Have you tried Brazilian hair straightening, also known as Brazilian keratin treatment? Many people see the keratin treatment before and after pictures and read the keratin treatment reviews and think it must be the best keratin treatment available. The results are just so impressive, particularly for people with especially unmanageable hair. I’m not trying to deny that this treatment often works for a few months, but it’s not without its serious health risks.
What is keratin? It’s the protein that makes up your hair, nails and skin. Keratin treatments are meant to smooth damaged hair follicles, leaving you with straight, silky locks. It sounds perfectly fine until you find out that many Brazilian hair treatments contain an excessive amount of formaldehyde, which is why many countries (like the European Union and Canada) have already banned them. The United States has not banned them, but there’s good reason why the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert and created an informational site just for Brazilian hair treatments. What happened? Stylists and salon owners were complaining about exposure to formaldehyde while using hair smoothing products. OSHA investigated, and air tests revealed dangerously high levels of formaldehyde in salons using Brazilian hair straightening products, some of which were even labeled “formaldehyde free”! (1)
Keratin treatment cost is high (hundreds of dollars typically), and health risks are real, especially when the treatment contains formaldehyde. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to risk your health for beautiful hair because there are many highly effective natural ways to improve your hair’s appearance, such as vitamins for hair and hair growth, among others.
What Is Keratin?
For humans, keratin is defined as the fibrous structural protein of hair, nails and epithelial cells found in the outermost layers of the skin. For animals, the keratin definition is the same, but animals can also have more keratin-rich parts like their hoofs, horns, wool and feathers. Put more simply, keratin is an essential building block of our hair, nails and skin. Some types of keratin also regulate vital cellular activities like protein production and cell growth.
There are two types of keratin proteins: alpha-keratins and beta-keratins. The keratin found in our skin and hair is alpha-keratin. The identifying trait of keratin is the presence of large amounts of cysteine, a sulfur-containing amino acid. Human hair is about 14 percent cysteine. There is one other type of organic material known to match the the toughness of keratinized tissue, which is chitin. Chitin makes up the exoskeletons of lobsters, shrimp and insects, among other things. When it comes to our hair, keratin is one strong and essential building block of our locks no matter how long or how short.
Is Keratin Treatment Bad for Your Hair?
Brazilian hair straightening is a semi-permanent hair straightening method accomplished by temporarily sealing a liquid keratin complex and a preservative solution into hair strands with a hair iron. This version of hair straightening is typically done in a salon with the whole process taking 90 minutes or longer, depending on hair length. The effects usually last about three months. It’s important to note that if you have fine, straight hair, you shouldn’t even consider a keratin treatment. Most people who are “ideal candidates” for keratin smoothing treatment have frizzy and/or curly and thicker textured hair.
The main complaint and health concern with Brazilian keratin treatments is that so many (if not all) contain formaldehyde and/or formaldehyde-producing ingredients. The International Agency for Research on Cancer as well as the National Toxicology Program classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. According to an interview with Environmental Working Group Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan, the potential dangers of hair straighteners are very valid and widespread: (2)
We surveyed 41 top salons and found that almost all of them are using hair straightening treatments. We look across the industry, and the fact is if you’re using a Brazilian-style keratin treatment, it’s almost certainly releasing formaldehyde.
Our bodies naturally make small amounts of formaldehyde, but it’s the formaldehyde we breathe in that can be dangerous. It’s found in tobacco smoke, in the air around unvented, fuel-burning appliances, like gas or wood-burning stoves and in the air at a salon during a keratin treatment — and it’s one of the reasons that Brazilian hair smoothing treatments are so dangerous, not only for your health, but that of your stylist’s. (3)
On top of cancer concerns, chronic exposure to formaldehyde may also cause general central nervous system damage, including increased prevalence of headaches, depression, mood changes, insomnia, irritability, attention deficit, and impairment of dexterity, memory and equilibrium. Scientific research has also shown that male funeral directors with regular exposure to formaldehyde products (such as embalming fluid) may be more than three times as likely to die from ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease) than men who were not exposed to formaldehyde at all. (5, 6)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer tells pregnant women or those who are trying to become pregnant are advised not to get keratin treatments during pregnancy as, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, formaldehyde exposure can cause fertility and reproductive problems as well as miscarriage. (7)
Repeated exposure to formaldehyde means that salon workers are the likeliest to be affected long-term by Brazilian hair straightening treatments, as they are performing the treatments regularly. But just because you get the treatment done a few times a year doesn’t mean you’re safe. That’s because …
You’ll likely feel the effects of formaldehyde immediately — and months to come. Watery, burning eyes. An itchy throat. Nosebleeds. These are all symptoms of formaldehyde exposure, and they can occur as soon as you breathe in the nasties. If you have asthma, bronchitis or another breathing condition, you are more sensitive to exposure, because formaldehyde irritates your airways, making it harder to breathe. If you have a chronic disease, you might also be more susceptible to the side effects. (8)
The fun doesn’t stop when you’re out of the salon, either. Each time you use a heat styling tool at home, like a flat iron or blow dryer, while you have keratin in your hair, you actually reactivate the chemicals, creating the toxic fumes at home. Though you may eventually become desensitized to the effects, they’re still wreaking havoc on your health. You may find yourself developing allergies as your body attempts to fight back.
