5 Common Keratin Myths, Debunked

In the beauty world, keratin has become the hair-care ingredient of legend. For decades, many celebs with shiny and ultra-soft hair have made it happen via in-salon treatments — the results of which can last for months. But recently, a new spin on the protein has been tapped for promising at-home use thanks to a technology that employs a type of keratin native to the human body. This form of keratin has the potential to repair, restore, and smooth the hair shaft, which is why you'll see it as a principle ingredient in at-home styling and hair-care products from brands like Virtue Labs. But the storied protein has also been a spectacular source of downright confusion, thanks to FDA warnings against some in-salon treatment formulations that contain known carcinogens, outdated ideas on how keratin can be used, and a high-profile lawsuit by consumer watchdog groups.
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So is keratin a must-have building block to healthy hair, somewhat of a health hazard, or both? These are the kinds of questions that are only made more confusing by search results. We talked to a veteran stylist who has followed the keratin saga from day one and a chemical specialist who provides in-salon keratin treatments for a most discerning Beverly Hills crowd to settle the score. The facts on whether keratin strengthens the hair’s bonds, leads to hair breakage, thwarts dye jobs, and more, ahead.
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1. Claim: Keratin is only available in salons — and for a major price.

Reality: At upwards of $300 per in-salon keratin treatment, it can seem that the road to healthy hair is paved with hundred-dollar bills. Thankfully, there’s another way in: Some beauty brands like Virtue Labs wield the protein’s power by way of nourishing shampoos and conditioning formulas — which allow us to reap the healthy-hair benefits of keratin with each wash, treatment, or styling session.

How does it work? Typically, beauty brands source protein from animal products (like feathers or wool) for these over-the-counter products. But this brand is the first to use keratin extracted from purified human hair — a process that not only helps maintain the protein’s spring-like structural integrity but which also boosts its bioavailability (our bodies' readiness to accept the ingredient as a repair tool and put it into play). Once applied to the hair (via a shampoo, conditioner, or styling product), the extract works with the efficiency of a drug-sniffing hound — by finding hair damage and bonding to those spots only, strengthening the shaft where needed and smoothing the hair cuticle for uniform texture and shine — no hundos required.
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2. Claim: Keratin erases body and curl.

Reality: Think that going near keratin means committing to the same straight hairstyle day in and day out? Think again. While many traditional keratin treatments have focused on ironing the life out of every curl and wave, the ingredient packs some serious bodybuilding power when used in a different way. That’s because when it's tapped in its pure form (especially one that’s native to our own hair), keratin can strengthen hair health, adding body and bounce across the spectrum of hair types. What’s more, it can also pull off a nifty trick for those looking to boost their natural texture: smoothing the hair shaft for amplified shine, while defining curl patterns. The result? Hair that won’t fall flat — no matter how curly or straight you want to wear it.
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3. Claim: Keratin will strip the hue from color-treated hair.

Reality: Turns out, at-home products made with keratin can actually help amplify hair color by smoothing the hair shaft to reflect more light — a trick that adds vibrancy to hair color, bottled or not. What’s more, you can have your hair straightened in the salon and get a few highlights (or a full color job), too, without sacrificing vibrancy or shine. “It just takes a little coordination between the colorist and the hair pro administering the straightening treatment to draw up a plan that maintains a dye job’s integrity,” says Devin Jude, a stylist at Jonathan Antin Salon who specializes in color and chemical treatments. Because an in-salon keratin treatment can lighten color-treated hair by a gradient or two, it’s best to protect highlights and lowlights by scheduling a gloss treatment either before or after booking a keratin treatment — a move Jonathan AntinJonathan Antin, owner of the Jonathan Antin Salon in Beverly Hills and a styling vet who has worked with A-list celebrities for more than 30 years, says will help seal the desired hue and prevent color from fading.
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4. Claim: Keratin causes breakage and damage to your hair.

Reality: The ability to make or break your hair with keratin depends on how you use it. Take at-home styling products bolstered with the protein, for example: Some are developed to give hair a molecular mend by feeding it exactly what it needs (especially products formulated with protein native to the very hair on our heads). In spots where the hair is already healthy, it sends an “at capacity” signal, and excess keratin is rinsed away — preventing over-treatment and therefore breakage.

When it comes to in-salon keratin treatments, breakage and damage can happen, but most often, the culprit behind fried hair is the stylist, not the treatment itself. “It 100% depends on the stylist, whether the treatment damages or breaks the hair or not,” says Antin. So what, exactly, can stylists do to bring hair to a point of breakage? Apply too much heat (whether too high a temperature or too frequent a pass with the iron). “Keratin is a protein that fills the hair,” Antin explains. “In order for the salon treatment to work, you have to add heat [to the hair]. But if a stylist goes over sections of hair more than once or twice with an iron, damage can ensue.”

Okay. So that’s the worst case scenario. It’s also pretty rare, because when executed correctly, the treatment can not only protect the integrity of the hair, but it can also give strands a healthy boost. “Because it forms a bond, filling in the holes inside the hair shaft and reducing porosity, you can end up with shinier, healthier hair after a keratin treatment,” Antin says. The takeaway? Be extremely picky when stylist shopping, or opt for safer at-home hair-care products laced with the protein.
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5. Claim: All keratin treatments contain known carcinogens.

Reality: Some do. And there’s been a lot of buzz surrounding in-salon, animal-derived keratin treatments and the ingredients they possess. In fact, the FDA has warned consumers to steer clear of straightening treatments that contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that has been linked to headaches, dizziness, nausea, rashes, and other health reactions in both clients and salon workers. Ditto for known formaldehyde releasers (like methylene glycol and formalin), which are thought to release formaldehyde gas into the air when heated (as part of the treatment).

While the battle over carcinogenic ingredients in keratin straightening treatments wages on, several different product formulations (both in-salon and at-home versions) are available without them. Not sure what goes into the keratin straighteners your salon uses? The FDA suggests consulting with your stylist before booking a treatment to ensure the product used does not contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers.
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