At one point in time, getting your natural hair to stay straight and frizz-free meant getting a perm. While it's still a go-to for some people — complete with regular touch-ups — others, like myself, prefer to fiddle and fuss with hot tools and heat protectors regularly. For those who want to avoid both of these, there is one often-forgotten option: a keratin treatment.
The service is scarce on menus at my neighbourhood salons, and with all the tools and products available for natural hair, it makes me wonder if they're even necessary? And better yet, are they safe and suitable for curly hair?
According to experts, that short answer is yes. Keratin treatments (also known as Brazilian blowouts in some salons) is the chemical process of temporarily smoothing frizzy hair. "Keratin treatments smooth the shafts of naturally frizzy or curly hair," says Arsen Gurgov, professional stylist and owner of Arsen Gurgov salon in New York City. "It is safe, and a terrific way to make your hair look it's best, depending on your goal."
Nunzio Saviano, hairstylist and owner of Nunzio Saviano Salon in New York, says that a keratin treatment replaces missing keratin, a protein, in the hair. "Over time, the hair loses keratin from sun exposure, over styling, and treatments," Saviano explains. "Keratin treatments fills in the cuticle by penetrating deep into the shaft and replacing lost keratin. It locks out humidity and strengthens the hair."
But it does come with a few caveats. Ahead, we break down everything there is to know about keratin treatments if you've been considering it for your natural hair.
Are keratin treatments safe for naturally curly hair?
According to Saviano, keratin treatments are safer than ever for curly hair. "In the past, they were were full of harsh chemicals like formaldehyde," he explains. For the record, formaldehyde is one of the most controversial components of the treatment.
According to the FDA, the chemical is caused by a heated reaction to methylene glycol. In 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a hazard alert to salon workers and hairdressers exposed to the ingredient during keratin treatments. The report states that the element is a "colourless, strong-smelling gas that presents a health hazard if workers are exposed." Risks include allergic reaction to the skin, eyes, and lungs, and asthma-like breathing problems. The OSHA website also states that it can cause permanent eye damage and cancer in extreme cases.
However, Saviano says that those chemicals have become rare in top salons."There are modernised variations of the treatment which have more moisturising ingredients and are free of formaldehyde," he adds. Luckily, some professional treatments, like those from Silk Touch and Peter Coppola, offer smoothing systems without harmful ingredients. At-home styling treatments, like It's A 10 Miracle Leave-In Treatment, is also formaldehyde-free.
If you want to ensure your keratin treatment is safe, you may call the salon ahead of time, and ask about the keratin treatments they carry and if they contains formaldehyde and methylene glycol. The FDA also lists formalin as a potentially harmful ingredient to look out for on ingredient labels. OSHA encourages salons to avoid products with formaldehyde altogether. However, salons that do use products with over 0.1% of the ingredient are required to keep records and label as a potentially hazardous material.
Gurgov adds that finding a stylist who knows proper technique is equally vital to ensuring safety and limiting damage. "All keratin treatments contains some sort of chemical that has to be in it for efficacy," Gurgov says. "However, a lot of damage is caused by improper technique." He urges clients to choose a salon that is well-ventilated to avoid inhaling ingredients, and to book a consultation prior to your treatment. "No two keratin treatments are the same," he says. "Sometimes, I use different treatments on different parts of the hair for a customised result, so it's important to remember that damage it isn't always caused by the brand, but by the technique used."
What happens during a keratin treatment?
If you're getting a keratin treatment, prepare to spend up to three hours in the salon chair depending on the length and thickness of your hair. "Generally, your hair is washed with a clarifying shampoo," Gurgov says. "Then, the keratin solution is applied to roughly-dried sections from root to ends." Once the treatment has sat for a few minutes, your hair is then blowdried and flat ironed in small sections to smooth the hair. "If you don't want certain areas to be super smooth, your stylist should only pass over your hair once with a flat iron," Saviano says.
After your treatment, Gurgov says to talk to your stylist about how long to wait before shampooing your hair on your own. "The less you shampoo the hair, the longer your treatment will last," he says. "Since the treatment coats your hair, the more you shampoo, the more it washes away." It's why Gurgov recommends shampooing once a week but focusing suds on your scalp.
Will a keratin treatment ruin my natural curls?
One of the biggest keratin concerns is that, like straightening perms, the treatment could permanently alter your curl pattern. The reality is, you can't bank on having chemically-straightened hair and a perfect curl pattern.
"If you want less frizz, you'll have less curl," Saviano tells us. "It all depends on the strength of the treatment you get." If you want to retain more curl, speak to your stylist about determining the formula's strength and hot tool temperature to use. "One that reduces frizz over 50% will have a more obvious change to curl," says Saviano. "None are permanent."
If your hair is colour treated, or has been previously permed, Gurgov ensures that keratin treatments are still safe. "There are no real limitations," he says. "Once the hair is porous or damaged, keratin can really work as a conditioning treatment, versus a straightening treatment." Same thing goes for different types of curls: Gurgov says that the treatment is safe and effective for all hair types, from pin-straight to type 4 coils.
Your hair will grow out over time, but the more you shampoo and the less you touch-up your treatment, the quicker it will return to its natural state. Gurgov says that the only time permanent damage occurs is when overheating happens during the process. "If your stylist overheats your hair during the flat-iron step, or uses excessive tugging, it can leave a line of demarcation which will compromise the texture of the hair," he explains. Worst case scenario is noticeable breakage of your hair. But, when done correctly, hair should eventually revert to its natural texture after a keratin treatment. "It isn't a permanent process, like a chemical relaxer," says Gurgov. "The treatment does wear off and your hair will grow as normal."
How long will a keratin treatment last?
Like most hair treatments, longevity depends on the person, their lifestyle, and styling habits. Keratin treatments are no different. "The life of a keratin treatment varies," Gurgov says. "Usually, your results should last up to 20-24 shampoos." Though keratin treatments can be touched-up as often as necessary, Saviano suggests another treatment every 3-5 months for his curly-haired clients.
Upkeep also looks different for many clients. According to Gurgov, a client who frequently washes their hair might need more of a touch-up along the roots. "Keratins aren't always done the same way," he says. "If you come in for the first time and want to manage frizz, the process is totally different than if you want to totally straighten your curl." The touch-up process may also vary based on the different textures within your hair. "Curly hair is usually never the same pattern all over the head," he says. So, sometimes a stronger formula or heat setting may be focused to different areas of your hair.
Avoiding products with sodium and sulphates, as well as chlorine and saltwater, will help keep hair feeling healthy. Plus, using no-no products "could potentially affect the longevity of your treatment," he says. You may use hot tools to style your hair as normal, but avoid oil-stripping clarifying shampoos, which can cause the treatment to wear off sooner and encourage dryness.
Saviano recommends Briogeo's Farewell Frizz range for curly clients. Using products with keratin ingredients can also help strengthen your hair once you leave the salon. To cut back on shampooing, Saviano also recommends using dry shampoo, or dry shampoo sheets, to absorb oil at the roots. Deep conditioning masks to maintain shine and manageability are also totally safe to use on keratin treated hair.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that, though the beauty of curls is the ability to switch it up, keratin treatments shouldn't be treated as a quick style change. "Curls are delicate, and you don't want to risk damaging them," Gurgov says. "It's important to find a stylist who is skilled in the technique and your hair type for best results." It's also essential to manage your expectations and evaluate your lifestyle. If you silk press your hair once a year, but rock your curls most of the time, a keratin treatment might not be for you. But if you do want straighter hair, it's an option — just do your homework first.