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Keratin Treatment: Everything You Need to Know

Do you dread taking showers because you know you will inevitably have to spend hours blow drying and styling your hair afterwards so you don’t look like a Chia pet?  

Many girls have solved this problem by opting for keratin hair treatment, also known as Brazilian straightening: an expensive but surefire way to temporarily smooth and straighten your stubborn curly hair. So what do you need to know about this alleged miracle treatment before giving it a try?

What is Keratin Treatment – and is it Safe?

Keratin is the natural protein that is found in our hair and fingernails. Salons use a keratin solution that is essentially like “liquid hair” and paints it onto your locks. The mixture smoothes both the inside of each strand and the outside texture. In fact, the keratin treatment actually works better the more damaged your hair is, since it latches onto damage and simultaneously repairs any breakage caused from styling, coloring, UV rays, or smoke. For about three months your hair will dry naturally straight without any blow drying and styling, and won’t get frizzy throughout the day or when you work out.

However, not all the buzz surrounding keratin treatment is positive. In 2007, Allure published a controversial article “Scared Straight,” revealing that keratin solution contains formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Small amounts are in some household products like cleaners and synthetic fabric, and when it comes in contact with skin it causes irritation reminiscent of an allergic reaction. However, Allure points out that the real danger is when the hair is being flat-ironed: as the steam rises off your hair it carries formaldehyde gas, which is known to cause nasal and brain cancer in high amounts.

The article recommends drastic measures like wearing a $150 gas mask while getting the treatment, and even includes a lab report of various brands on the market with formaldehyde levels ranging from 3.4 – 5.4 percent, well over the FDA’s recommended .2 percent limit. While the FDA actively restricts levels of formaldehyde in products like household cleaners, there are currently no restrictions regulating levels in cosmetics.

Three years later, it is dubious whether or not these brands have lowered their formaldehyde levels, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post. Some salons are open about the risks and currently offer basic safety procedures like wearing dust masks, latex gloves, and flat ironing near an open window. Just this past November the leading keratin solution brand Brazilian Blowout was sued by California’s attorney general’s office for falsely advertising their product as “safe” and “formaldehyde free.”


In early October 2010, ABC News did a segment on “Good Morning America” discussing the pros and cons of keratin treatment: 

Despite the potential negative and unhealthy consequences of keratin treatment, many women – including the woman interviewed by ABC News – are avid keratin treatment customers and argue that the “life changing” hair results are worth the health concerns, and that the only real risk is for the stylists who are around this product everyday.

If you are still considering keratin treatment, ask your local salon what brand of keratin solution they use and ask specifically about its reported level of formaldehyde. If it is lower than .2 percent, read on for more information about the process, cost, and after effects. Otherwise, err on the side of caution and avoid the treatment just in case.

What should I expect during the treatment?

The process can take about two to three hours depending on how thick and long your hair is. First, the hair stylist washes your hair to rinse off any styling products, and then thoroughly combs the keratin solution into your wet hair and then lets it sit for about 15-20 minutes. Then the stylist will blow-dry your hair and meticulously flat iron every single strand, and the heat will seal the solution into your hair – this is the part that takes the longest.

However, despite the relatively painless and quick procedure, some women reported irritating side effects during and after the treatment. For example, it is recommended to keep your eyes closed during the painting and flat ironing process to lessen any watering or irritation. Jane Pierce, a senior at Bowdoin College who has had the treatment twice, says her eyes watered the entire time but others reported no irritating side effects at all.

In addition, temporarily painful – but ultimately harmless – skin reactions are fairly common to keratin treatment if there is any skin contact, but most stylists manage to avoid touching your scalp and skin during the painting process. Anya, a senior at Bowdoin College and recent keratin treatment newcomer, started developing a raised painful rash around her scalp and the sides of her cheeks a few hours after she had left her salon in Boston. A few days later, the rash was scattered across parts of her body like her arms, neck, and back.  After continuously breaking out when showering with the recommended shampoo and conditioner, she decided to stop using the hair products since she apparently had a sensitive reaction to the solution. Anya has not decided if she will get the treatment again.

What should I expect after the treatment?

When you leave the salon, your hair will be completely stick-straight and thin. For between 48 and 72 hours (depending on who you talk to and where you go) you cannot wash your hair, put it up, pull it back with a clip, wear a headband, tuck it behind you ears, or anything else that may create a crease in your hair’s straight texture. If you do, the crease will be a permanent characteristic of your hair for the next three months even after you wash it.  Also, if you get your hair wet or sweaty before the 48-72 hour period is over, you have to immediately blow dry and flat iron that part of your hair.

The salon will carry a special shampoo and conditioner meant for keratin-treated hair that will help the effects last longer. Depending on the salon, it will come with the treatment at no additional cost, or be around twenty extra dollars.


How much does it cost?

A keratin treatment certainly isn’t cheap, and it has a pretty wide price range because the thicker or longer your hair is, the more product and straightening is required. Short hair starts at about $250, and longer hair can range anywhere from $300 to $500. However, many women who get the treatment argue the expenses are worth the time saved sleeping in and not having to spend hours styling their hair or worrying about getting caught in the rain.

What are the lasting effects?

After you wash your hair for the first time, it will dry naturally straight without any additional styling or blow drying, and these effects should last around three months. If you naturally have tight ringlets your hair will initially dry straight and then develop a gentle wave. When your hair starts growing, you will start to notice it reverting back to your natural texture near your roots.

Jane Pierce, a senior at Bowdoin College, before and after the keratin treatment.

Erica Goldberger, a senior at USC, before and after the keratin treatment.

However, your hair might not behave exactly how you envisioned. Anya felt that the first week or so after she washed her hair it dried too flat and she was unsatisfied with the outcome. Now, after a few weeks it has regained some volume and dries much smoother than her natural thick and coarse texture, and she is pleased with the result.

Amanda First, a junior at Cornell and Her Campus Life editor and contributing writer, felt her hair was too flat after the treatment and thought it looked better when she used to blow dry it, even though ultimately the blow drying was worse for her hair.

The range of experiences and results with keratin solution is only a testament to how many different brands of keratin solution are currently on the market with ranging levels of formaldehyde and efficacy. The moral of the story is, talk with your stylist at your local salon about their preferred brand and ask about its safety and her experience with the product. After all, what’s more important: your health or your hair?


Anya, Bowdoin College senior

Erica Goldberger, USC senior

Jane Pierce, Bowdoin College senior

Amanda First, Her Campus Contributing Writer and Cornell University junior

Various students who have used keratin treatment








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Joanna Buffum is a senior English major and Anthropology minor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  She is from Morristown, NJ and in the summer of 2009 she was an advertising intern for OK! Magazine and the editorial blog intern for Zagat Survey in New York City. This past summer she was an editorial intern for MTV World's music website called MTV Iggy, writing fun things like album and concert reviews for bands you have never heard of before. Her favorite books are basically anything involving fantasy fiction, especially the Harry Potter series and “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke. In her free time she enjoys snowboarding, playing intramural field hockey, watching House MD, and making paninis. In the spring of 2010 she studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and she misses the friendly, tall, and unusually attractive Danish people more than she can say. After college, she plans on pursuing a career in writing, but it can be anywhere from television script writing, to magazine journalism, to book publishing. 
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