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By now, you’ve probably heard about keratin treatments that turn frizzy hair into spun silk. But since new reports have surfaced about the toxic chemicals that some of them contain, we turned to the experts to find out how to get sexy hair— the safe way. BY THERESA O’ROURKE


Decide for yourself: Is amped up shine worth the risk?

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● IF YOU LOVE A GLOSSY, PIN-STRAIGHT LOOK, but were born with natural curls, you know what a drag it is to juggle blow-dryers and flat irons to get the style you’re after. Perhaps this explains the popularity of in-salon Brazilian keratin treatments, which promise to liberate women from hair serums and hot tools once and for all. Celebs like Nicole Richie and Jennifer Aniston have reportedly tried the treatment, and stylists are just as giddy, claiming the process, which costs up to $500, can tame even the unruliest of manes. Results last for up to four months, making smooth hair something it’s never been: low-maintenance. The craze hasn’t been without its controversy, though. This past fall, a string of government reports and warnings put a serious crimp in the hottest thing to happen to hair in years: The treatment that vowed to transform your tresses could be hazardous to your health.

The Brazilian keratin treatments are hardly the first professional-grade frizz-buster. That honor goes to Japanese thermal straightening, which has been around for nearly a decade. This treatment uses a high-pH solution “to break the bonds that give wavy and curly hair their structure,” says Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist and vice president of Cosmetech Laboratories in Fairfield, New Jersey. The Brazilian method takes a seemingly gentler approach: soaking the hair with a cocktail of keratin and oils to form a hard outer shell around the cuticle, which helps strands hold their new shape. The treatment works on all types of hair—even damaged or chemically treated tresses. Plus, there’s plenty of wiggle room in terms of results. Depending on the brand, you can completely straighten your hair or dial


down frizz without sacrificing volume, says Dror Kraft, a stylist and treatment specialist at Pierre Michel Salon in New York City, who has been performing the service for several years. Sounds good, right?

formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems, skin allergies and irritation, and sometimes even cancer,” says Richard Parent, a board-certified toxicologist in Damariscotta, Maine. “And most—but not all—salon keratin treatments produce varying amounts of it,” says Wilson.

The danger zone Last fall, Portland, Oregon–area stylists began complaining about nosebleeds, eye irritation, and breathing problems after doing repeated treatments, so the Oregon division of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) decided to investigate. It tested samples from Brazilian Blowout and several other brands along with the air quality in five Oregon salons. The subsequent report

The F-word Not so fast. Because the solution doesn’t technically alter the texture of hair, it needs something to lock in those temporary results. That something is what concerns leading health advocates: formaldehyde, a chemical used in low levels in household cleaners, hand soaps, glue, and synthetic fabrics. “In higher concentrations

SLEEK STRANDS like Jennifer’s were all the rage on spring runways


Smooth operators

Formaldehyde is released during the final stage of the process. Once a keratin-based complex is applied, the stylist flatirons the hair, “freezing” the new texture into place. When that happens, the heat from the iron sends fumes into the air.

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statement to the press on its website, Brazilian Blowout has denied that its formula contains formaldehyde and recently filed a lawsuit against the government body. While the company claims that its texture-locking ingredient is methylene glycol, cosmetic chemists say this chemical becomes formaldehyde gas when heated. Other brands contain similar compounds that also produce formaldehyde once the flat iron hits the hair. “There’s a lot of trickery happening here,” says Wilson.

Clearing the air That’s why you need to be a savvy customer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited reach in protecting the consumer at the salon. “It doesn’t


review cosmetics for safety or effectiveness before they go on the market. However, manufacturers do bear responsibility for making sure their products are safe to use,” says Siobhan DeLancey, a spokesperson at the FDA Office of Public Relations. One reason to breathe easy: While it’s possible that some people could develop a sensitivity, it’s unlikely that you’ll get sick from a couple of hours in the chair. “The

AT-HOME ALTERNATIVES Whether you’re concerned about chemicals or just a commitment-phobe, a new crop of products smooth hair until your next shower. ● Garnier Fructis

● Lotus leaf in Avon Lotus Shield Anti Frizz Treatment ($12; prevents moisture from seeping into the cuticle.

Style & Shine Blow Dry Perfector ($12; at drugstores) has a rice-oil cream to seal the cuticle for up to a week.

● Ready Set Blow Express Blow Dry Lotion ($21; has heat-activated polymers that speed up your drying time.

● Keratin and polymers in John Frieda Frizz-Ease 3-Day Straight ($10; at drugstores) keeps hair silky for half a week.

people at highest risk are the stylists,” says Wilson, “since they’re exposed to more fumes over time.” Still, it’s a good idea to go to a salon that offers Pravna Keratin Fusion, JK Smoothing Treatment, or Bio Ionic Kera Smooth—all with less than 0.1 percent formaldehyde, according to OSHA. Or better yet, try Curl Interrupted, which has been independently tested to be free from the chemical. You also want to be sure to size up the salon. “Make sure the treatment is performed in a very well ventilated space,” says Paul Dykstra, CEO of Cosmetologists Chicago and America’s Beauty Show. A smart owner will also limit the days the salon offers the treatment so fewer people are constantly exposed to the fumes, says Kraft, who adds that the stylist should wear a gas mask and always offer one to his or her client. If you experience any skin irritation or breathing problems during or afterward, see your doctor immediately. “At the end of the day,” says Parent, “your health is more important than your hair.”


charged that while none of the salon air-quality tests were over the limit deemed permissible by OSHA, the solution, despite being marketed as “formaldehyde-free,” contained up to 10 percent of the preservative. According to OSHA, to be considered safe, a product should contain no more than 0.1 percent formaldehyde. If it has higher amounts, manufacturers must list it as an ingredient, and employers should educate workers about how to use the product safely. Though the Brazilian Blowout brand bore the brunt of the criticism, OSHA found that the Keratin Complex Smoothing Treatment by Coppola and Brazilian Gloss produced too-high levels as well. In a

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Brazilian Bombshell  

An investigative story I reported and wrote about controversial hair-smoothing treatments for Shape Magazine.

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