How (and Why) I Finally Broke Up Salon Keratin Treatments
Plus, the smoothing products I found to replace them.
Growing up with frizzy hair wasn't exactly a blessing—I loathed my Jewish curl patterns and bemoaned the warm weather for ruining less-than-stellar blowouts I gave myself at home, or especially those I'd get at the salon after a haircut. That is until I was introduced to the world of keratin treatments. (Related: These Hair Straightening Brushes Are Better Than a Flatiron)
"Keratin treatments are a hair smoothing process that involves the hair being coated with a protein and film-forming formula that, when accompanied with heat, seals the hair cuticle," explains Rhonda M. Davis, a cosmetic chemist at Alquemie Product Development Group. The end result? Hair is "more manageable, visibly straighter, softer, shinier and able to withstand humidity, and thus frizz."
This is all thanks to the chemical makeup of these treatments, which varies brand to brand, but all center around similar ingredients. "They usually include a film former such as pvp, polyurethane, polysilicones, hydroxyethylcellulose, copolymers, as well as keratin and other extracts to help fortify the hair shaft, adding to the hair's natural protein to increase hair strength and elasticity to ultimately reduce hair breakage," explains Davis.
However, keratin treatments aren't all softness and sheen. Some have been deemed unhealthy because of the presence of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. What's more, says Davis, "even if some products claim to be formaldehyde-free, they may contain ingredients that release formaldehyde when exposed to heat." This, in turn, releases the fumes and vapors into the air, with the potential to be inhaled by the stylist or client. (Related: Can Hair Straightening Keratin Treatments Make You Sick?)
What's key, adds Davis, is to look at the treatment's ingredient list to see if there are carcinogens present. "Look out for words such as methylene glycol, methandiol, aldehyde, morbicid acid, formalin, methylene oxide, paraform, formic aldehyde, methanal, oxomethane, and oxymethylene," she says.
But if you're like me and are understandably scared off from the idea of putting anything potentially cancerous in your hair, there are options that can help you get the look at home for a fraction of the commitment, cost, and sans carcinogens. (Related: Eco-Friendly, Natural Haircare Products That Actually Work)
When I first started out looking for a substitute for my formerly beloved keratin treatments a year or two ago when I was first trying to get pregnant, both my hair colorist and stylist, Ashley Ferret and Liana Zingarino, respectively, of Serge Normant John Frieda salon in New York City, recommended Color Wow Dreamcoat (Buy It, $28; dermstore.com). What makes the product so efficacious at replicating a keratin treatment from the confines of home, says Davis, is the use of polysilicone-29, a conditioning agent. "It helps restore damaged hair, but also smooths and straightens hair even in the muggiest humid heat." (Keratin treatments also often contain polysilicones, says Davis, though the exact ingredients in a given formulation vary from one to another.)
Using Dreamcoat was a pretty remarkable experience—splashing water on my blow-dried strands was like splashing water on a duck's feathers—the droplets almost rolled off. My hair was smooth, shiny, and touchable for several washes, and the more product I put in, the bouncier my blowout got.
Another product I fell in love with is IGK Good Behavior Spirulina Protein Smoothing Spray (Buy It, $32; sephora.com). Kitschy packaging and clever moniker aside, this formula gave me the most dramatic at-home results to date. Davis explains that's from the litany of good-for-your-hair ingredients. “Hydrofluorocarbon 152a provides excellent hold and humidity resistance, pvm/ma copolymer—a film former—provides moisture resistance and hydrolyzed keratin minimizes damage and increases tensile strength (aka resistance to breakage)." (BTW, This $5 Spray Is Like a Keratin Treatment in a Bottle.)
Although the IGK spray made my damp hair feel a bit sticky upon application, the resulting blowout was straight—almost too straight, in fact, for someone like me who requires some volume and bounce in a blowout to feel my best. I'd recommend this option for those with extremely tight curls that don't respond well to most other straightening treatments—and those who don't mind the resulting feel of their strands after styling. (Related: 23 Affordable Hair Products That Celebrities Actually Use)
The newest one I added to cart, though, has been the Garnier Fructis Sleek In-Shot Shower Styler (Buy It, $5; amazon.com). I fell for it because of the ease of use—mix a dollop of it with your shampoo, run through hair, and rinse it out. That's it. It promised to cut styling time by an impressive 50 percent. And although my hair only takes about seven minutes to blow dry, give or take, only needing three-and-a-half minutes to style it seemed too good to be true.
Perhaps it was, as I'd argue using the Garnier shower styler didn't cut my styling time by 50 percent, but did make my blow-dry easier and the resulting strands smoother. The ingredient mix is like a wheatgrass shot for hair—lots of health in a small dose. "The use of hydrogenated starch hydrolysate protects damaged hair by improving shine and repairing the hair cuticle," says Davis. "Polyurethane 34—a hydrophobic film former—has great hold to withstand humidity and frizz but is also a strong conditioner, detangler, and shine booster, and improves hair strength to limit breakage."
Bottom line: Spending years trying to straighten my hair in a salon wasn't necessary with the aid of these three products, all of which are worth trying depending on the results you're looking for.