Your Brazilian hair straightening probably contains more formaldehyde than is legally acceptable. In the U.S., the maximum safe concentration of formaldehyde in beauty products is anything under 0.2 percent.
One study, however, looked at 10 different treatments and found that seven of them had formaldehyde levels higher than the safe amount; the average concentration was 1.46 percent, well over 0.2 percent. (9) That means both salon workers and clients are repeatedly being exposed to unsafe levels of formaldehyde.
Even if you aren’t getting a Brazilian hair smoothing treatment, if your salon does them regularly, you’re being exposed to the fumes. A report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that formaldehyde levels in the air at salons that did keratin treatments, even those labeled formaldehyde-free, were higher than what is deemed safe. (10)
And another study found that during the Brazilian hair smoothing process, formaldehyde levels reached unsafe concentrations for salon workers and clients; the brand Brazilian Blowout was the worst offender. (11) And even treatments touted as “formaldehyde-free” degraded into formaldehyde, but that’s no surprise since …
Formaldehyde-free treatments aren’t always safe. As people learned that the formaldehyde in keratin treatments were dangerous, companies responded by making “formaldehyde-free” versions of the treatment. Except that too often, the chemical used to replace formaldehyde — usually methylene glycol — actually releases formaldehyde once it’s heated. So while the company can claim it contains no formaldehyde, it’s super misleading because, at the end of the day, the health risks are the same.
One study examined seven different Brazilian-style hair treatments. Out of the seven, six wound up having formaldehyde levels of more than five times the recommended level, including five labeled “formaldehyde-free.” (12)
Some states and countries have already banned keratin treatments that contain unsafe levels of formaldehyde from being sold but, currently in the United States, there is no nationwide ban. Sadly, many salon workers and clients are unaware keratin treatment dangers until they experience side effects.
In addition to formaldehyde and/or formaldehyde-producing ingredients being put on your hair during a Brazilian hair treatment, a hair iron is used at a typical temperature of 450 degrees. That kind of heat is especially risky and potentially damaging if your hair is on the finer side or you already have a lot of highlights. (13) It’s not hard to find many people who have experienced hair loss after a keratin treatment. I would really think twice before signing up for any keratin hair treatment, especially when there are much safe, healthier ways to improve the texture and appearance of your hair.
Alternatives to Brazilian Blowouts
Unfortunately, keratin treatments with high levels of formaldehyde are still the norm here in the U.S. In December 2016, the Environmental Working Group and Women’s Voices for the Earth sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), charging that the FDA has failed to protect the public, largely women, from the dangers associated with hair straightening treatments, including products containing formaldehyde. (14)
But you don’t have to wait for the government to ban formaldehyde in hair straightening treatments to eliminate them from your lifestyle. Avoiding Brazilian hair straightening treatments is the obvious first step, but asking your salon whether or not they perform the treatments can help you choose an establishment that prioritizes both your safety and that of their employees.
Other brands, most notably Cezanne’s Keratin Smoothing Treatment, are formulating treatments made from sericin, an ingredient that’s produced by silkworms, to achieve results similar to the Brazilian-style hair treatment without the toxic ingredients list.
6 Best Natural Treatments for Your Hair
There are so many awesome natural ways to improve your hair from what you eat to what hair products you use on a daily basis. I’m not pretending that these treatments equate to a salon keratin treatment, but they definitely improve your hair without all the dangerous side effects.
1. Improve Your Diet
Experts will tell you that your overall health is reflected in the health of your hair. According to David Babaii, a celebrity hair stylist in Los Angeles, “It is key to have a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.”
It’s also essential to make sure you get plenty of protein foods in your diet each and every day. Why is this key to hair health? Your hair is mainly made up of protein (keratin) so you need protein in your diet in order to produce and maintain your hair.
2. Natural Hair Products with Keratin
Brazilian keratin treatment isn’t the only way you can topically apply keratin to your hair. You can give your hair an awesome boost of protein by purchasing natural shampoos, conditioners and hair treatments that contain keratin. By using these keratin-rich products regularly, you can get the smoothing, reparative and even straightening benefits of keratin minus the questionable ingredients that are in the majority of salon hair straightening treatments.
