Are keratin treatments as safe as manufacturers claim they are?

straight hair

A segment on "Good Morning America" today really hit a nerve in me. It was a piece on Brazilian hair straightening, questioning whether these treatments are safe or not. A few things got me: the segment showed that even the Brazilian treatments that claim to be formaldehyde-free contained this potentially cancer-causing chemical. Chemists at the Oregon Occupation Heath and Safety Administration and the Oregon Health and Science University's Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology tested samples of straightening products labeled “formaldehyde-free” and found that some had a whopping 8-10 percent of this carcinogen! So even though companies that have more than .1% have to put this on their labels, these companies were NOT doing that. They also found other chemicals in the samples that were not quantified in the lab, including methanol and ethanol. These experts also talked about the fact that even small amounts of formaldehyde can cause difficulty breathing, nose bleeds and eye irritation (something stylists have complained about). In fact, even one of the women having her hair straightened in the segment admitted that her eyes were burning.

But I really saw myself when they showed both women after they had their hair done. Despite the fact that there were potential health risks in the chemicals that had just been applied to their hair —one being cancer—and that one woman’s eyes were watering as she got it done, they didn’t care. Their smooth, straight strands were more important than their health! I remember feeling this way when I got my hair straightened. Though the treatment I did wasn’t the Brazilian, I still remember thinking that I didn’t care what it contained. I didn’t care that the chemicals stung my nose and eyes. I didn’t care that the flat iron was burning my scalp (and that I’d have a few scabs on it for days after). It got my hair straight and that’s all that mattered. Now I realize how dumb that was. Plus, in my opinion, neither one of the women looked better when their hair was straight! Even their slightly frizzy curls in the “before” photos looked more flattering than the poker-straight hair that looked so obviously NOT natural. (One of them actually looked beautiful and years younger in her “before” photo). Their best bet would be to figure out how to make their hair’s natural texture look its best. I’m not saying these women MUST live with frizz or out of control curls—they don’t. But as I learned from Lorraine Massey, co-owner of Devachan Salons and Deva Spa and my co-author for the upcoming book "Curly Girl: The Handbook," just figuring out how much conditioner and gel your hair needs and letting it dry without touching it (a challenge, I know) can change how it looks without all the time, money and most of all health risks! ("Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts said she asked her hair stylist about it and the stylist said she would NEVER do these treatments because of their potential risks.)

I’m not putting either of the women in the segment down. I’ve been in their shoes before (or more aptly their chemically straightened hair) thinking that my flat, straight strands looked better than my natural hair. And because my hair is still growing out from its dead, straight state, I don’t love it every day. I’m still learning to work with it, to make it look its best. But even on my worst hair day, I’d rather know I’m not risking my health for my hair! And here’s something funny: a few segments later they were interviewing actress Sally Field about her TV show. She was talking about the awful, stormy, rainy weather in NYC and how having to run through the rain to the set had ruined the hair she’d recently had blown out. Her hair did not look good, but again, had she embraced her natural texture and made it look her best, she would have had more time to promote her TV show during her few brief moments on air rather than lament her hair! This whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of Lorraine’s: “Straighten your hair, and you might be happy for a day (unless it rains). Learn to love and care for your curls, and you’ll be happy for life!”