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What is a keratin treatment?

Keratin treatments, also known as smoothing treatments or relaxing treatments, work by injecting or infusing your hair follicles with keratin proteins. There are both pros and cons to keratin treatments with the end result often depicting smoother, more relaxed hair with little to no curl. And depending on the specific treatment, they can take anywhere from five minutes to four hours to apply, with varying results.

But do keratin treatments damage your curls?

Unfortunately, the answer you receive can depend on where you get your information from. Because while some salons will claim that keratin treatments only “smooth” and “define” your curls while “taming frizz,” the unfortunate reality is that a keratin treatment is a chemical treatment. Which means that if you decide to go back to your natural born curls after a few months or even years, you will have to wait until the chemically treated portions of your hair have completely grown out. Or you may need to look into getting the big chop.

Because chemical treatments are permanent treatments.

Not only that, but they also weaken your hair follicles. And you’ll need to get your roots touched up every few months since the new hair growing from your scalp will contain your natural curl pattern. Which only increases the chances of the newly applied chemicals overlapping with the already keratin treated sections of your hair, thereby further weakening your hair.

What do keratin treatments do to curls?

Think of a keratin treatment as the anti-perm, as many of the same care rules apply. Once your hair is treated with the solution, you can’t get it wet or otherwise style it for at least 72 hours without risk of disturbing the chemical process.

The Brazilian Blowout is probably the most well known keratin treatments out there today, often marketed toward those who want to eliminate frizz and relax their hair. Other common keratin treatments include the keratin express, japanese keratin treatment, and soft keratin treatment. All boast varying processes and results, however, the concept remains the same. 

Ultimately, a keratin treatment should only be considered if you want long term, semi-permanently straightened hair. And if you do decide to go through with a keratin treatment, you should know that until your hair grows back out the damage to your curls is permanent. “Damage can occur anytime the curls are chemically altered in any way, shape, or form. That said, true damage can happen if the treatment is done poorly or a low quality keratin product is used resulting in hair breakage or unevenly altered curls,” said Laura McGraw, curls specialist and owner of Laura McGraw Hair Studios in Pearland, Texas.

So, are keratin treatments safe for your hair? Technically, yes. But do keratin treatments damage curls? Also yes.

The Science Behind Curls and Keratin Treatments

As most of us know, your hair color, curl pattern, and cuticle structure are largely the result of your genetics. Which means the DNA in your hair is literally encoded with the recipe for your specific curls. In this case, that recipe consists of two sulfur atoms that collide to form disulfide bonds which create your unique curl pattern.

Keratin treatments by design are made to break down the disulfide bonds within your hair follicles. This chemical removal of disulfide bonds can not be reversed – and without those bonds, you can’t have natural curls. So no matter how “gentle” or “safe” a keratin treatment claims to be, it’s important for you to know that while your hair may come out of the treatment looking smooth, shiny, and healthy, your curls will be no more.

"Typically, when someone begins to research ‘should I get a keratin treatment’ they’re already at a point where they are no longer happy with their curls for whatever reason and are looking for ways to simply alter the shape of their curls or completely erase them. That can be achieved with varying degrees of keratin treatments and by the stylist using different types and/or strengths," said McGraw.

Do at-home keratin treatments damage curls?

We understand that going to a salon for an extended period of time can be a hassle, so of course there are a number of at home keratin treatments on the market these days. Most at home treatments still take at least an hour, but sitting in the comfort of your own home can be much less stressful. But while they can easily be much cheaper, the results often vary widely depending on the product, your technique, and how long you leave it on.

Plus, at-home hair relaxers are not always the same thing as keratin treatments, so be sure to read the labels carefully. Although they also contain chemicals, the “perfect results” they may give you will likely only last through one or two wash cycles. And what you’re left with after that is still chemically weakened hair. Victoria Wurdinger of Latest-Hairstyles.com told Today that when it comes to at-home treatments, “most relaxers use sodium hydroxide (lye) or a close chemical cousin. Don’t be fooled by 'no lye' promises.”

Lye is the most often used active ingredient in relaxers after formaldehyde, which was actually the first hair relaxer (and has been linked to cancer causing carcinogens, among other health concerns). Although keratin treatments have come a long way since using ingredients as hazardous as formaldehyde, and lye is a far safer ingredient, it should be noted that both products essentially achieve the same results of rapidly straightening your hair by breaking down your hair’s bonds. 

No-lye relaxers do exist and are made with calcium hydroxide or guanidine hydroxide (both close cousins to sodium hydroxide) as their main active ingredient. However, they can cause an increase in calcium buildup, leading to dry, brittle hair.

Note: If you’re serious about getting a quality keratin treatment for your hair, we highly recommend finding an experienced salon near you and having it done in house with the proper ingredients, tools, and techniques. Although she doesn’t condone or offer keratin treatments, McGraw recommends that you remain your curl’s advocate. “It is ultimately up to you as the client to see how your curls are treated and the condition in which services are performed. Do your research! Look into the stylist’s reviews and the products they might use."

But no matter how or where you decide to do your keratin treatment, odds are that you’ll need to invest in a specific set of products to help increase its longevity such as keratin shampoos, dry shampoos, conditioners, serums, and heat protectants.

Just be careful and do your research so that you understand the health risks associated with many popular keratin treatments and ingredients.