8 Things You Didn’t Know About Hair-Smoothing Treatments
In the pursuit of silky, swingy, frizz-free hair, there are a dizzying number of tempting in-salon services to choose from. We grilled chemists and stylists on what works (and what’s safe). Here are the eight things you—and your hair—need to know before you commit.
1. Keratin doesn’t defrizz your hair.
“Keratin treatment” has become the term of choice for hair-smoothing processes that leave your hair frizz-free for weeks (even months). But forget about the word keratin. “It’s just a marketing buzzword—it’s not doing anything to smooth the hair,” says cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller, editor of thebeautybrains.com.
2. There are, however, several ingredients that can smooth your hair or help it stay smooth for weeks on end.
First, a quick chemistry lesson: Think of straight hair as a ladder and curly hair as a spiral staircase. The steps on both are the hair’s bonds. If you break those bonds, you can rebuild the spiral staircase as ladder—so curly hair becomes straight. Ammonium thioglycolate and sodium hydroxide permanently break the bonds—that’s how traditional relaxers and “Japanese straightening” treatments transform the texture of the hair. “These treatments last until your hair grows out, but they can be damaging,” says Schueller. (And they will subject you to a very awkward growing-out phase.) Some “keratin treatments” (and the popularBrazilian Blowout Original Solution) saturate the hair with a formaldehyde solution before it’s dried and flatironed; the formaldehyde (yes, it’s a suspected carcinogen for humans) locks the hair into that straighter position so it stays smooth beyond your next shampoo. Your natural texture then gradually returns over two to five months.
3. Just because a stylist or hair-care company says a hair-smoothing treatment is “formaldehyde-free” doesn’t mean it is.
No hair treatment will technically contain formaldehyde (because—a little more chemistry for you—it’s a gas). What they can contain are methylene glycol, formalin, methanal, and methanediol—ingredients that release formaldehyde when heated or mixed with water. Because salon treatments don’t require FDA approval, you need to do your own due diligence if you want a formaldehyde-free service. Ask your stylist if the treatment contains formaldehyde (or a formaldehyde-releasing ingredients). If she says no, then ask her what exactlywill be smoothing your hair. Remember: “Keratin” (or “peptides” or “silk proteins”) is not an acceptable answer. If a treatment is going to defrizz your hair for any length of time, it needs to contain an ingredient that releases the f word or a chemical that permanently breaks the bonds in the hair (see number two). Or it could contain the new smoothing ingredient on the scene.
4. That’s right: There’s now a formaldehyde alternative.
Several new hair-smoothing treatments—Goldwell Kerasilk, Trissola Solo, Supersilk Smoothing System, and Cezanne Perfect Finish—use glyoxylic acid (or a derivative of it) to lock the hair into a straighter position. The good news: They’re 100 percent formaldehyde-free. The bad news: They’re not quite as powerful as the toxic stuff. Results don’t usually last more than two or three months, and these treatments won’t dramatically soften your curl pattern the way formaldehyde solutions can. “They’re not intended to straighten your hair,” says hairstylist Nunzio Saviano.
Get Rid of Split Ends for Good
5. A smoothing treatment can be the ticket to a great short haircut.
Have you ever had a stylist talk you out of a pixie? It’s not your face shape—it’s your [frizz.] That’s why many hairstylists now do a smoothing treatment before a major chop. Henri Borday, the director of education for Cezanne Perfect Finish, says he’s even seen an uptick in men coming in for the treatment. If you want to cut your hair short, or already have, look for a salon that does incremental pricing for their smoothing treatments. (You shouldn’t pay the same amount as the girl with Sofia Vergara waves in the chair next to you.)
6. You’ll need to switch your shampoo afterward—but you don’t need to buy theirs.
Many brands that make salon smoothing treatments also sell take-home products that they claim will extend your results. Buy them if you want, but don’t feel pressured. “Any sulfate-free shampoo will work,” says Saviano. And stay away from one particular styling product: Beach sprays are often loaded with sulfates and salts and can cause frizz to reappear prematurely.
7. You can get similar results at home.
Just don’t expect them to last a month. Or even a week (especially if you have tight ringlets). “Most at-home smoothing treatments don’t affect any bonds in the hair, so they’re not damaging…or nearly as effective,” says Schueller. “They usually just coat the hair shaft with a barrier, like silicone, to keep humidity from entering.” In the majority of cases, the only damage you’re doing to your hair with these treatments, like Tresemmé 7 Day Keratin Smooth Heat Activated Treatment, comes from hitting it with a flatiron. Results last a week at most—but cost as little as $10. Which is a bargain, considering a typical salon treatment can, and should, cost upward of $200. “Any salon treatment that costs less than that is worrying, so do your homework,” says Saviano. “You’re paying for the technician’s experience, the time spent on your hair, the credibility of the products, and the proper ventilation. This should not be a walk-in situation.” If an in-salon deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.
8. Don’t do an in-salon hair-smoothing treatment more than three times a year.
Every time you do one, your hair becomes more brittle and prone to breakage. Unless you’re battling life-crippling frizz, save the treatments for when you need them most (like, this summer).