17 Facts About Chemically Straightening Your Hair

Photo credit: Hearst Communications, Inc. All rights reserved
Photo credit: Hearst Communications, Inc. All rights reserved

From Cosmopolitan

If your hair is uber thick, curly, or frizzy, or you're just not that into your texture, you might have considered getting your hair chemically straightened. But the pricey salon services have recently come under fire for causing some super-scary side effects, with hair damage being the least of it. Here's what you need to know before putting your hair and health at risk:

1. Chemical straighteners work by changing the structure of your hair. Each hair is made up of grouped chains of keratin, a naturally occurring protein. Chemical treatments affect the way these chains are held together to effectively de-coil each strand.

There are several different types of in-salon chemical straightening and smoothing treatments, with Japanese and Brazilian being the most common ones. Both processes involve coating each strand with a strong chemical, then warming it up to activate the formula.

The Japanese straight perm is a permanent straightening solution that only requires touch-ups as your roots grow in about every six months. It can cost between $150 and $800 per treatment, depending on the salon. Because it involves the strongest chemicals, it poses the greatest risks in terms of damaging your hair.

Then there are keratin treatments (aka Brazilian hair straightening or smoothing). The semi-permanent technique can last between three and five months, and puts you out about $150 to $300 per treatment. It won't give you pin-straight hair, but it does significantly reduce curls, frizz, and styling time with results that stand up to humidity, according to Natalija O’Toole, a stylist in New York City.

2. The process takes two to three hours - but you won't walk out of the salon with your best blowout ever. At the salon, the stylist will shampoo your hair, then apply the chemicals to dry or damp hair section by section. Different formulas require different amounts of time for processing, so you sit tight for a bit. Then your stylist blow-dries your hair and flat-irons it at a very high heat. Afterward, your hair will be straight, shiny, and silky, but flat and filled with product that can make it somewhat greasy and smell like strongly like chemicals, according to O’Toole.

3. After chemical straightening, you can't wash your hour for at least 12 hours after treatment. This drying time, which can last up to several days depending on your stylist's recommendation, allows the product to set in.

4. Many chemical smoothing treatments contain high levels of toxic ingredients. Turns out formaldehyde, the chemical used to preserve cadavers, also helps many keratin chemical hair straighteners work their magic. Unfortunately, even one-time exposure to the high levels of this toxin can trigger horrible symptoms, according to Tina Sigurdson, Environmental Working Group (EWG) assistant general counsel and co-author of several studies on hair straightening treatments.

"In general, every client and stylist [exposed to keratin chemicals] complains of burning eyes, difficulty breathing, and burning sensations," estimates Kelly Merriman, a stylist from Joliet, Ind. Customers have also complained of throat and mouth ulcers, dizziness, headaches, flu-like symptoms like vomiting, eye damage, loss of taste and smell, and fatigue, according to Sigurdson. And because exposure is cumulative, salon workers are extra likely to suffer from severe symptoms.

While the chemicals aren't supposed to touch anything but the hairs themselves, accidental skin contact can cause blisters or rashing on the scalp, face, and neck.

But that's just in the short term. Formaldehyde is also a known carcinogen, which means it's proven to cause cancer in humans, with higher levels and prolonged exposure posing greater risks.

5. "Formaldehyde-free" hair chemicals can still contain or release the ingredient.

Chemical hair straightening products containing formaldehyde are already outlawed in certain U.S. states (California and Oregon) as well as Canada, France, and Ireland, but products labeled for professional use in salons don't have to be labeled with their ingredients, according to Sigurdson. It could be why formaldehyde-free products can still contain the chemical - an unfortunate finding in a 2011 EWG investigation.

"In general, the alternatives [to formaldehyde-containing keratin treatments] are better," Andrews says, speaking to the severity of side effects caused by straighteners that are labeled free of formaldehyde. "But most of these treatments still have the potential for allergic reactions and sensitization with repeat usage."

6. The active ingredient in Japanese thermal hair straightening can mess with your health too. Japanese thermal hair straightening products might not contain formaldehyde, but they do expose you to ammonium thioglycolate, an irritant that can cause hair breakage at best, or trigger an allergic response at worst, according to the EWG.

7. Even the safest salon chemical treatments aren't 100 percent risk-free (and they don't work quite as well). There are plenty of less harsh alternatives like Pravana Perfection Smoothout, which O'Toole recommends. But because life isn't fair, it doesn't work quite as well as keratin. Other keratin alternatives can still contain ingredients like cyclopentasiloxane, which can release small amounts of formaldehyde into the air when heated by a blow-dryer or flat iron.

