Living in the heat and humidity of South Florida, Heather Frankel's fine curls often turned to frizz. One day, she saw a curly Brazilian friend, and her hair was noticeably longer and straighter.
"She told me about the treatment," Frankel says.
That would be the Brazilian Keratin Treatment -- a curl relaxer that has taken the United States by storm in recent months. Known as Brazilian Keratin Treatment, Brazilian Hair Straightening, Brazilian Blowout or just BKT, it first came to the United States a few years ago. But over the past year, a growing number of hairdressers have embraced it.
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Thermal reconditioning -- also known as Japanese straightening -- seems like yesterday's news compared to this hot import from Brazil.
Frankel, who was considering doing thermal reconditioning, is thrilled with the results. She says hair has body and shine, and only takes five minutes to style. And frizz is a thing of the past.
"It opens the door to hairstyles I've always wanted but didn't think I could have," she says. "Now you can see the layers, you can see the highlights, you can see the flips. I am so happy - you have no idea."
Stylist Tiffany Vance, owner of Hedda Hair and Body Bliss in Joliet, Ill., began doing the chemical service in June.
"I've had extremely good results," Vance says. "It's good for all curl types, especially those who color their hair."
A big selling point of BKT is that it doesn't have the strong chemicals - sodium hydroxide and ammonium thioglycolate - that are in most relaxers and straighteners. These harsh chemicals can cause damage and breakage.
Instead, the active ingredient is keratin, a protein similar to a component in human hair, which naturally straightens the hair. Unlike many chemical processes, Brazilian Keratin Treatment works best on hair that's been color processed, highlighted or chemically treated.
Unlike other types of relaxers, the treatment can be used over any kind of straightening.
"The keratin fits right on the hair's cortex," says Nadine Ramos of Brazilian Hair Straightening Inc. in New York's East Village. "It works as a treatment and a straightener at the same time. It actually strengthens the hair's cuticle."
Ramos first heard about the treatment when she got her hair straightened four years ago by a Brazilian importer. She liked it so much, she decided to get licensed so she could provide the service to other women. She has been importing it for three years. But it's popularity has soared this year, she says.
"Stylists see that it works and that it's time efficient," Ramos says.
On average, the process takes around two hours, and starts at around $150. Thermal reconditioning, on the other hand, can take five to six hours and usually costs $500 and up.
With Brazilian Keratin Treatment, a stylist applies a solution made with keratin. Using a 450-degree iron, the hairdresser seals the formula onto the outer layer of the cuticle. It sticks to the cuticle's rough edges, trapping moisture and hydrating the hair.
Initially, the hair may seem too straight for many curlies.
"My hair was stick straight," Frankel says. "It was beyond Marcia Brady straight. I've never had my hair so straight in my entire life. Personally, I didn't like how straight it was."
Unlike thermal reconditioning, the process washes out so the hair gets wavier over time. Another advantage over thermal reconditioning is that the hair can be curled, giving people more styling options.
"The hair has body and natural movement," Ramos says.
The process typically lasts from six weeks to a few months -- longer for color treated hair -- depending on how often the hair is washed. There is no demarcation line between the treated hair and new growth.
While it is less damaging than traditional relaxers or straighteners, BKT is not without risks. The formula does contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that can irritate the eyes and lungs. Frankel said her eyes burned and she broke out in hives the first time she had it done in a poorly ventilated room.
In the October issue of Allure, they tested the chemicals used in Brazilian straightening and found they contain a much higher level of formaldehyde than is considered safe by OSHA. Safe levels are under 0.2 ppm, levels in the straightening solutions are upwards of 3 ppm. They notified the FDA of their results, and the FDA replied that they will investigate.
Kids should not be around when this service is being done. Pregnant or nursing women cannot get the treatment done.
It can cause color to fade. Frankel gets her hair colored several shades darker than she likes it before getting the treatment.
Find a stylist who is experienced with the treatment because there have been reports of damage. Go for a consultation beforehand to learn about the product and what you can expect from it.
"It's a treatment that should be used carefully by professionals only," says curl expert Christo. "You should see people who specialize in curly hair when you have a treatment like this."
As with thermal reconditioning, going straight may be too drastic a change for some people with curly hair. People considering the treatment are encouraged to blow out their hair for two weeks so they can see what they'll look like with straight locks.
"It totally straightens the hair," says Vance. "It's designed for people who flat iron or blowdry their hair."
And Christo takes issue with the way the product is marketed as something to get rid of curls, as if texture is a bad thing.
"Curls are not a problem," he says. "Curls are something people are blessed with."
Some tips for BKT
- Use a sulfate-free shampoo on your hair at all times.
- Don't use hair clips
- You should wear a mask and close your eyes during the blowdry with the paddle brush after the product has been applied.
- Do not use hair bands or bobby pins.
- Wait four days before going into a pool or ocean after the treatment.
- You cannot use sprays, gels or mousses for the first four days.
- For the first four days, do not exercise or sweat.