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Can Hair Straightening Keratin Treatments Make You Sick?

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If you love glossy, pin-straight locks, but were born with natural curls, you know it's a drag to juggle blow dryers and flat irons to get the style you're after. This makes in-salon Brazilian keratin treatments—which promise to liberate women from hair serums and hot tools—even more appealing. Stylists claim the process (that costs up to $500 with results up to four months) tames even the unruliest of manes. But the keratin treatment craze hasn't been completely controversy-free. This past fall, government reports and warnings put a serious crimp in the hottest hair trend in years: the treatment that vows to transform your tresses could be hazardous to your health.

How Brazilian Keratin Treatments Work
The Brazilian keratin treatment involves 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?

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Formaldehyde: The Toxic Chemical Culprit
Don't rush to your hairdresser quite yet. Because the solution doesn't technically alter the texture of hair, it locks in the temporary straightening results with formaldehyde—a chemical used in low levels in household cleaners, hand soaps, glue, and synthetic fabrics. "In higher concentrations 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. 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.

Harmful Effects of Keratin with Formaldehyde
Last fall, Portland, Oregon–area stylists began complaining about nosebleeds, eye irritation, and breathing problems after doing repeated keratin treatments, so the Oregon division of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) decided to investigate. It tested samples of keratin treatments with the air quality in five Oregon salons. The report indicates that some solutions, like Brazilian Blowout, despite being marketed as "formaldehyde-free," contained up to 10 percent of the preservative (according to OSHA, a "safe" 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.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited reach in protecting consumers at salons. "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 breath easy: while some people might develop a sensitivity to the treatment, it's unlikely that you'll get sick from a few hours in the chair. Still, it's a good idea to find a salon that offers Pravna Keratin Fusion, JK Smoothing Treatment, or Bio Ionic Kera Smooth—all with less than 0.1 percent formaldehyde. Or better yet, try Curl Interrupted, which has been independently tested to be free from the chemical.

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Before you schedule any appointment, 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 limit the days the salon offers the treatment so fewer people are 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 after the treatment, see your doctor immediately. "At the end of the day," says Parent, "your health is more important than your hair."