sheamoisture keratin line

Keratin is a widely misunderstood ingredient that has been getting a bad rap in the news, beauty publications, and hair blogs over the past few years. Just uttering the word incites visions of beauticians wearing facemasks and the thought of embalming fluid comes to mind. Unfortunately one bad story, product, or headline can spoil the whole lot, and before you know it a common ingredient has been labeled as hazardous by the community. We are going to look at why keratin has become the latest victim of this phenomenon. 

What is keratin?

Keratin is an essential component to hair, as 90% of your hair is made up of keratin protein. It is a protein formed by the combination of 18 amino acids. Although hair also contains water, lipids, traces of mineral elements, and melanin, Hair-Science says keratin is its main component. Keratin is the key structural building block of hair, skin, and nails, so it can be strong, delicate, and vulnerable to damage. This explains why many protein hair care products have hydrolyzed keratin protein in them.

Products use the keratin protein to fill the gaps in the hair shaft to give your hair a strengthening boost.

As discussed in our Why Eggs and Mayonnaise Don't Work article, "proteins must be hydrolyzed or broken down so that the amino acids will be small enough to fit and bond to the hair shaft in order to provide the hair with strength as a temporary repair.” Hydrolysis is necessary to break the proteins down and make them small enough to fill the cracks in your hair shaft from all the damage our hair incurs as a result of sun exposure, styling, chemical treatments, and heat styling. The broken down keratin in hair products will temporarily replace the chipped away keratin in our hair’s cortex. This is only a temporary fix, but it is still a necessary component in keeping our hair healthy. There are products and services that use keratin and not all of them are bad. I am here to show the various ways keratin is being supplied to the public so you can make an informed decision on using it yourself.

Keratin in protein treatments

Keratin protein is the strongest protein found in hair care products, so it makes sense to use these proteins to strengthen your hair. Not only can your hair grow stronger, but hydrolyzed keratin protein is moisture binding so you can increase your moisture retention to reduce breakage and bring luster to your curls, coils, and waves. Many of the popular products that naturals know and love contain this amazing protein, such as ApHogee Intensive Two Minute Keratin Reconstructor, Briogeo Don't Despair, Repair! Deep Conditioning Mask, and AG Hair Cosmetics Re:coil. These products use the keratin protein to fill the gaps in the hair shaft to give your hair a strengthening boost. Everyone can benefit from a protein treatment, but people with color-treated hair and high porosity hair can benefit the most.

Keratin in smoothing treatments

Keratin has been getting the majority of its bad press from its usage in straightening systems that make curly, coily, and wavy hair super sleek and straight or eliminate frizz. The major concern lies in the use of formaldehyde in some of these straightening systems. One such treatment that has been under fire from the Food and Drug Administration and Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is the Brazilian Blowout. OSHA discovered that "some hair smoothing products may contain formaldehyde, may release formaldehyde at levels above OSHA's permissible limits during use, and may be mislabeled, all of which can pose health risks to salon workers." For many, the use of formaldehyde in these systems has overridden many of the benefits the procedure.

With all of the negative press surrounding keratin treatments, many companies have since responded by altering their formulas or creating entirely new treatments to exclude the use of formaldehyde. It is important to note that not every keratin system or straightening system contains formaldehyde or an ingredient akin to it or a derivative of it. If you are considering a keratin treatment, be sure to research the specific treatment before going to the salon.

How keratin straightening treatments work

The stylist applies a keratin hair-straightening product to your hair and uses heat from the flat iron to seal it in. The entire process takes about 90 min or more, depending on your hair’s length and density. Popular treatments include Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy by Coppola and Global Keratin Complex, and there are at-home kits on the market as well. One popular at-home treatment is the SheaMoisture Tahitian Noni & Monoi Smooth & Repair Hair Straightening System. Every product in the Tahitian Noni & Monoi Smooth & Repair Hair Straightening System has hydrolyzed keratin protein to add strength before you apply direct heat to your hair. This allows your curls, coils, and waves to return undamaged, vibrant, and bouncy, within reason. Remember, heat damage can still occur with temperatures at high heats. The keratin does not straighten the hair, it is meant to strengthen and seal the hair after heat from a blow-dryer or flat iron is applied.

Not every keratin system or straightening system contains formaldehyde or an ingredient akin to it or a derivative of it.

Beyond formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is not the only reason keratin treatments have developed a negative connotation. An overuse of chemicals can create problems if not used sparingly, especially in conjunction with high temperatures of hot tools. “The other negative aspect to these treatments is the temperature at which you must heat the hair to accomplish the goal,” explains celebrity hairstylist David Babaii. Harper's Bazaar says that “subjecting a fine or heavily highlighted head of hair to a 450 degree flat iron, too, may not leave your hair feeling as wonderful as these treatments tend to claim."

The application of chemicals, length of time left on the hair, and temperature used will vary depending on your goals (are you straightening, or just eliminating frizz?) and of course your stylist. Be sure to go to a trained professional you can trust, either through reading salon reviews or from personal recommendations. It is possible to have a very positive experience with keratin if you know what to look out for. Many women in the curly community swear by their keratin treatments to prevent frizz, while maintaining their natural curl pattern.

The bottom line

The smoothing treatment has made some enemies but there are now many alternatives to the dangerous ingredients of the past.  The bottom line is that you need to research products and treatments before you commit your hair and your money to them. I would suggest asking your salon specifically which brand of keratin treatment they perform, and then researching that treatment beforehand. Similarly, if you are doing an at-home keratin treatment, read the label first. This is your hair, your health, and your responsibility to make an informed decision.

Have you tried a keratin treatment? What were the results?