Are Keratin Hair Treatments Dangerous?

Keratin hair treatments, known for making kinky locks straight, sleek, and frizz-free, are a pricey but very popular process in many beauty salons. Concerns have been raised, however, that the formulas may contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen. This issue is of particular interest not just to salon customers but also to hair stylists who have applied these treatments and complained of nosebleeds and eye irritation. The Good Housekeeping Research Institute (GHRI) decided to conduct its own analysis.

Our Test
GHRI tested four salon brands-Brazilian Blowout, Marcia Teixeira, Keratin Complex by Coppola, and Global Keratin Light Wave-at an outside lab for the presence of formaldehyde. We found the toxic chemical in all four products, at levels exceeding the Cosmetic Ingredient Review's 0.2 percent recommended threshold.

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A Heated Controversy
After Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a study in September 2010 and found formaldehyde in nine salon keratin treatments, one manufacturer claimed that its product is formaldehyde-free and that high levels of the chemical are attributable to the presence of methylene glycol, which forms when formaldehyde is combined with water. Concerned scientists counter that, regardless, when a keratin treatment is applied to hair and heated, any formaldehyde present may still be released into the air, where it could be inhaled or absorbed through the eyes.

The FDA is currently investigating keratin hair treatments and what may be done to protect stylists and clients. Several states, including Oregon, Connecticut, and Washington, have issued alerts about the potential risks of these treatments. Canada's health department has given a similar advisory.

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Are Home Keratin Treatment Kits Any Safer?
When we heard about an at-home version of the $300-plus process that promised the same results for half the price and claimed to be formaldehyde free, we had to investigate.

We sent samples of Salon Favorite Do-It-Yourself Keratin Treatment Kit to an outside lab for analysis. Test results confirm that, as claimed, it does not contain formaldehyde. Instead, it uses a chemical called glutaraldehyde as its active ingredient to bond keratin to the hair. Glutaraldehyde is in the same chemical family as formaldehyde, but it is not considered a carcinogen nor is it included on restricted-chemical lists such as those published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and California's Proposition 65. However, exposure to glutaraldehyde still could affect eyes, skin, and lungs. The instruction manual for Salon Favorite warns consumers to avoid inhalation, ingestion, and contact with skin and eyes; to wear protective gloves (included in the kit) while applying; and to use it in a well-ventilated area. This warning, coupled with our concerns over the application method (like salon versions, the at-home treatment calls for heating the hair with a flat iron, which could release irritating fumes), led us to decide it was too risky to test the product's straightening prowess on volunteer testers or hair swatches in our labs.

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Our Recommendation
To be safe, avoid keratin treatments. An alternative if you seek sleek hair: Use a flat iron, like the Remington Style Therapy Frizz Therapy ($50), which did well on GHRI tests.

Have you ever tried keratin hair treatments?

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