8. You do not want to chemically straighten your hair while you're pregnant or trying. Exposure to formaldehyde could affect your fertility or lead to miscarriage when you're pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It's why stylists like O'Toole refuse to treat pregnant women - and worry about the chemicals in general. "When the manufacturers say not to use [their product] on pregnant women, that should be the first clue that their products are unsafe," says O'Toole, who was a huge fan of keratin treatments before she began to experience adverse effects from chemical exposure, and left her old salon to avoid it. The jury is out on whether exposure can permanently affect your fertility.

9. Most precautions salons take to protect you and salon workers from fumes - like using a vacuum extractor - don't do all that much. O'Toole says her old salon used this kind of machine but she still experienced adverse side effects. "Some salons offer clients a surgical-type mask for clients, but that does nothing," she adds. (The CDC confirms this.)

10. If your salon offers chemical straightening, you're probably exposed to chemicals regardless of whether you're there for that treatment. Tests performed by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found formaldehyde in the air exceeded permissible limits in salons where the treatment is offered.

11. At-home keratin smoothing treatments can contain some potentially dangerous chemicals too. If formaldehyde itself isn't listed on the label, it could still be present in the form of ingredients that sneakily contain or release it, such as methylene glycol, formalin, methylene oxide, paraform, formic aldehyde, methanal, oxomethane, oxymethylene, or CAS Number 50-00-0 on product labels, and formaldehyde-releasing ingredients include timonacic acid or thiazolidinecarboxylic acid. You may also want to look out for the disinfectant gluteraldehyde, which can trigger allergic symptoms or set you off if you're asthmatic, according to the EWG.

If a product's active ingredient is glycolic acid, alpha-hydroxyl acid, or keto acid, though, you should be in the clear.

12. Chemically treated hair could continue to release toxins even after you leave the salon. "It is possible that formaldehyde may be released to the air or react with skin [post-straightening,]" he adds, which could leave you exposed to harmful chemicals for longer than you'd banked on - particularly when heat styling with a curling iron, straightening irons, and blow-dryers, which could release irritating fumes.

13. Chemical straightening doesn't deliver pin-straight hair for everyone. "For those with extremely coarse and kinky hair, I would tell them not to expect pin-straight hair from the treatments, but more of a loosening of the curl," O'Toole says. "If you have very fine hair, I probably wouldn't have recommended these treatments, because it would make your hair too flat and lifeless," she says.

14. Chemical treatments can cause hair damage or loss - particularly if you've colored your hair. "I have seen some clients with fine hair that was damaged due to the product and temperature - especially if the hair was also color-treated," says Wynne Sisk, a stylist and founder of Green Mission Possible in Charleston, South Carolina. "Some clients have experienced burnt hair that needed to be cut off. Hair does tend to be drier and have more static after even one treatment."

Kelly Merriman, a stylist from Joliet, Indiana, has seen the same sort of thing. "Every client is different, it's a gamble," she says. "Some clients have many treatments and never have any problems, while others have just one treatment with lots of steady hair loss."

15. Despite its side effects and risks, chemical straightening can be addicting. "The process can feel life-changing," says O’Toole. "It becomes addictive, where at the first sign of frizz, [clients] are back in the chair," she says.

16. The more times you chemically straighten your hair, the greater your risk of developing symptoms. Formaldehyde is a sensitizer, which means after you reach a certain level of exposure and react to it once, Sigurdson says, you'll always experience allergic reactions when you encounter formaldehyde fumes - bad news considering formaldehyde is found pretty much everywhere: It's a byproduct of combustion and car exhaust, a component of wrinkle-proof fabrics, and found in some plastics and pressed wood products used in flooring and furniture. Because chemical hair straighteners contain much higher levels of formaldehyde than you're bound to encounter elsewhere, according to David Andrews, PhD, an EWG senior scientist, salon workers are particularly screwed.

17. Even stylists who swear by the amazing effects of keratin treatments don't exactly recommend them. "It's not worth the possible short-term effects, and absolutely not worth the long-term effects," says O’Toole, who tells people who ask her about smoothing treatments to look for safer alternatives, like learning to love your natural texture.

And if you're dead set on pin-straight hair, the absolute safest way to get pin-straight hair is by using a flat iron - assuming you've got a steady-enough hand to keep the hot plates away from your scalp.

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