3. Homemade Hair Masks
Looking to do your own keratin treatment at home but don’t want any health-hazardous ingredients? There are a lot of awesome recipes out there for nourishing hair masks that can help tame unruly hair. They may not last as long, but they should leave your locks looking silkier and shinier than before.
Some great recipe ideas:
- Natural Keratin Hair Mask — includes argan or jojoba oil, avocado, coconut oil and liquid biotin
- DIY Gelatin Protein Treatment for Damaged Hair — features gelatin, an awesome protein for hair and skin health
The list could go on and on. If you’re feeling creative, try different combinations of moisture sources like olive oil, honey or avocado with protein sources like eggs, gelatin or whole milk yogurt. These are ingredients that are affordable and you likely have on hand in your kitchen. You may just find the perfect mask for your hair by testing out different homemade recipes. Once you do, you can use it regularly to keep your hair smooth, vibrant and growing strong.
4. Overnight Deep Conditioning Treatment
If you have dry, brittle hair, once a week you can do an overnight deep conditioning treatment with argan oil. Simply warm four to 10 drops in your hands before massaging into your scalp. Continue applying all the way to the ends, twist, and place a shower cap on top. Your natural body heat retained in the shower cap helps the oil penetrate, while keeping your pillowcase free of oil. In the morning, wash your hair as normal, rinsing until all residue is gone.
5. Try Essential Oils
Essentials oils can improve hair health by helping your hair grow stronger and healthier. They can also calm frizzy hair as well as inflammation of the scalp. My recipe for a Rosemary, Cedarwood & Sage Hair Thickener combines three top hair-helping essential oils. You can also find many natural shampoos that include essential oils. Regularly conditioning your hair also goes a long way to help tame frizz and make your hair shinier. My recipe for a Homemade Conditioner includes a variety of hair-healthy essential oils depending on your hair type.
6. Use Coconut Oil
Hair can easily become damaged from styling and overheating — thankfully, we have coconut oil for hair protection. Coconut oil can prevent hair breakage and improve hair condition. (8) In addition to helping with breakage, coconut oil is an awesome natural remedy for frizzy hair. Start with a tiny amount (1/4 teaspoon to a teaspoon) depending on your hair, warming it in your palms. Smooth from root to tips, and blow dry and style as desired. It takes just a bit longer to dry your hair, but it will be soft, shiny and manageable.
You can also disguise and nourish split ends by using just a tiny bit of coconut oil on just the ends of your hair. If your hair is fine, just remember that less is more with coconut oil or any oil.
Keratin Treatment Precautions
Federal OSHA and state OSHA programs continue to investigate complaints from stylists and hair salon owners about exposure to formaldehyde while using hair smoothing products, such as: Brazilian Blowout (Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, Professional Brazilian Blowout Solution), Brasil Cacau Cadiveu, Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy (Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment, Express Blow Out, Natural Keratin Smoothing Treatment Blonde), and Marcia Teixeira (Advanced Brazilian Keratin Treatment, Extreme De-Frizzing Treatment).
If you want to avoid formaldehyde in your hair products (and any other products for that matter), don’t use anything containing the following: formalin, formic aldehyde, paraform, methylene glycol, methylene oxide, methanal, oxomethane, oxymethylene, or CAS Number 50-00-0. In addition, OSHA warns that chemicals like timonacic acid (also called thiazolidinecarboxylic acid) can release formaldehyde due to specific circumstances, like those during a hair smoothing treatment process. (9)
If you really want to get your hair straightened professionally, make sure to question your hair stylist if the treatment he or she uses contains formaldehyde or a formaldehyde-releasing ingredient. Typically, the only way a treatment gets rid of frizz and straightens hair for an extended period of time is by using a product that contains either formaldehyde or something that releases it. If the answer is “no,” then either the treatment contains another smoothing ingredient like glyoxylic acid, or the person may be lying to you so make sure to read product labels before they’re used on your hair. (10)
It’s always a good idea to do a small skin patch test first on your arm or leg to make sure you don’t have a negative reaction before using any essential oils or homemade hair masks. This is especially important if you have sensitive skin.
Final Thoughts on Keratin Treatment
Keratin treatments may seem like the answer to your hair woes, but I really don’t think the long-term effects on your hair and your overall health are worth it. Even if you don’t end up having your hair fall out, these treatments almost always contain formaldehyde, which has no place in anything you’re going to put on your head. Just breathing in a hair treatment that contains this carcinogen is seriously dangerous.
I hope you’ll consider going the natural route, which may require a little more effort on your part, but you can sleep well at night knowing your hair will look better minus the serious short- and long-term damage to your hair and health.