment, though both experts swear it isn't that common. "Although it depends entirely on the keratin line you're using, you might experience some very slight lightening—like, less than a shade—of glosses, toners, or any demi- or semi-permanent colors," says Kamt. "And this is mainly due to the use a clarifying shampoo prior to the keratin process, which is used to remove residue from hair, but may also remove some color."
And, just to really remind you that you just can't have the best of both worlds, because life is unfair, etc., there's no way to guarantee the effects of a keratin treatment on your hair, regardless of which one you try.
"In theory, a traditional keratin treatment should straighten even pretty tight curls, but I've also seen women end up with slight waves that they still need to flat-iron," says O'Connor. "Similarly, I've known women whose curls were totally unaffected by smoothing treatments, while others saw their curls loosen to waves."
It all depends, says Kampt, on how strong the treatment is, how it was applied, what the temperature of the flat-iron was, how porous your hair is, and about a zillion other factors that you really can't control. But don't let that freak you out. "Just do your research, read a ton of reviews, talk openly with your stylist about what you do and don't want, and try not to stress too much," says O'Connor. After all—it'll wash out in a few months, anyway."
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