Keratin Treatments: What are they and are they safe?

Crystal Ugochi

Many women with naturally curly hair prefer to wear their straight, which for some may improve manageability and cut down on styling times. Whatever the reasoning behind desiring straight hair, there is now an alternative to chemical relaxers when it comes to straightening the hair. While chemical relaxers remain popular, keratin treatments are gaining increasing popularity due to their ability to straighten the hair for up to 12 weeks at a time without permanently altering the hair’s natural curl pattern.

            To apply a keratin treatment, first the hair is washed several times with a shampoo as this loosens weak bonds in the hair to allow for easier straightening. The keratin treatment is applied to the hair which is then blow dried and flat ironed straight in its final configuration. Keratin treatments gradually wash out of the hair with each shampooing and the use of sulfate-free shampoos is recommended to prolong the straightening effect.

Generally speaking, keratin treatments are made with a few key ingredients. First, most keratin treatments contain hydrolyzed keratin proteins which are small enough to penetrate the hair shaft and can help to strengthen the hair. The original keratin treatment formulations also contained formaldehyde which helps to encase the hair and seal it straight during processing. Conditioning agents are also used to help minimize damage during the process.

            So what’s the downside of these products? Of most concern is the formaldehyde in the solution. Formaldehyde is a commonly used preservative used in the production of disinfectants, paints, pesticides, resins and cosmetics. When heat is applied to formaldehyde, formaldehyde gas is released which can cause eye irritation, throat burning and difficulty breathing. Repeated exposure (typically over several years) has also been associated with the development of certain types of cancers though manufacturers in the United States are required to disclose if the levels of formaldehyde are high enough to have cancer causing potential.

For this reason, some companies have begun marketing formaldehyde-free keratin treatments, though some of these formulations simply contain ingredients like methylene glycol that turn into formaldehyde when exposed to high heat. Some newer formulations, called “safe keratin treatments” are completely formaldehyde free but research is limited regarding their safety. Additionally, formaldehyde free products often do not last as long or straighten the hair as much as formaldehyde containing versions.

Bottom line- if you think that keratin treatment is the way to go, ask your stylist about the ingredients in your keratin treatment, look for warning labels and do research on any potential hazards. Being an informed consumer will allow you to make the decision that is best for you.

By Dr. Crystal Aguh

Dr. Crystal Aguh is an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. You can find her on Instagram at CrystalADermDoc

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